The Chicago Dog, the Coney Island Dog, the Icelandic Dog, and the list goes on. Too many dogs to choose from? Simple solution: Try them all. —INGRAIN, Summer 2019
STORY / Jesse Valenciana
They’ve stuck by your side throughout the toughest neon relish and chili moments. It’s time to get to know your dogs.
The best American foods and dishes are like a culinary phoenix that rises out of the ashes of deep conflict. These are the sort of disputes that have torn families apart and are overflowing with the lore of lost origins and sketchy memories, forever to be shared with enough conviction to make them fact. Rarely is a dish derived from a simple, linear moment in time or from a single location or creator. For every historical story you may have heard, there are a dozen more tales ready to be told.
In terms of meat taxonomy, hot dogs are a species under the sausage genus, which is part of the encased meat family; sausage dates to the 9th century BC. One of the earliest references on record is not a modest one; it appears in Homer’s Greek poem of adventure and heroism, Odyssey.
Fast-forward to the 1st century AD and sausage is again mentioned, this time by the chef of an emperor. A few centuries later, sausage gets more literary cred, now with mustard, henceforth sausage’s BFF/condiment of choice. (Can we make friendiment a real word?)
But he behaved otherwise before the crowd. For sometimes when Sunday came, he took a string of sausages and wore them as a (deacon’s) stole. In his left hand he held a pot of mustard, and he dipped (the sausages in the mustard) and ate them from morning on. And he smeared mustard on the mouths of some of those who came to joke with him.
—Leontius of Neapolis, The Life of Symeon the Fool (7th century)
FRANKS VERSUS WIENERS
Those early sausages were only the first step in the future life of hot dogs. Thick, soft, and fatty pork sausages resembling modern-day hot dogs were supposedly served at the coronation of Maximilian II, the Holy Roman Emperor (1564) in Frankfurt.* Nearly 200 years later, one of Germany’s butcher’s guilds introduced a spicy, smoked sausage stuffed into a thin casing and called it a “frankfurter.” Many Germans insist that Frankfurt is the birthplace of the hot dog, even though a frank is technically sausage.
In Vienna, you’ll hear Austrians who claim that their forefathers were the real kings of this glorious meat creation. A local master sausage maker who received his early training in Frankfurt created a hybrid “wiener-frankfurter.” More commonly known around the globe as wienerwurst or simply wiener (wien is the German word for Vienna; wurst means sausage), the sausage is commonly called a frankfurter würstl in its birthplace.
So what’s the real difference between frankfurters and wieners? It’s what is inside the casing. Frankfurters are made entirely of pork, whereas wieners are a combination of beef and pork. Regardless of whether you side with frankfurter or wiener (amateur) historians, this encased meat goodness had to make it over to America to become a true hot dog. And thank goodness it did, thereby saving these meat links from a naked life without slathered sauces, colorful toppings, and warm bun hugs.
*Some works cite earlier 15th-century references to the first German franks.
Let’s not forget that encased meat without a bun or roll is simply a homeless tube steak. German immigrant and baker Charles Feltman is believed to be the first person to sell “hot dogs” (sausage franks and sauerkraut on milk rolls) from a pushcart on the streets of Coney Island in 1867. Before selling 3,684 “dachshund sausages” in his first year of operation, Feltman sold individual boiled sausages, milk rolls, and pies from his cart. Supposedly the cart space was too tight, so to save room, he began serving the sausages tucked inside the milk rolls (more like a sandwich than a true modern dog). BAM! The hot dog was born...sort of. If we jump to the 1880s and travel to St. Louis, another German immigrant, Antoine Feuchtwanger, was peddling his own street-cart sausages. Feuchtwanger was clearly no graduate of the Kellogg School of Management; he would give out little white gloves with every sausage in order to keep his customers’ hands from sizzling with second-degree burns. Humans being human, customers began walking away with the gloves. Luckily, Feuchtwanger’s wife had the common sense he lacked, and she suggested that they tuck the sausages into a bun that was split down the middle. They called their (really her, to set the history record straight) sausage-bun creation "red hots."
THE CASE FOR STRUCTURE
“Traditional” hot dogs are made with and kept in natural casings, or animal intestines, while “nontraditional” hot dogs use cellulose casings that are later removed.
HOT DOG NATION
So New York City’s Coney Island is what we consider the birthplace of the first hot dogs (sandwiched in a milk bun, at least), and it is also home to the televised hot dog–eating contest that is held every 4th of July on Coney Island. (If you don’t have a desire to watch one person consume more than seventy hot dogs in 10 minutes, I can only wish you the best in your future sad, hot dog–less life.) The contest is hosted by celebrated wiener maker Nathan's Famous, which was founded in 1916 by Nathan Handwerker, a Polish immigrant and former employee of Charles Feltman. This is not a like-father-like-son passing down a business to a respected colleague story. Handwerker defied and undermined his former boss by not only stealing his hot dog business idea but selling his hot dogs for half the price of Feltman’s dogs (5 cents versus 10 cents—not chump change back then). HELLO, HOT DOG DRAMA!
