Hot dog – unknown story of the European sausage that conquered America (July 22 – National Hot Dog Day)

Hot dog – unknown story of the European sausage that conquered America (July 22 – National Hot Dog Day)

Hot dog, beside hamburger, is one of the most widely recognised symbols of modern American cuisine. Originally a hit in the New York City, today it is a snack found in many homes in the United States. The dish, brilliant in its simplicity, has a much longer history than one might expect. Before its success on the East Coast, the idea of a hot dog had been developed over hundreds of years in Europe, especially in present-day Germany.

The story of this delicacy is like the American dream. It entailed many years of work on developing the recipe, discovering  the new taste overseas and rapid expansion of the product. The origins of the key ingredient of the hot dog – thin sausage – date back to the 13th century, when such products were regularly distributed to people of Frankfurt on the occasion of royal coronations. Then the tradition reached Vienna. Hence the names “frankfurter sausage”[1] and “Vienna sausage”[2]. According to historical sources, these terms started becoming popular in 1484, i.e. 8 years before Columbus arrived in America[3]. Initially, when buns were not that popular, meat was placed between two slices of bread. Later, in the early 17th century, such products, in thinner and longer versions, were called by the German name “dachshund”. Hence the first associations of the name with a “hot dog”.

After almost 500 years of development in Europe, the sausage travelled to North America with European emigrants. The popularity of hot dogs in the US is attributed to a German, Charles Feltman and Nathan Handwerker, a Jew of Polish origin. Both Europeans lived the real American dream, from a shoe shiner to a recognisable entrepreneur. Interestingly, these pioneers initially worked together – Charles Feltman was Nathan Handwerker’s employer. Nathan regularly put his savings aside to start his own business. After a year of saving he opened a competitive stand, where he offered hot dogs at half the price. This is how Nathan’s Famous, the best known and largest chain of hot dog restaurants, was created.

According to some sources, the bun in its current shape was used for very simple and pragmatic reasons – customers could take the dish in their hands without getting dirty and eat it without using cutlery. This is how the ideal product for New Yorkers, walking around and relaxing in the city, was created. Hot dog could easily be served and eaten anywhere – on a park bench, while walking a dog or on the beach. That is why hot dog stands initially started appearing in public places such as parks and alleys[4]. Hot dogs, however, were not called hot dogs yet, but were still sold under their original name “red-hot dachshund sausage”.

This changed in the early 20th century. There are many anecdotes about how the new name was created. The most popular version is very simple – pronunciation of the German name was too difficult for Americans. Hot dogs were always served hot, so the vendors advertised them with the slogan “They’re red hot! Get your dachshund sausages while they’re red hot”. From this slogan, customers would mainly remember the reference to high temperature (hot) and to a dog. Cartoonist Tad Dorgan[5] recorded this slogan in one of his comic books. Not sure how to spell “dachshund”, he simply wrote “Hot Dog”. Thus, this inventive dish lost its original European name.

The development of mass events greatly accelerated the popularisation of hot dogs. The dish is easy to prepare and does not require many additives. At the last world exhibition in the 19th century, World’s Columbian Exposition, new technologies for the production of European sausages[6] were presented. During the fair, hundreds of stands were opened to feed millions of visitors. Another important event was the opening of the first hot dog stand in a baseball stadium. It was the idea of a German, Chris von de Ahe, the then owner of St. Louis Browns. Hot dogs are still an inseparable part of the game – every year about 800 million sausage buns are consumed at baseball games[7].

The sausage from Europe has become one of the most recognisable elements of everyday American diet. The average American consumes about 70 hot dogs a year, which translates into 20 billion hot dogs consumed in the U.S. every year[8]. The tradition of selling this handy food at outdoor stands still continues today. 15% of all U.S. hot dogs are sold at street stands and 9% at baseball-related locations[9]. The residents of the “European” part of the East Coast also enjoy this meal. In the New York area alone, hot dog sales are worth $101 billion a year[10]. While being accustomed to American hot dogs, it is worth trying what the original European “dachshund sausages”, i.e. Vienna sausages or frankfurters taste like.