Are hot dogs cheap and ubiquitous because they’re an iconic American food, or are they an iconic American food because they’re cheap and ubiquitous?
THINK ABOUT IT.
To explore the food of the American working class is to invite a certain familiarity with hot dogs. We’ve eaten them cut up into baked beans and mac and cheese; we’ve eaten them at family or workplace BBQs; we’ve eaten them at sporting events; we’ve grabbed them from gas stations or roadside carts while traveling or just because we didn’t have time; we’ll even eat them in darkness at the movie theater, at great cost to our white clothing.
Regional variations on how to “dress your dog” run the gamut of “yeah why the fuck not” — pickles to pinto beans. Sometimes these variations inspire the sort of heated debate reserved for sports rivalries, and just as baffling to the uninvolved.
YOU BETTER NOT HURT HER, FRANKFURTER
Hot dogs descend from Frankfurter Würstchen, a smoked pork sausage from the German city of Frankfurt. It was, from the 13th Century onward, eaten to celebrate Imperial coronations. Europeans are big nerds for that sort of shit, because you kind of have to be when you’re in an empire and not publicly fellating the egos of Maximilian or Leopold with adequate enthusiasm could get you arrested.
In Vienna, Austria circa 1805, a Frankfurt-trained butcher named Johann Georg Lahner began selling his own take on Frankfurter Wurstchen, adding beef to the recipe and cutting the “Wurstchen” from the name. The butcher’s guild in Frankfurt kept butchers confined to working with one type of meat; Vienna had no such restrictions.
Whatever his reasons for doing the 19th Century equivalent of moving your assets off-shore to avoid regulation, history has validated Johann in his decision, as his blended smoked sausage, or Wiener, would become the basis for the hot dog (Wien being the German name for Vienna). In Vienna, they still call Wieners “Frankfurters” and in Frankfurt, the original Frankfurter recipe is now some artisinal hipster shit where you can be sanctioned if you try to sell sausages as Frankfurters when they haven’t been produced in Frankfurt.
THE GERMAN DIASPORA
Between 1820 and 1880, over 3 Million German (documented) immigrants came to America (for scale, the documented US population would grow from about 9 million to 50 million in those years). They brought with them their trades and appetites, which included sausage-making (andfighting the Confederacy).
The hot dog, specifically the placement of a wiener-like sausage into a bun, is one of those things everyone wants to take credit for inventing. Like heavy metal and enjoying shit ironically. There is, however a common thread through these stories: immigrant entrepreneurial labor.
Some of the origin stories are as follows:
Anton Ludwig Feuchtwanger, a Bavarian sausage peddler, started selling them in rolls because he was losing his ass on his previous business model, which included providing customers gloves to hold the sausages that were frequently not returned. Either at the behest of his wife or his baker brother-in-law (depending on the story), he introduces the “hot dog bun”, either at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 or the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis in 1904.
People were already putting sausages in rolls in the 1840’s, half a century before Feuchtwanger is claimed to have invented the practice.
The first recorded reference to the gloves comes in 1950 —you guys had like 50 years to make these imagined gloves literally any other color other than the one that would the most noticeably soiled after use and thus least appealing. This transcends bad journalism; it’s unimaginative conspiracy.
Charles Feltman, who arrived in America in 1856, invented the “Coney Island red hot”, a Frankfurter sausage stuffed in an elongated bun, in 1969. Per historian Henry Collins Brown: “It could be carried on the march, eaten on the sands between baths, consumed on a carousel, used as a baby’s nipple to quiet an obstreperous infant, and had other economic appeals to the summer pleasure seeker”. The popularity of the sausage enabled him to build a literalboardwalk empire of restaurants and Coney Island amusements.
And unwisely hire Nathan Handwerker, who would go on to open his own hot dog stand in 1916, undercutting Feltman’s business by selling his hot dogs at half the price of his former employer. You might know it as Nathan’s Famous.
The only thing more American than immigrant labor is being kind of a dick.
Chris von der Ahe, Prussian-born owner of the St. Louis Browns baseball team, introduced hot dogs as a staple of baseball games.
