Let’s Be Frank(furter)

From backyard barbecues to major-league ballparks, few foods are as ubiquitous this time of year as the hot dog. And with the first day of summer upon us, I thought it was only appropriate to write about the season’s unofficial food.

Shockingly, Americans will eat over seven billion dogs between Memorial and Labor Day. But what do we really know about them? Certainly not what goes into them, which is probably for the best.

This got me thinking though. How did this meat-in-tube-form get its whimsical name? Where did the hot dog come from? And why do New Yorkers and Chicagoans despise each other’s franks as much as they dislike each other’s pizza?

It got its name from dogs. But not how you think.

For many years, it was widely believed that sportswriter and New York Evening Journal cartoonist Tad Dorgan coined the term hot dog. It’s said he was covering a New York Giants game when he heard a vendor pushing his “red-hot dachshunds.” Inspired, Dorgan doodled a wiener dog in a bun, which he labeled a “hot dog” due to his inability to spell dachshund.

It’s a nice story, but there are two problems with it. One, Dorgan wasn’t even living in New York when he was supposedly at the game. And two, there’s no record of the cartoon’s existence, despite the widespread availability of Dorgan’s work.

More likely, the name is the result of snarky college kids. Back in the 1890s, students at Yale were calling lunch-wagon fare hot dogs, largely due to the belief that they were made with dog meat. Not surprisingly, these clever kids even had a name for themselves: The Kennel Club.

Thank the Germans. And the Austrians. And the Poles. And the…

While the term hot dog probably originated in a college town like New Haven, actual hot dogs came from European immigrants. They’d been enjoying sausages since Roman times and brought their love for them to America in the mid-19th century. In fact, the names frankfurter and wiener come from two cities known for their prized sausages, Frankfurt and Vienna (known as Wien in German).

So how did the hot dog become a hot dog? The same way a hamburg steak became a hamburger — with a bun. While two German immigrants in St. Louis claimed to be the first to serve sausages nestled in bread, no one knows which person rightfully has that honor.

Regardless of where and when the hot dog was invented, there’s almost no debate on where it was popularized: Coney Island. Another German immigrant, a baker named Charles Feltman, was the most popular seller of what had become a boardwalk favorite. But it was his employee, Polish immigrant Nathan Handwerker, who helped bring the American hot dog to the world.

You see, when Feltman increased his price to a dime a dog, his clientele — including comedian Jimmy Durante — encouraged Handwerker to strike out on his own and undercut his boss by a nickel. His eponymous Nathan’s, now in all 50 states and four countries, opened in 1916.

How the sausage is made, so to speak.

That Nathan’s now has over 18,000 locations speaks to the hot dog’s enduring appeal. But Nathan’s version, the Coney Island-style kosher dog, is just one of many. At push carts and mom-and-pop joints all across the country, you’ll find tons of variations, including:

New York area
This all-beef dog is the one that made Coney Island famous. Packaged in a natural or collagen casing that snaps as you bite it, Koshers are griddled and topped with spicy brown mustard, sauerkraut and cooked onions. The addition of relish, chili or ketchup is expressly forbidden.

The Windy City’s all-beef dogs come “dragged through the garden.” This means they’re topped with raw onion, sweet relish, peppers, a pickle spear, tomato slices, yellow mustard and celery salt. Like in New York, ketchup is frowned upon. Unlike New York, Chicagoans prefer a poppy seed bun.

Half Smokes
Washington, D.C.
These kielbasa-like spicy sausages originated at the now legendary Ben’s Chili Bowl. Beloved by presidents and regular folks alike, half smokes are grilled and served in steamed buns, under a blanket of chili, mustard and diced raw onions. Fun fact: the name comes from its short smoking time, as well as its 50/50 mix of pork and beef.

Coney Islands
The Midwest
Brought to Detroit and the surrounding areas by Greek immigrants, who came via New York City. Grilled or steamed, these all-beef dogs can be skinless or come in a natural casing. Cradled in a steamed bun, Coney Islands are finished with a beanless Greek-style chili, mustard and chopped onions. Order one loaded and you’d get shredded cheddar cheese on top, too.

The Southwest
This latino take on an American institution appeared in the 1960s, making its way from Mexico to Tuscon and Phoenix. These bacon-wrapped dogs are grilled, then swaddled in a large, dense bun. Standard toppings include pinto beans, chopped tomatoes, onions, mustard and mayo. Other taco toppings are not uncommon.

Chili Dogs
Los Angeles
Believe or not, Angelenos consume more hot dogs than New Yorkers. This is largely credited to storied hot dog stands like Pink’s, who’ve been serving up their legendary chili dog since 1939. The wieners here are all beef, come in a natural casing and are garnished with onions, mustard and a meaty chili.

Puka Dogs
For a culture that adores SPAM, the puka dog shouldn’t surprise. Frankly, it’s more of a gimmick than a meal. First, a Polish sausage is grilled, then inserted in a large bun that’s had a hole (puka) punched into it by a device that also toasts the inside. While traditional toppings are available, funkier options abound — including guava mustard, tropical relishes, habanero peppers and a variety of special sauces.


About Chris Boyles

I eat. My words.
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