The potentially untrue stories that turned the humble hot dog into an American staple

Some things just go together. Ben & Jerry. Popcorn at the movies. Mary-Kate Olsen and that old French politician she married. Few will be able to explain these mystical cosmic pairings, how they came to be, or what they all mean. But don’t they just feel right? The same can be said for hot dogs and America. Slippery sausage things slathered in mustard and sandwiched between artificial-tasting buns don’t have a whole lot to do with the USA, but they’re also the most American thing in the world.

While they can be everything from a wholesome ballgame touchstone to the dirty visual gag on a Porky’s poster, few can agree just quite how they became so synonymous with all things red, white and blue, or even where that name came from. There’s an old story that the term “hot dog” stems from a New York cartoonist named Tad Dorgan, who sketched a drawing of a dachshund encased in a bun while eating frankfurters at a ballgame. But unable to spell the word ‘dachshund’, he instead titled the image “hot dog.”

But that’s just one theory. Another is that the term materialised even earlier, with a group of 1890s frat boys at Yale dismissively referring to the increasingly popular Polish delicacy as a ‘hot dog’ due to the ambiguity of its meat. Legend goes that, despite its questionable connotations, somehow the nickname caught on.

What we do know for certain is that the hot dog didn’t become a true American powerhouse until the arrival of a plucky Polish immigrant on Coney Island in 1912. Frankfurters had arrived alongside European immigrants in years prior, but it was Nathan Handwerker’s job at Feltman’s German Gardens, home to the 10-cent sausage, that helped turn the niche snack into a financial goldmine. Spurred on by his wife Ida, Handwerker cashed in his $300 life savings to open up his own rival frankfurter stand, one that sold cheaper dogs decorated in Ida’s ‘secret spice’ garnish.

Business was steady, but suspicions over the 5 cent difference between Nathan’s and Feltman’s dogs left observers wondering just what sort of stray cats could be in the things. So Handwerker came up with an ingenious marketing ploy: he’d recruit college students to hang out at the stand with stethoscopes dangling from their jacket pockets, leading passers-by to assume the meat surely must be safe if young, handsome doctors were chowing down on them.

It worked. Nathan’s would go on to become an American institution, birthing a hot dog legacy that has been both built upon and casually desecrated by generations of Americans over time, from the sublime Detroit Coney to the questionable Baltimore Crab Dog, which takes a traditional split sausage and dumps upon it a pile of blended crab meat and mac ‘n’ cheese. Nom nom nom.

But whether you like your dogs expensive and gluten-free, or rotating on an oily grill in your local 7/11, that sort of entrepreneurial spirit might just be the key to the hot dog’s staying power.

“It was immigrants who brought the hot dog ― among so many other wonderful things ― to America,” says Adrienne Sylver, author of Hot Diggity Dog, a children’s picture book all about the history of the hot dog. “In the nineteenth century, it was relatively inexpensive to get a cart and start selling hot dogs on street corners, [so] it was possible for a newcomer to begin a business. Is there a better American dream?”

Like the country in which it’s most closely associated, the hot dog’s origins are a melting pot, full of contradictory statements and hazy urban legends. But regardless of the truth, all the most long-standing of rumors share very similar traits -- an ingenious idea, a plucky underdog, and capitalist success through street smarts and savvy marketing. And honestly, can you get more American than that? 

Words: Adam White

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