A Brief History of the Hot Dog

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Classic American dog with lashings of French's mustard and H
Classic American dog with lashings of French's mustard and HPhotography by Neil Wissink

With the 4th of July fast approaching, we take a look at America’s most popular portable fare...

There is something of a manifest destiny to the hot dog’s historical progress, which reflects its longstanding position as America’s most popular portable fare. While the sausage is considered to be one of the world’s oldest processed foods – references can been traced as far back as Homer’s Odyssey in the 9th century BC – it is not until the sausage was put into a bread roll and served without cutlery that its transition into the modern hot dog was complete.

Having developed in Germany, the "dachshund" sausage, soon to be known as the frankfurter, was being sold as early as the 1600s. But it was German immigrants to the US who are credited with introducing the roll, notably, Charles Feltman, who was selling them on Coney Island from 1870, thus affirming the hot dog’s association with fairs and outdoor eating forever. Mrs. Feuchtwanger of St Louis is also considered to be one of the hot dog’s originators, as she advised her husband, who was selling sausages on the street, to provide his customers with rolls instead of the white gloves he was using so that they didn’t burn their hands. It would not be long before the hot dog became not only a street cart staple, but a must-have for backyard barbeques, with classic toppings including ketchup, mustard, and relish or pickles.

"The frankfurter was being sold as early as the 1600s in Germany but it was German immigrants to the US who are credited with introducing the roll"

Despite its humble origins, the hot dog’s history is not without its glamorous moments. For instance Nathan Handwerker employed a teenager called Clara Bowtinelli to assist him with his Coney Island hot dog stall. This same girl was discovered while at work, and went on to become Clara Bow, the It Girl and screen star of the 1920s.

While still not as ubiquitous as it is stateside, over the past couple of years the hot dog, along with other street foods, have enjoyed a rise in prominence in London, with several places offering well-constructed, carefully sourced dogs. The Big Apple cart in Old Street is one of the best examples, serving up traditional American-style smoked dogs with all the fixings. Other notable places include Bubbledogs, Hawksmoor, and the most recent entry, popular Borough music pub The Miller, from the folks behind the Sebright Arms pub in East London. Street Kitchen, which was started as a bistro on wheels by Mark Jankel and Jun Tanaka, have taken up residency at The Miller, introducing a menu of handmade hot dogs and slaws. Steering clear of the more processed variety, the dogs here are akin to a traditional sausage, loaded with toppings. The American Pitbull comes heaped with sweet onions, ketchup, pickled cucumber, crispy onions, and sweet mustard, while the Bull Mastiff is covered in chilli chorizo relish, sweet onions, pickled red onions, chilli dressing, and sour cream. There is also a vegetarian option, the Springer Spaniel, which is a spinach and cheddar sausage, and the celeriac, cucumber, mint, and yoghurt slaw is offered as a delicious side. So, whether at home on the grill or out in town, with summer here and the 4th of July fast approaching, now is a good time to celebrate the past, present, and bright future of an American classic.

Text by Ananda Pellerin