American Icons: The Hot Dog

Retro Staff |  1  Comment

 Uniquely American…

Hot Dog - America's Favorite Food

There’s probably no other food considered more uniquely American than the hot dog. Like so many other things in our culture, the hot dog has origins across the Atlantic, but we have succeeded in making it our own.

The predecessor to the world famous hot dog is the sausage that has been made all over Europe for centuries. The making of sausage dates to at least the 9th century B.C. – we know this because it is mentioned in Homer’s “Odyssey”. It’s believed to be one of the most ancient of the processed foods.

There are several places that lay claim to the invention of the first hot dog. (And it’s important to take note that a sausage only becomes a hot dog once it is served in a roll or other form of bread.) Both the cities of Coburg and Frankfurt in Germany, as well as Vienna, Austria claim to have served up the first dog. There are many stories about who first put bread and sausage together, but it appears that the original hot dog, or “frankfurter”, was created in Frankfurt, Germany. A German butcher named Johann Georghehner from the late 1600s claims to have been the first to serve sausage on bread. He later brought this new food with him from Frankfurt to Vienna and sold it there. As a result, both places claim ownership of the food creation.

Coca-Cola & Hot Dog Tin Sign

This replica tin sign reminds us of simpler times – when one could get a hot dog and Coca-Cola for just 15-cents.

Frankfurt is so convinced of their discovery of the hot dog, that in 1987 the city celebrated the 500-year anniversary of its invention. Contrary to the Georghehner story, today locals say the frankfurter was created in 1487, five years before Columbus set sail to discover a new trade route to India. The celebration reportedly caused protest from the people of Vienna. The citizens of Vienna, Austria claim the hot dog evolved from the Viennese sausage, or the “Wienerwurst”. “Wien” is the German name for Vienna, and “wurst” is German for sausage.

Most likely, the American hot dog descended from the sausages brought to the US by many nationalities of immigrating European butchers. This melding of different cultural recipes is what makes the hot dog a true American food.

Although the hot dog may have an obscure origin, that is not so of the first hot dog stand. A German butcher named Charles Feltman opened the first stand in 1871 at Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York. Coney Island – a peninsula off the southernmost point of Brooklyn that provided beaches and an amusement park (in addition to many other attractions) – became a favorite daytrip destination for the people of Manhattan after the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883.

An immigrant, Feltman acquired a Brooklyn bakery in 1870. In 1871, he started pushing the bakery’s pie wagon along the Coney Island beachfront selling fresh baked goods to the pavilions and clam houses. His clients then requested hot sandwiches that they could sell to their customers. Due to limited space on his wagon, Feltman thought hot sausage would be a good solution. He had his wagon builder make modifications, adding a tin-lined chest and a small coal stove. Then he was able to boil pork sausages and place them into fresh, warm rolls. His sales the first year alone totaled 3,684 sausages.

Small Hot Dog Cart

This retro-style mini hot dog cart holds up to 60 dogs and 30 buns – perfect for an afternoon party at home.

Feltman’s success led to a fortune worth over a million dollars by the time he died in 1910. After his first year of hot dog sales he had been able to build a small restaurant and turn his bakery over to relatives. With continued success he was able to build a pavilion that was modeled on a German beer garden. He continually expanded the pavilion and added more attractions, like a carousel. He became known as one the great original developers of Coney Island.

In the 1890s, the hot dog also became known as “dachshund” sausage (meaning ‘little dog’) and sausage stands began to appear all over the US where people needed a tasty, easy meal on the go. Sausage stands like Feltman’s did not use the term “hot dog” to describe their food, since at the time it was used to describe meat of questionable quality or origin. Gradually the term became more accepted and “hot dog” was first entered into the “Oxford English Dictionary” in 1900.

1893 was a big year for hot dogs. They were served at the Chicago World’s Fair and first appeared at baseball games. Some claim that it was the owner of the St. Louis Browns, and not coincidentally, owner of a St. Louis bar, Chris Von der Ahe, that first served hot dogs to accompany the beer he sold. Whether he did or not, hot dogs have become a staple at ballparks all over the US. They are as much a part of the American culture as baseball itself.

Hot dogs make regular appearances at picnics, lunches and dinners. They can be customized with different toppings, from chili and onions to mustard and relish. Different regions of the US have their own version of the perfect combination of hot dog toppings. Hot dogs have been made of pork, beef, and even a lower-fat turkey version is now available.

The hot dog has become an American icon by evolving from its European roots and becoming a food that can’t be found with the same great taste anywhere else in the world. As a result, they are permanently connected to our favorite pastimes and will always be associated with some of the best times in our lives.

And they’re real easy to serve up too! I don’t know about you, but it kind of gives me a craving for one now…

What’s your favorite hot dog topping? Does a certain ‘dog spark great memories? Do, share…

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Last updated: Feb 21, 2009
Filed under: American Icons, Retro Food and Recipes Tagged with: Americana, diner food