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Consider this remarkable fact: The hot dog – arguably the most American dish of all – defies nationwide standardization. There is no McDonald’s or KFC of hot dogs, and while you can find identical hamburgers in identical restaurants coast to coast, someone loyal to the red hots of Chicago would scarcely recognize a scrambled dog of Georgia. A deli selling Kosher franks in New York bears scant resemblance to a street cart selling Sonoran dogs in Tucson.
Even casual eaters hold strong opinions about exactly what constitutes a proper hot dog. Major issues include what it’s made of (beef, pork & beef, pork & beef & veal), how to cook one (boil, broil, steam, deep-fry, char-grill) and peripheral (NOT!) questions about proper dressing. (In Chicago, ketchup is verboten; in Rhode Island, chili is de rigueur.) Loyalty to a particular style of hot dog can be as fervent as devotion to a home team.
Exactly how the hot dog came to be is a favorite question among history-savvy foodies. It is possible it started at the St. Louis World Fair of 1904. Antoine Feuchtwanger, a sausage vendor at the fair, had a problem. With each piping-hot link he sold, he lent the customer a glove to alleviate any worry about getting greasy fingers. However, souvenir-hungry fairgoers were walking off with his gloves. Feuchtwanger convinced his brother-in-law (who happened to be a baker) to make him elongated miniloaves of bread. He sliced the bread down the middle and he began selling the sausages stuffed into the little breads as a package deal. Not only were his worries about stolen gloves over; customers loved the idea because the buns kept the sausages from dripping on their clothes. Ta-da! The hot dog was born.
A better-known alternative theory credits the hot dog’s nativity to Charles Feltman, a vendor with a pie wagon along the then-rustic byways of Coney Island, New York, at the end of the 19th century. When a nearby restaurant began serving hot sandwiches for lunch, Feltman got nervous he would lose business. He didn’t have space to cook anything elaborate, so he fixed up a small charcoal stove and a pot of water. He boiled frankfurters and sold them two at a time, nestled inside rolls so that customers could eat a hot, cheap lunch standing up. Feltman’s invention was so successful that he abandoned the pushcart and opened a restaurant selling sausages in buns at a dime apiece. According to an account by amateur hot dog historian Murray Handwerker, among the up-and-coming entertainers who performed at the Coney Island resort were a sausage-loving duo named Eddie Cantor and Jimmie Durante. They could not afford Feltman’s ten-cent product so they convinced one of his employees, Nathan Handwerker (Murray’s father), to open his own hot dog place and sell single sausages in buns at half price, a nickel each. So began Nathan’s of Coney Island.
The apocryphal story about how the hot dog got its name dates back to the opening day of the 1900 baseball season at the Polo Grounds in New York. Harry Stevens, head of catering, wanted to sell customers something that would warm them up and would be easy to eat in the bleachers as well as easy to vend throughout the ballpark. He equipped his men with thermal boxes and supplied them with the long, skinny links popularly known as dachshund sausages, stuffing them into warm buns. He instructed the vendors to deal their sausage sandwiches with this cry: “They’re red hot. Get your dachshund sausages while they’re red hot!” The concept was an immediate success: ballparks and hot dogs have been wed ever since. But they still didn’t have their name. Legend says that the christening came about in 1903, when T.A. Dorgan, a San Francisco sports cartoonist, moved to New York and began working for the Evening Journal. Dorgan was so amused by the way Harry Stevens sold sausages at the ballpark that he drew a cartoon lampooning Stevens’ vendors and their peculiar cry. In order to make the cartoon easy to read (or possibly because he could not spell dachshund), he labeled the sausages “red hot dogs” instead of dachshunds, and drew pictures showing miniature pooches nestled in rolls, barking at each other. It’s a great story, but Dorgan’s seminal cartoon never has been found.
Regardless of its origins, the edible-canine joke went over way too well. Sausages of any kind had long had a dubious reputation, even before 1906 when Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, describing the repulsive parts of animals that went into processed packaged meats. As early as the mid-1860s, the Whiffenpoofs of Yale used to serenade in jest: “Bologna sausage is very good, And many of them I see; Oh where, oh where has my little dog gone? I guess they make ’em of he!” Well into modern times, hot dogs have retained a shady image. “There’s damn good reason we should never sell hot dogs,” McDonald’s president Ray Kroc declared before he died in 1984. “There’s no telling what’s inside a hot dog’s skin.” Hot dogs continue as a favorite touchstone for 21st century muckrakers seeking to instill food fear in consumers.
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