Hot Dogs

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Hot Dogs

A hot dog is a sandwich that Americans by the millions enjoy at sporting events, picnics, and backyard cookouts. Along with a hamburger (see entry under 1950s—Food and Drink in volume 3) and French fries (see entry under 1950s—Food and Drink in volume 3), it is a simple, all-American food, as common to the American table as crepes are to the French, tacos are to Mexicans, and fish and chips are to the British. In 2000, Americans consumed some twenty billion hot dogs.

A hot dog consists of a boiled or grilled frankfurter on a soft bun that is long and thin, to follow the shape of the frank. Most often, the sandwich is garnished with mustard or ketchup. Sauerkraut, onions, and pickle relish are often added, singly or in combination. Frankfurters, also known as wieners, are smoked sausages that have been enclosed in several-inch-long cylindrical casings. Their main ingredient is beef or a combination of beef and pork. The origin of the frankfurter is imprecise. Some say that, many centuries ago, the Babylonians devised it by stuffing spiced meat into animal intestines. Others claim that it was invented in Frankfurt, Germany, during the fifteenth century.

Frankfurters and buns supposedly were wedded when Charles Feltman (1841–1910), a German immigrant, concluded that visitors to the Brooklyn, New York, seaside community of Coney Island (see entry under 1900s—The Way We Lived in volume 1) might enjoy a hot sandwich they could hold in their hands while strolling about. In 1867, Feltman attached a small charcoal stove to a pushcart and began selling freshly cooked frankfurters on rolls. Feltman parlayed his profits into a restaurant, Feltman's German Beer Garden, which he opened in Coney Island. At Feltman's, seven grills prepared thousands of frankfurters each day, which were sold for ten cents apiece. In 1916, Nathan Handwerker (1892–1974), an ex-Feltman's employee, began selling "hot dogs" from a small building located at Surf and Stillwell Avenues in Coney Island, right by a subway station entrance. Handwerker priced his hot dogs at five cents. They proved so popular that his enterprise became a Coney Island landmark that exists to this day. The business eventually evolved into Nathan's Famous, a fast-food chain. Unlike McDonald's (see entry under 1940s—Food and Drink in volume 3), Burger King (see entry under 1950s—Food and Drink in volume 3), and Wendy's, where hamburger variations are the signature products, hot dogs still are spotlighted at Nathan's Famous. In the 1930s, the Oscar Meyer Company became the first company to sell frankfurters in supermarkets. Oscar Meyer also began targeting children in its marketing campaigns. Beginning in 1936, its Weinermobile embarked on promotional cross-country trips.

The hot dog made its debut at sporting arenas just after the turn of the twentieth century. Harry Stevens (1855–1934), a concession-stand operator at New York's Polo Grounds, a ballpark located in upper Manhattan, was having difficulty selling ice cream and cold sodas during early-season New York Giants baseball games. On a whim, he replaced them with franks and buns. Legend has it that T. A. "Tad" Dorgan (1877–1929), a newspaper cartoonist, heard Stevens's vendors yelling, "Get your dachshund sausages while they're red hot." He caricatured them as dachshund dogs, and from then on the sandwiches were known as hot dogs.

—Rob Edelman

For More Information

Graulich, David. The Hot Dog Companion: A Connoisseur's Guide to the Food We Love. New York: Lebhar-Friedman Books, 1999.

"History of the Hot Dog." National Hot Dog & Sausage Council. (accessed January 4, 2002).

Sebak, Rick, writer and producer. A Hot Dog Program (video). Alexandria, VA: PBS Home Video, 1999.