The Hot Dog

Hot dogs, the everyman’s everyday eats, as American as baseball, are one of Gotham’s longtime culinary icons. Chastened Wall Streeters queue at Sabrett carts, hipsters skulk into Crif Dogs for an après-show snack, Yankees and Mets fans share a rare point of agreement, sunseekers make pilgrimages to the original Nathan’s at Coney Island, and celebrity chefs cite them as a tubular muse.

For generations we’ve delighted in their perfect symmetry, smooth skin and bright pink tint, the inexorable meatiness of the wiener despite its lack of resemblance to any known animal part (well, no part we care to mention), the resounding snap of euphemistic “natural casing” and subsequent flood of saline juices.

The familiar modern-day dog began centuries ago as pork forcemeat crammed into a sheep’s small intestine and tied off in six-inch lengths. The aliases frankfurter and wiener offer conflicting clues as to the sausage’s origin, referencing either Frankfurt, Germany; or Vienna, Austria. Others trace the frank’s origins to Coburg, Germany. (Like all aspects of the hot dog hagiography, the true facts are buried in murk and open to dispute.) It’s possible that none of these was the dog’s first kennel, as they were ubiquitous throughout the German empire by the time of Bismarck.

Whatever the lineage, our dog’s ancestors were brought to American shores by German immigrants soon after the Civil War, along with bratwurst, weisswurst and a dozen other sausages. Who could have predicted that the humble frankfurter–alongside its cousin patty from Hamburg–would become the most American of meats?

Horatio Alger-style, our weenie hero soon earned his (mustard and catsup) stripes– and place of pride in American culinary history–at then-upscale Coney Island, where it debuted in 1867 as a ready-to-scarf snack peddled by German-born butcher Charles Feltman. He rigged a wooden cart with a charcoal stove on which to boil sausages and hit the streets. According to legend, he sold 3,684 that first summer; he used the proceeds to field a fleet of carts, which he eventually parlayed into an entertainment empire that included a hotel, a beer garden and a restaurant known as Feltman’s–where frankfurters remained a popular specialty. They soon established themselves as Coney Island’s favorite beach snack, acing out knishes, corn on the cob and raw clams.

By 1870 the wieners had invaded Manhattan, riding charcoal- fueled pushcarts modeled on Feltman’s prototype. The carts were popular on the Bowery, known then for its dive bars and honky-tonks. Yes, hot dogs have been fueling Lower East Side club hoppers for over a century. Buns soon made them eminently transportable, allowing the altogether American practice of eating while walking at which Europeans still marvel.

Like the immigrants with whom they’d arrived, frankfurters’ descendents soon saw their Old World name replaced with a new one. Folklore has it that sketch artist Tad Dorgan heard vendors at New York’s Polo Grounds–Harlem home of the New York Giants baseball team–hawking franks in 1902 by yelling, “Hot dachshund sausages!” Not knowing how to spell “dachshund,” he referred to them as “hot dogs” in an editorial cartoon published in the New York Journal, a coinage that became predominant across the country.

Emboldened by their New York success, hot dogs raced like wildfire across the American landscape, causing a sensation at Chicago’s Columbia Exposition in 1893 and at the St. Louis Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904. In 1939, when King George and Queen Elizabeth visited the White House, FDR served hot dogs. Celebs were seen downing wieners with abandon in the picture press; Jimmy Durante, Cary Grant and Al Capone were among the frank’s greatest admirers.

Despite their runaway popularity, hot dogs have had their detractors. Journalist H. L. Mencken wrote, “I devoured hot-dogs in Baltimore way back in 1886…. They [represented] precisely the same rubber, indigestible pseudo-sausages that millions of Americans now eat, and they leaked the same flabby, puerile mustard.” Hot dogs vended from street carts have come to be known as “dirty water dogs” or “floaters,” the latter likening them to bloated
corpses pulled from the water.

And troubling questions over what sorts of meat are actually in them, which can run to pig parts it might take a veterinarian to identify, have put dogs in the doghouse. Nitrates and nitrates–chemical compounds containing NO2 and NO3, respectively–assist in maintaining the frank’s pink hue and impressive longevity, and have been used to preserve meats at least since Sinclair Lewis wrote The Jungle. As a result, hot dog carts may be something of an endangered species. Where many Manhattan hot dog carts once stood, curried chicken carts and taco trucks serve it forth, though hot dog stands remain predominant in places like the Metropolitan Museum and Times Square–where tourists gather.

But health concerns have been addressed by reformulation, and the dog’s been put on a diet. Incarnations of turkey and chicken are available in supermarkets. Kosher purveyor Hebrew National tried to assuage public health fears about hot dogs a decade ago by boasting that theirs were supervised by God himself. Other manufacturers omitted preservatives, and the gourmet frank was born. While traditional weiners are pastiches of protein scraps, les chiens gourmets comprise choice cuts and advertise the fact. Omaha Steaks, the popular purveyor of filet mignon by mail, offers a plump pork-beef hot dog (eight for $27.99, and that doesn’t even include shipping—talk about putting lipstick on a pig). Several Greenmarket farmers offer franks without fear (“no lips or assholes!”) and our own local paté-pusher, D’Artagnan, (see pg 14) makes franks sans nitrates or nitrites, achieving a grayish pink that may have been rejected by earlier generations, as well as protein purebreds born of buffalo and even duck.

Restaurants have riffed on the tube steak too. In open defiance of hometown hot dog dogma, the signature link at St. Marks Place’s Crif Dogs is a smoked ballpark-style Jersey-made frank, deep fried until a rip appears in its surface, then configured a dozen different ways such as the “spicy redneck”–wrapped in bacon and garnished with fresh jalapeños, cole slaw and chili con carne. Crif’s popularity–or perhaps its logo, which features a scantily clad woman riding a phallic frank–has inspired celebrity chefs to invent new Crif dogs.

David Chang tops one with kimchee, while molecular gastronaut Wylie Dufresne crowns his with cryptic “fried mayonnaise.” Shake Shack evokes the Midwestern park kiosks Danny Meyer relished as a child, and includes a Chicago-style “red hot,” topped with the conventional (for Chicago, at least) combination of green pickle relish, dill pickle spear, mustard, onion, tomato, celery salt and spicy “sport peppers,” while Korean chain New York Hot Dog and Coffee offers ballpark franks surmounted with the barbecued beef called bulgogi. At Ditch Plains, the popular ditch dog is heaped with mac and cheese, the tonier midtown restaurant Brasserie sometimes serves a foie gras dog, and at the Upper West Side’s new Fatty Crab, Zak Pelaccio’s house-made dog is indeed hot: laced with fiery Asian X.O. sauce and topped with pickled Thai chiles.

Not even Feltman could have foreseen, 142 summers ago, the arrival of the hot dog tasting menu. But Gray’s Papaya and Papaya King have resolutely refused to dabble in newfangled franks, austerely offering traditional, natural-skin hot dogs with standby toppings and little else beyond a dodgy line of fruit drinks–principal among them papaya, intended to help you digest the pig offal, transformed by a miracle of butchery into an aerodynamic icon of culinary greatness.

Photo Credit: Michael Harlan Turkell; Berenice Abbott, Hot Dog Stand, April 8, 1936, Museum of the City of New York, Federal Art Project – “Changing New York” (43.131.1. 142)

Robert Sietsema lives in Greenwich Village and writes for the Village Voice and Gourmet. He calculates that he ate 21 hot dogs in the preparation of this piece, and estimates he’s eaten over 4,000 hot dogs in his lifetime. He’s still alive.