Despite a lack of hard evidence (Gerald Cohen of the University of Missouri-Rolla reports that hot dogs debuted in baseball in 1906), hot dog historian Bruce Kraig thinks it’s feasible. von der Ahe had a beer garden by the stadium (and was, on the whole, very concerned about using baseball games as an avenue to sell beer), and beer and sausage is like the German peanut butter and jelly. I was about 8 or 9 when I had my first of either.
von der Ahe was one of the team owners who made up the “Beer and Whiskey League”, a nickname for the American Association that sprung up as a rowdier, more working class alternative to the “respectable” National League. He died of cirrhosis of the liver before he could see AA take on a different connotation in regards to the alcohol he peddled in his life.
Harry M. Stevens came to America from England and found himself immediately obsessed with baseball. He even designed the first scorecard. He sold dachshund sandwiches at a New York Giants game in April 1901, calling them red hots. A cartoonist recording the incident couldn’t spell dachshund, instead calling the sandwiches hot dogs.
Use of the word “dog” to refer to sausage sandwiches predates the shit out of this apocryphal story (more on this below) — the October 19 1895 issue of the Yale Recorder includes the line “contentedly munched hot dogs”. The term “dog wagon” as slang for a hot dog cart was well in use by that point. I also find it preposterous that a cartoonist wouldn’t know how to spell the name of one of the funniest dogs (once you overlook the fact they were bred to hunt burrowing animals) as a sort of professional requirement.
Hot dogs bear a resemblance to the dachshunds frequently associated with Germany. The association (and implication that the former is made of the latter) ranges from a joking “wink-nudge” from sellers to blatant accusations of cruelty and impropriety.
“Dog” as a euphemism for a sausage, and as an assumed ingredient of said sausage, dates back to the late 1830’s.
The following newspaper citations are borrowed from etymologist Barry Popik:
6 July 1838, New York (NY) Commercial Advertiser, pg. 2:
Sausages have fallen in price one half, in New York, since the dog killers have commenced operations.
7 June 1843, Subterranean (New York, NY), pg. 2:
If Hoboken were in any other state, and freed from the injurious effects of sword-fish liquors, dog sandwiches, and pilfering Jerseymen, it would be a Paradise.
28 October 1843, Subterranean (New York, NY), pg. 125:
A Bologna sausage or two with a piece of bread would be of advantage to those whose appetite might lead them to partake of a spurious dog sandwich.
6 November 1847, Logansport (IN) Telegraph, pg. 2, col. 4:
REASONABLE REQUEST — Love me, love my dog, as the sausage-maker observed to his customer.
WELL THANKFULLY HOT DOGS EVENTUALLY OUTGREW THIS ASSOCIATION WITH UNDESIRABLE PARTS OF ANIMALS WE OTHERWISE DON’T DEEM EDIBLE.
There’s a scene in The Green Butchers where a butcher explains to a customer that his love of sausages stems from the belief that there could be nothing more humiliating for a living thing than to be murdered and its carcass shoved up its own ass.
I consider that when I hear people try to gross out or shame people for eating food with “questionable” ingredients. A lot of hand-wringing about what goes into hot dogs ignores some of the, we’ll call them central conceits for what even the most “organic” sausage consists of.
That criticism and chagrin over what goes into food is rarely levied at economic systems that could make it beneficial and/or even necessary to put horse lips in hot dogs, but on the poor for eating such “filth”.
That said: Germans are known to have eaten dog meat in times of scarcity [and you get a source! and you get a source! You all get sources!]. From 1904 and 1924, over 40,000 dogs were said to have been slaughtered for human consumption between the cities Chemnitz, Munich, and Breslau. Current or historical eating of dog exists on literally every continent (Arctic and Antarctic expeditions have been forced to eat sled dogs to survive the weather).
SUCH TO SAY THAT IT’S POSSIBLE HOT DOGS HAD, AT SOME POINT, CONTAINED DOG, AND OUR DISCOMFORT AT THIS NOTION SPEAKS MORE TO THE HUMAN VANITY THAT DEEMS SOME ANIMALS “FRIEND” AND OTHERS “SUSTENANCE” AND OUR IDEAS AROUND CLASS, FOOD, AND WHO IS DESTINED TO EAT GARBAGE.
With the coming of World War 1, German-Americans, who from 1840–1880 were the largest demographic of immigrants and the largest contingent of non-Americans to fight for the Union in the Civil War, and their culture became anathema to the United States, and as such, become appropriated and re-branded. In time, hot dogs become as American as apple pie (wink wink).
I’ll cover this, and the Western/Allied Powers’ use of processed meat in the World Wars (and how this has led to the hot dog entering the cuisines of the peoples we’ve occupied) in Part 2, where the hot dog becomes a traveling evangelist for the American Way.