A Hot Dog's Tale: How A Humble Food Took Over America
Recently, I traveled to Iceland. It felt like I had landed on some alien outpost. Throughout the trip, slumbering volcanoes would flank blue-white glaciers which would give way to
vast lava fields covered with snow and moss. It can be a formidable place, just look at my wife freezing to death in the picture provided. The shorelines are dotted with towering cliffs and black sand beaches. The people were sparse, and the ocean omnipresent. It’s the main point of sustenance, both economic and nutritional for the nation. For a guy living in the middle of the United States, there was definitely a “stranger in a strange land” feeling. But on my trip, I discovered a familiar friend. One I’d known my whole life and one known by almost anyone who has ever been to a cookout or sporting event stateside. In the most unexpected of places, I reconnected with my old pal, the humble hot dog.
Iceland is apparently known (no one told me this) for their hot dog which uses native ingredients and as I came to find out, a shit-ton of onions. Boy, does this country love onions. Anyway, the hotdog has been an fixture since the Second World War when American troops were stationed on the island after it was peacefully invaded by the U.K. (it’s a crazy story). The troops eventually left but the hot dog stayed, and frankly, my American pallet was damn glad to see it again. It tasted a lot better than any hot dog I’ve had in the states. The toppings were unique (three. kinds. of. onions.) but the feeling that I had sitting on a wooden bench in the middle of Reykjavik on a cool, cloudy day was a familiar one. It felt like an opening day at the ballpark.
The ballpark hot dog is as clichéd Americana as you can find. It is ubiquitous to North American sports on a scale only reserved for the national anthem, booing an official, and drinking overpriced beer. Peanuts and Cracker Jacks were long surpassed by the mighty hotdog. But… why? What about this specific type of German sausage made it so popular and why have we as American’s taken to it so much?
The sausage which is now known as the hot dog first came into this world in between the 15th and 16 centuries, in what is now Austria and Germany. The city of Frankfurt celebrated the 530th anniversary of the Frankfurter in 2017, so this is not a new thing. And like many old things that become “new things,” thanks to America, Frankfurters Wieners & other Dachshund sausages were made and peddled by new immigrants to the States. For decades, these foods stayed largely within the boundaries of immigrant communities as traditional foods passed between friends and family. But by the turn of the 20th century, the hot was poised to break out in a big way. You can say that 1893 is the year the hot dog turned into a breakout star.
That year may ring a bell, especially to my Chicago brethren. That’s the year the World’s Columbian Explosion made a tsunami-size splash into the public imagination. People from
all over the country and indeed the world made the summer-long pilgrimage to Chicago’s south side to witness the beauty of the White City. Between hanging gondola trips and rides on the original Farris Wheel, the masses assembled would try food from across the world. Sausages became a crowd favorite, as they were mess-free and easy to eat on the move as people adventured through fairgrounds. Word began to spread. As Chicago’s first World’s Fair was chugging along, the world-famous Union Stockyards kept pace with hungry tourists, the hot dog was about to make an appearance on the opposite corner of the state.
Chris Von de Ahe was a German bar owner in St. Louis, Missouri who was a German immigrant. He also happened to own the St. Louis Browns baseball team and was looking for other revenue streams to inject into the ball club. Perhaps hearing about the success of the traditional German food up north, or trying to cater to the large population of German immigrants living in St. Louis, Von de Ahe introduced the hot dog to baseball for the first time. There was only one problem. It still wasn’t called a hot dog yet.
Legend has it that political cartoonist Tad Dorgan was at a ball game at New York’s Polo Grounds when a vendor started shouting out “Hot Dachshund Sausages!” to the crowd. It’s said that Dorgan couldn’t spell Dachshund so he instead drew one and captioned the cartoon “Hot Dog!”. This cartoon no longer exists and no real evidence is left to prove the tale, but none the less it’s a charmer. The more likely case is it just evolved from the original German names for the hot dogs. German speakers would use the word for a little dog to speak about both their dachshund sausages and their actual hounds. English speakers were being introduced to both of these dogs around the same time and so the name started to gather steam. It probably also got a boost from the fact that nobody really knew what exactly was in a hot dog. So to be derogatory towards the business selling the sausages people sometimes called them “Dog Houses” or Kennel Clubs”, which given the information above is pretty damn racist. So... yay hot dogs?
Despite the possible negative connotations, the name began to stick and by the end of WWI, the hot dog was on its way. Today, roughly 26 million hot dogs are eaten at Major League ballparks each year. So, we know the origin of the hot dog, but why did they become so popular among sporting events? The same reason they're popular at grill-outs and in college dorms. They're cheap.
All it takes to make a hot dog are some animal scraps and pork casings. They are essentially a cost positive byproduct of the butchering process. The ease of production and lower overhead are why hot dogs were bought and sold among immigrant communities and eventually introduced to the larger population. It's also why they were a hit with baseball vendors, who started out as independent contractors at games and then eventually with the owners who found a cash cow with a fraction of the overhead as the main attraction was. Another boon to the hot dog has been, ironically, its blandness. Wherever you go in America, it seems each region has its own style of hot dog. 'Gourmet Hot Dog' is now a term used unironically in the arenas and ballparks that dot the continent.
The hot dog may have come from a humble background, but by using that humbleness to their advantage, purveyors of the tasty treat have grown this once provincial food to the most eaten item at American sporting events. *Takes Bite* Mmmmm, I can hear the organ music already.