No matter how you like your wiener prepared, grilled or boiled, with mustard, ketchup or chili, we can all agree on one thing, and that’s that hot dogs have become part of a certain American cultural narrative.And this year, more than ever, hot dogs are red hot; in March, the data firm IRI reported thatsales were up by as much as 127%, and that was well before grilling season started.
Billions of hot dogs
“Americans eat an estimated 7 billion hot dogs between Memorial Day and Labor Day,” Eric Mittenthal, president of the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, said.
It’s estimated that Americans eat 7 billion hot dogs between Memorial Day and Labor Day alone.Courtesy of National Hot Dog & Sausage CouncilBut while hot dogs may feel “all-American,” they’re inherently something else.Also known as the frankfurter, this specific style of cased sausage was originally thought to be from the town of Frankfurt-am-Main in Germany, but hot dog historians argue that sausage culture, native to Eastern Europe and, particularly, Germany, has no specific town of origin.The traditional German hot dog, when it arrived in the United States, was a blend of both pork and beef; the all-beef hot dog, as we now know it, takes its roots from Jewish-American butchers, who, due to Kosher restrictions, chose not to use pork in their meat blends.When Germans came, you have to look at where they came from,” said Dr. Bruce Kraig, professor emeritus at Roosevelt University in Chicago.Kraig is a hot dog historian and the author of several books, including ‘Hot Dog: A Global History’ and ‘A Rich and Fertile Land: A History of Food in America.'”A good number of the early [Germans] came from the Palatines,” which is a general area surrounding the actual city of Frankfurt, explains Kraig. Frankfurt, Kraig said, refers to the region of origin, though the actual food does not necessarily come from Frankfurt itself.
July is national hot dog month.Courtesy of National Hot Dog & Sausage CouncilBrought over by German immigrants in the mid-1800s, hot dogs began their path into the American zeitgeist in New York City hot dog carts, where they were a natural fit for the sandwich-loving harried New Yorker, who already preferred to eat on the go.”They appear with the first German immigrants in the late 1840s,” Kraig said.”Germans have sausage culture, so they eat sausage from butcher shops. They eat them at home. They eat them in the street at fairs and festivals, and at beer gardens, so when Germans got to America, they set up beer gardens right away.
Classic street eats
Americans, he said, became enamored with the German idea of sausage eating on the street. “You have lots of evidence of sausage being sold by vendors, probably in the 1840s, but certainly by the 1860s. Wherever there are Germans, there are sausages sold in the streets.”
Hot dog historian Bruce Kraig says there’s lots of evidence of sausage being sold by vendors, probably in the 1840s, but certainly by the 1860s.Courtesy of National Hot Dog & Sausage CouncilThat plural is important, actually. Germany is not known for a single sausage, after all, but for its abundance of them, from the veal- and poultry-based weisswurst to the pork-based bratwurst to the jerky-like landjäger.German sausages are so plentiful that it’s remarkable that Americans inherited only one in the common dietary canon.In 1867, an entrepreneurial baker from Brooklyn by the name of Charles Feltman began selling hot dogs from a converted pie cart on Coney Island. “Coney Island started becoming a spot that people would go for recreation, but there wasn’t really anything there at the time,” said Michael Quinn, co-owner of hot dog brand Feltman’s of Coney Island, which he and his brother, Joe Quinn, purchased in 2015.
Birth of the bun
Charles Feltman developed a hand-sliced, elongated bun that set the precedent for the modern hot dog bun.When popularity surged — Michael Quinn, himself a Coney Island historian, said that, in that first summer, the cart sold about 4,000 hot dogs — Feltman set his sights higher, entering into a restaurant and hotel partnership and opening a sprawling resort in Coney Island in 1873.
A visit to Coney Island in the summer nearly always involves hot dogs, and, frequently, beer.Channon Hodge,it became billed as the largest restaurant in the world,” Michael Quinn said.Numerous historic sources, including the Coney Island History Project, have acknowledged that, by the 1920s, Feltman’s Ocean Pavilion restaurant was serving roughly five million customers per year, and selling somewhere around 40,000 hot dogs a day.Suddenly, hot dogs were on the national stage, and Coney Island was became the accessible epicenter of summer fun for anyone and everyone in and around New York.
That stage had already started to expand when, in 1875, Charles Feltman convinced president of the Prospect Park Railroad Andrew Culver to run the subway line down to Coney Island, offering public transportation to thousands of New Yorkers who had never before had access to the far reaches of Brooklyn.
In some ways, Nathan’s hot dogs now define the Fourth of July — and are a major Coney Island attraction.Channon HodgeThe conflation of the subway line with Feltman’s massive resort made Coney Island important — and hot dogs were in the center of this major cultural moment.Although Feltman’s empire diminished over time, and Coney Island became known less for its ritzy resort caché and more for its boardwalk kitsch, Feltman had already unknowingly contributed the greatest icon to American hot dog culture, when he hired a bun-slicer who would go on to become among the United States’ most famous hot dog vendors.”They didn’t have machines back then, so one of the bun-slicers that the Feltman family hired was Nathan Handwerker,” Michael Quinn said. “He worked as Feltman’s as a bun-slicer!”That same Nathan Handwerker would open his own competing brand, Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs, in 1916, and that brand would become synonymous with Coney Island hot dogs.
Nathan’s Famous on Surf Avenue in Coney Island has been around since 1916.Channon Hodge, CNNIn some ways, Nathan’s hot dogs now define the Fourth of July, which is when the famous Nathan’s Hot Dog-Eating Contest takes place each summer. Hot dogs helped to frame the fame of Coney Island.”They were such an incredible sensation that Charles Feltman ultimately built a nearly 100-year empire on them,” said Feltman’s of Coney Island co-owner Joe Quinn.