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Hot Diggity Dog

Hot Diggity Dogs

Thank the Germans for frankfurters

When you throw some dogs on the grill this summer, you can thank German immigrants for bringing weinerwurst to America in the 19th century. The food – eventually shortened to “weiner”– was named for the city of Vienna in Austria. Its counterpart – the “frankfurter”– originated in Frankfurt, Germany. Both cities claim they created the American favorite we now refer to as hot dogs.

Of course the Germans also brought their little dachshund dogs along with them to the States, and after awhile the food was referred to as “dachshund sausage.” In the late 1800s, Charles Feltman opened the first hot dog stand on Coney Island. Then in 1880 in St. Louis, a sausage vendor who gave white gloves to customers to hold their hot sausages ran out of gloves. When he began selling the hot links inside a white bun instead, today’s hot dog was born.

Back at the Coney Island hot dog stand, one of Feltman’s employees was a fellow named Nathan Handwerker, a Polish immigrant, who opened his own stand to compete with his former employer. He sold his hot dogs for five cents each – half the price of Feltman’s – and Nathan’s Famous took off. And every Independence Day since 1916, that Coney Island hot dog stand has held the annual “Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest.” Last year’s men’s winner downed 74 hot dogs, a feat most of us would never dream of. Or, hopefully, even attempt.

When did hot dogs take over our ballparks? There is some disagreement on that. In 1893, some believe the owner of the St. Louis Browns and a local bar – Chris Von de Ahe – began pairing hot dogs with his beer. Others believe it was Harry Stevens, a vendor at the NY Giants stadium, who sold “red hots” at ball games. Most give credit for the name “hot dog” to a sports cartoonist named Tad Dorgan. He drew a cartoon of a frankfurter with a tail, legs and head so it resembled a dachshund. Not sure how to spell “dachshund,” he called it a “hot dog” and caused not only a cartoon sensation but also named a new American staple.

In the early 20th century, the hot dog swept the nation and became a staple at backyard barbecues and Fourth of July celebrations. Even Eleanor Roosevelt added it to the White House menu. In 1939, when King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited the United States, they were scheduled to attend a picnic where they would be served America’s hot dog. For the whole month prior to the event, Eleanor Roosevelt was subjected to much negative press coverage about her plans, to which she lamented: “So many people are worried that the dignity of our country will be imperiled by inviting royalty to a picnic, particularly a hot dog picnic!” She need not have worried; her guests were intrigued. The Queen asked “how do you eat this?” The King was pleased with the “hot dog sandwich” and asked for seconds.

Most hot dog fans agree it’s hard to eat just one. The National Hot Dog and Sausage Council (did you know there was such a thing?) estimates Americans consume 20 billion hot dogs each year. Besides those bought at grocery stores, many are purchased from street vendors (15%) and at ballparks (9%).

If you’re a hot dog lover, these days you have choices. While many of us grew up with the red-dyed little weiners (never looking at the ingredient label) on a white bread bun, today you can pick from a wide selection of hot dog preferences – chicken dogs, turkey dogs, beef dogs, corn dogs, even vegan dogs. And buns have evolved from their white bread origins to include wheat bread, pitas, tortillas, to name a few. Or you can ditch the bread completely for a wrap of Romaine lettuce.

And we know the toppings aren’t just your mustard and ketchup anymore. Chili, sauerkraut and slaw are standbys, but now gourmet hot dogs are all the rage, with creative chefs using all kinds of topping twists – Hawaiian pineapple, Mexican street corn, tomatillo relish, spicy nachos, bacon, even mac and cheese.

Like most American culture, the lowly hot dog is subject to ever-evolving variations in tastes and trends. Who knows what it will become in the future? But for myself right now, just give me that dog with stripes from the grill, topped with mustard and cole slaw on a whole wheat bun, and I’m good.

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