Published on July 4, 2016
A hot dog (also spelled hotdog) is a cooked sausage, traditionally grilled or steamed and served in a sliced bun as a sandwich. Hot dog variants include the corn dog and pigs in blankets. Typical hot dog garnishes include mustard, ketchup, onions, mayonnaise, relish, cheese, chili, olives, and sauerkraut.
The sausages were culturally imported from Germany and popularized in the United States, where they were a working class street food sold at hot dog stands that came to be associated with baseball and America. Hot dog preparation and condiment styles also vary regionally across the United States. The hot dog’s cultural traditions include the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest and the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile.
Claims about hot dog invention are difficult to assess, as stories assert the creation of the sausage, the placing of the sausage (or another kind of sausage) on bread or a bun as finger food, the popularization of the existing dish, or the application of the name “hot dog” to a sausage and bun combination most commonly used with ketchup or mustard and sometimes relish.
The word frankfurter comes from Frankfurt, Germany, where pork sausages similar to hot dogs originated. These sausages, Frankfurter Würstchen, were known since the 13th century and given to the people on the event of imperial coronations, starting with the coronation of Maximilian II, Holy Roman Emperor as King. Wiener refers to Vienna, Austria, whose German name is “Wien”, home to a sausage made of a mixture of pork and beef (cf. Hamburger, whose name also derives from a German-speaking city). Johann Georg Lahner, an 18th/19th century butcher from the Franconian city of Coburg, is said to have brought the Frankfurter Würstchen to Vienna, where he added beef to the mixture and simply called it Frankfurter. Nowadays, in German speaking countries, except Austria, hot dog sausages are called Wiener or Wiener Würstchen (Würstchen means “little sausage”), in differentiation to the original pork only mixture from Frankfurt. In Swiss German, it is called Wienerli, while in Austria the terms Frankfurter or Frankfurter Würstel are used.
Around 1870, on Coney Island, German immigrant Charles Feltman began selling sausages in rolls.
Carts selling frankfurters in New York City, circa 1906. The price is listed as “3 cents each or 2 for 5 cents”.
Others are credited with first serving hot dogs on rolls. A Bavarian immigrant named Feuchtwanger allegedly pioneered the practice in the American midwest; there are several versions of the story with varying details. According to one account, Antonoine Feuchtwanger’s wife proposed the use of a bun in 1880: Feuchtwanger sold hot dogs on the streets of St. Louis, Missouri, United States, and provided gloves to his customers so that they could handle the sausages without burning their hands. Losing money when customers did not return the gloves, Feuchtwanger’s wife suggested serving the food in a roll instead. In another version, Anton Ludwig Feuchtwanger served sausages in rolls at the World’s Fair–either the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago or the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St Louis–again allegedly because the white gloves provided to customers to protect their hands were being kept as souvenirs.
The association between hot dogs and baseball began as early as 1893 with Chris von der Ahe, a German immigrant who owned not only the St. Louis Browns, but also an amusement park.
Another claim of inventing the hot dog is told by Harry M. Stevens, an American sports concessionaire whose vendors sold German sausages and rolls to spectators at the old New York Polo Grounds during the winter. He called them “Dachshund sandwiches”, but a New York Post cartoonist “couldn’t spell dachshund, so when he drew the cartoon, he called them hot dogs.”
In 1916, a Polish American employee of Feltman’s named Nathan Handwerker was encouraged by Eddie Cantor and Jimmy Durante, both working as waiters/musicians, to go into business in competition with his former employer. Handwerker undercut Feltman’s by charging five cents for a hot dog when his former employer was charging ten.
At an earlier time in food regulation, when the hot dog was suspect, Handwerker made sure that men wearing surgeon’s smocks were seen eating at Nathan’s Famous to reassure potential customers.