As for Chicago dogs, the city’s most iconic sausage maker, Vienna Beef, presented its debut all-beef hot dog wieners at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition to countless curious fairgoers accustomed to pork franks. (Also known as the Chicago World’s Fair, it was held to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World and drew crowds from New York, St. Louis, and other future hot dog havens.) The positive response led Vienna Beef founders Emil Reichel and Sam Ladany to open a storefront the following year; by 1900, Vienna Beef was selling the dogs in retail stores and to restaurants.
While Vienna is credited for happy beef frank–filled bellies, the actual Chicago-style hot dog stems from the Great Depression. (How’s that for an American punch to the gut?) In 1929, Abe “Fluky” Drexler, son of local greengrocer Jake Drexler, decided to turn his father’s vegetable cart into a hot dog stand in an attempt to keep busy and hopefully provide some extra scratch for the family during such fiscally trying times. Fluky (if you go by Fluky, you're automatically on a first-name basis) topped off the hot dogs with whatever vegetables he could find (a style that today is referred to as “dragging it through the garden”), thus creating the Depression Sandwich.*
And now we turn to Los Angeles for the chili dog, though perhaps it is not as groundbreaking in the relative scheme of hot dog evolution. (Is anything in LA ever really groundbreaking? Fine, maybe if you’re a chili dog fan.) In 1939, Paul and Betty Pink leased a tiny scrap of land near the corner of La Brea and Melrose avenues, where they plopped down a pushcart and sold dogs topped with Betty’s chili and chopped onions for 10 cents a pop. The nation was still in the waning days of the Depression, and that chili-topped dog made for a fine, filling meal. In 1946, the family built a permanent eatery not far from where the original pushcart once stood: the current Pink’s Hot Dogs. Today the dog stand is known as much for its original chili dog as for its dozens of crazy combo dogs. (A Reuben- style dog with pastrami, mustard, Swiss cheese, and sauerkraut; the Ozzy Osbourne with Polish sausage, nacho cheese AND American cheese, grilled onions, guacamole, and chopped tomatoes.) The beauty of hot dogs goes well beyond the history of this beloved food. The appreciation for dogs in general and the interpretation of each style are what make hot dogs so unique. It is a food that extends across borders. Whether it’s a wiener cut to look like an octopus and placed inside a bento box in Japan, or one wrapped in mashed potatoes, shrimp salad, lettuce, and fried onions (!) like they do in Sweden, hot dogs are more of a cultural canvas than a simple, American hand food.
*These early dogs were likely topped with an evolving vegetable medley before morphing into what we consider Chicago-style dog toppings today. Mark Reitman, known as the “professor of hot dogs,” says the pickled sport pepper didn’t make its Chicago dog debut until after WWII. The pepper likely evolved from a family of Mexican peppers rather than one specific variety; it was grown to supplement the Tabasco pepper crop (highly susceptible to disease) that was used to make hot sauces in various regions of the American South. Today sport peppers are exclusively grown in Mexico; they are bright green and 1½ to 2 inches longer than Tabasco peppers, with a mild to medium bite.
DID YOU KNOW?
Hot Dog University is a real thing. Vienna Beef provides higher-learning opportunities with two hot dog business classes that are targeted to vendor trainees, but they’re also open to the public. “The Art of the Cart” and “Hot Dog Stand” are offered regularly in Chicago and occasionally in Los Angeles.
CHICAGO - Steamed all-beef frank, poppy seed bun, tomato slices, whole pickled sport peppers, chopped onions, neon green relish, yellow mustard, pickle spear, and celery salt. (NO KETCHUP. EVER.) Check out this recipe: Chicago Dog.
DETROIT CONEY - Short, char-grilled beef/pork dog in an equally short, ballpark (plain, no seeds) bun with chili, chopped onions, and yellow mustard (shredded cheddar optional). Check out this recipe: Detroit Coney.
NYC STREET CART - Steamed all-beef frank in a ballpark bun, mustard, sauerkraut, and onions that have been sautéed with tomato paste. Check out this recipe: NYC Street Cart Dog.
LOS ANGELES "DOYERS" (DODGERS) - Footlong steamed or grilled dog in a ballpark bun, mustard, nacho cheese, pickled jalapeños, and salsa.
KANSAS CITY - Grilled hot dog in a sesame seed bun, sauerkraut, and melted Swiss cheese.
MEMPHIS - Bacon-wrapped, grilled dog in a ballpark bun, BBQ sauce, chopped scallions, and shredded cheddar.
SONORAN - Bacon-wrapped, grilled dog, split “telera” roll, relish, tomatoes, onions, avocado chunks, mayonnaise, and cotija cheese.
ICELANDIC - Lamb dog in a ballpark bun, apple sauce–infused ketchup, spicy honey mustard, and remoulade. Check out this recipe: Icelandic Dog.
KOREAN - Corn dog filled with cheese, coated with crinkle-cut fries, and fried on a stick; ketchup.
BRAZIL - Hot dog in a split roll, pico de gallo, corn, grated parmesan, shredded carrots, diced ham, cilantro, and shoestring fries.
NORWAY - Extra-long dog wrapped in a large potato lefse or toasted tortilla, ketchup, and mustard.
ARGENTINA - Chorizo link in a soft sub roll slathered with chimichurri, pickled red onions, and tomatoes.
SWEDEN - Hot dog surrounded by mashed potatoes, shrimp salad, lettuce, and fried onions rolled/wrapped in a tortilla.