The hot dog can be wrapped in bacon, covered in cheese, doused in ketchup, or piled high with chili; no matter the toppings, this American staple can be found across the country. Though most people would rather not know what is in it, the tube steak-in-a-bun is a coveted part of the USA’s national cuisine. But the hot dog is not native to the US. This quintessential baseball snack has roots in history centuries before Columbus set sail for the New World. Here is how the sausage made its way to America.
The origins of the sausage can be traced back as early as c. 700 BC, with its appearance in Homer’s Odyssey, but some historians believe the first sausage was not created until the 1st century AD. Legend has it that Emperor Nero’s cook, Gaius, stuck a knife into a roasted pig that had not been cleaned thoroughly, and the puffed, empty intestines fell out. He exclaimed at his discovery and filled the casing with ground meat and spices. Over the course of the following centuries, the sausage traveled across Europe, making its way to Germany, a country that adopted the wiener as its own. Today, Frankfurt and Vienna both lay claim to its creation, a staple in the contemporary German diet. But how did the hot dog get from Germany to the US?
In the 1800s, many German immigrants came to the New World, bringing along with them their own culinary traditions. It is believed that the very first hot dog – once called ‘dachshund sausages’ – was sold by a German immigrant out of a food cart in New York in the 1860s. Around 1870, a German immigrant by the name of Charles Feltman opened the first hot dog stand on Coney Island. He sold over 3,600 frankfurters (in a bun) that year. In 1880, a sausage vendor in St. Louis who gave white gloves to customers to hold their hot sausages ran out of gloves; he began giving out the hot links inside a white bun instead. By 1893, the hot dog was a favorite baseball park treat. Some believe this is owed to Chris Von de Ahe, the owner of the St. Louis Browns and a local bar, who introduced hot dogs to pair with his beer; others claim it was Harry Stevens, a concessionaire at the New York Giants baseball stadium, who actually popularized the ‘red hots’ at sporting games.
In 1916, Nathan Handwerker – a Polish immigrant and employee of Feltman’s – opened a hot dog stand of his own, selling them for half the price of his competitor; Feltman was eventually forced to close up shop. By the 1920s, Nathan’s Famous was just that: famous. His dogs became known nationwide. With the word of the hot dog making its way from east to west, it became widespread in American culture: it appeared at backyard BBQs and Fourth of July celebrations, even making its way onto a White House menu in 1939. To discuss how to address issues with the Nazis, King George VI of England and Queen Elizabeth made the first royal visit to the US. FDR and the first lady hosted a picnic, where Eleanor decided to serve America’s hot dog. Having never tried one before, the Queen asked, ‘How do you eat this?‘ That same year, the West Coast responded with its own hot dog stand: Paul and Betty Pink opened the famous Pink’s in Los Angeles.