How American Is The Hot Dog?

It’s a hot dog-eat-hot dog world.
A person holding a very long hot dog

Hot dogs are a symbol of American food. While hamburgers are arguably the more popular choice of barbecue food, they don’t quite match the American spirit packed into the humble tube of meat in a bun. And to be honest, other than American spirit, we’re not exactly sure what’s inside these hot dogs.

Have hot dogs always been so American? Surely our Founding Fathers weren’t eating hot dogs with ketchup as they signed the Declaration of Independence. We dive into hot dog history, from its ambiguous roots in Europe to the proliferation of the food today.

The Oldest Sausage In The World

While people may not be able to agree whether the hot dog is a sandwich or not, we can generally admit that the hot dog is a kind of sausage. A very specific kind of sausage, but still.

Possibly the oldest reference to sausage appears in The Odyssey, written at least 10,000 years ago. The quote is, “As when a man besides a great fire has filled a sausage with fat and blood and turns it this way and that and is very eager to get it quickly roasted. . .” So you could say that sausages have been around for a long time. This is specifically a blood sausage — a sausage filled with blood instead of meat — but it’s likely many different kinds were implied all over the world.

Sausages are ubiquitous in the world because they’re not particularly difficult to invent. This is evidenced by the fact that they were independently created by a number of different cultures. Essentially, sausage is a logical way to preserve meat scraps. The name itself can be traced back to the Latin salsus meaning “salted,” implying the Romans salted their sausaged meats.

Wieners Versus Frankfurters

When looking for the direct precursor to hot dogs, you’ll want to look at the other names for the sausage: wiener and frankfurter. People in Frankfurt and Vienna (Wien, as it’s called in Austria) point to these names as unmistakable evidence that they were the originators of what would later be called the sausage. Frankfurt even celebrated the quincentenary (500th anniversary) of the sausage in 1986.

It’s hard to trace an exact history, and various sources argue that frankfurters and wieners refer to different things. The Daily Meal says frankfurters are only pork and wieners are pork and beef combined. Really, though, the terms are pretty interchangeable. The rightful claim to the proto-hot dog will probably never be discovered, and in fact it might’ve been brought to the United States as a more general European sausage that doesn’t have a specific city of origin.

It’s not all that surprising that Germany and Austria would be given credit for the hot dog. That whole region of Europe is basically the sausage capital of the world. There’s no particular reason for this, because many of the countries of Europe have their own local sausages: Spanish chorizo, Portuguese linguiça and Italian lucanica are all historically significant meat tubes. The rise of the hot dog and its strong association with Germany and Austria ultimately comes down to patterns of immigration and happenstance.

The American Chapter Of Hot Dog History

There is some debate over who sold the first hot dog in the United States, there definitely were sausages approximating hot dogs by the 1860s in New York City. And in 1871, a German baker named Charles Feltman opened a shop in Coney Island, New York, where he sold dachshund sausages, thus kicking off the association of Coney Island and hot dogs forever more.

Speaking of Coney Island, the first July 4th Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest occurred on Coney Island in 1972. A promoter for Nathan’s claimed it had occurred even earlier, in 1916, when four immigrants allegedly had a hot dog eating contest to see who was “most patriotic.” The promoter later admitted to making it up, but Nathan’s still celebrated the 100th anniversary of the contest in 2016.

There’s also argument over who was the first to put a hot dog in a bun. After all, a hot dog without a bun is hardly even a hot dog. The most popular story is that a Bavarian baker was selling his hot dogs in either 1893 or 1904 (no one is sure which), and he gave the customers gloves with which to eat the hot dogs and keep their hands clean. When the gloves kept disappearing, he decided to sell the sausage with bread instead. Hot dog historians, however, say that the idea of combining bread and hot dogs probably popped up independently in a number of different places. By 1893, the sausage had already become a popular feature at baseball games and other events, and so making it more easily edible with a bun was a necessary step.

Where did the term “hot dog” even come from in the country’s hot dog history? There’s one rumor that it was New York Journal sports cartoonist T.A. Dorgan who coined the term in a drawing in the early 1900s because he couldn’t spell “dachshund” — which is how some places termed the sausages — but that story has been debunked by Snopes. The term was already documented in the 1890s, and it was probably just adapted from German immigrants. After all, the leap from dachshund sausage to hot dog isn’t that surprising.

Condiments And Further Advancements In Hot Dog Science

In the century and a half since hot dogs made their way to the United States, they’ve changed quite a bit. There are as many ways to serve a hot dog as there are states in the country.

You can get hot dogs with baked beans in New England, grilled onions in Seattle or you can abandon the bun all together and get a corn dog pretty much anywhere. Chicagoans take their hot dogs especially seriously, with onions, pickles, tomato and peppers being possible toppings (but don’t even think about asking for ketchup). The main ingredient — a beef or pork sausage — is generally consistent, but the rest is up to the chef’s discretion.

When you look at the facts, it might seem from all of this information that hot dog history and hot dogs themselves are really more European than American. After all, most of their history involves Europeans and immigrants. But when juxtaposed with the American story in general, it’s pretty fitting. Hot dog history is the story of immigrants coming over to this country, bringing their foods, which are then changed to fit the convenience needs and personal tastes of Americans all across the 50 states. If that’s not patriotic, then we don’t know what is.

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