As an American who grew up frequenting ball games, amusement parks, and neighborhood cookouts, I’ve long had an intimate relationship with that tubular tube steak known as the hot dog. From the first seared bite exploding with the nostalgic flavors of childhood summers, to the last salty, savory morsel sliding down my gullet, the beloved hot dog has been a constant culinary companion throughout my life’s journey.
This iconic food on a bun encapsulates the very spirit of American street food culture – inexpensive, indulgent, and consumed hastily while strolling down city sidewalks or standing in crowded venues.
The origin of the hot dog stretches back to the late 19th century, when German immigrants introduced the practice of eating various sausages on buns. The moniker “hot dog” became popular in the early 1900s, although its exact origins are murky.
Some claim the name was coined in 1901 by cartoonist T.A. Dorgan, who drew a cartoon of dachshund sausages nestled in rolls (although he spelled it “hot dog” as two separate words). Others say the term was already in use by German immigrants in the 1880s. Whatever its earliest beginnings, the hot dog soon became a quintessential American food, a working-class meal that could be eaten on the go.
From Coney Island and Nathan’s Famous to ballparks and state fairs, hot dogs became staples of street food culture across the United States. Served on soft, squishy buns and topped with a myriad of condiments like ketchup, mustard, relish, onions, and chili, they offered delicious satisfaction that was filling yet affordable.
The hot dog’s position in Americana solidified further in 1939 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt served hot dogs to the King and Queen of England at a picnic on the eve of World War II. Suddenly, this street food was thrust into the international spotlight.
The All-Beef Ballpark
For many Americans, hot dogs are synonymous with baseball games. This pairing dates back to 1893, when a baker named Harry Stevens began selling hot dogs at the New York Polo Grounds during a baseball game. They quickly caught on, as fans realized foods like hot dogs, Cracker Jacks, and sodas perfectly complemented the experience of cheering on a ballgame. The low price meant spectators could eat without emptying their wallets, and the portability allowed easy consumption while sitting in the stands.
When the Brooklyn Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in the 1950s, owner Walter O’Malley made sure hot dogs were sold at the concession stands – and prominently featured in advertising – to make fans feel at home. Soon hot dogs became staples at ballparks across the Major Leagues, where they are now considered requisite eats on any game day. Whether it’s Fenway Franks at Boston’s hallowed Fenway Park or Dodger Dogs smothered in mustard at Chavez Ravine, you can’t think “baseball” without thinking “hot dogs.”
Part of the appeal lies in the sheer Americana of it all. james Costakis of the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council notes: “Hot dogs and baseball just go together. It’s the all-American sport with the all-American food.” Plus, there is the simple joy of gnawing on a hot, juicy hot dog while sitting beneath the sunny skies, looking out over that expanse of green grass and taking in America’s beloved pastime. The hot dog satisfies hunger while allowing fans to keep eyes glued to the action instead of their plates.
Bite of the Big Apple
New York City boasts some of the most famous hot dog purveyors in the world, often with deep roots going back to the early 20th century. Two iconic brands have battled it out for hot dog supremacy since 1916: Nathan’s Famous and Coney Island’s original Feltman’s.
Nathan Handwerker, a Jewish immigrant, worked at Feltman’s Coney Island stand before striking out on his own with his legendary Nathan’s in 1916. Positioned right outside the Coney Island train terminal, Nathan’s gained devoted fans who would stop on their way to enjoy the beachside amusement park. Their hot dogs had a signature snap from careful cooking, and their secret-recipe spice blend gave a unique, addictive flavor.
Meanwhile, Feltman’s itself grew into an empire, with owner Charles Feltman operating various spots selling hot dogs and other German foods. Feltman can be credited with putting hot dogs on buns, changing street food history. While the original Feltman’s shuttered in 1954, a new Feltman’s was revived in 2015, continuing the legacy.
Beyond Nathan’s and Feltman’s, New York City has long offered hot dogs on practically every street corner from busy Manhattan to the outer boroughs. Places like Papaya King (founded 1932), Gray’s Papaya (founded 1973), and Katz’s Delicatessen (founded 1888) have joined the ranks of legendary NYC hot dog joints. From dirty-water Sabrett’s cart dogs to Harlem deep-fried weenies, the Big Apple offers the dogs in every style imaginable.
The Chicago Dog
Chicago also has its own unique hot dog culture, with some estimating there are over 1,500 hot dog stands across the Windy City. Hot dogs in Chicago are prepared “Dragged through the garden” style, piled high with a rainbow of condiments including yellow mustard, green relish, pickled sport peppers, tomatoes, onions, kosher dill pickles, and celery salt. No ketchup allowed!
This hot dog style traces its origins to 1929, when Jim Stefanovic began selling what he called “depression dogs” loaded with toppings at his stand outside Chicago’s Fluky’s restaurant. He dubbed them “Fluky’s Dogs.” In the following decades, more restaurants replicated the look and it became Chicago’s signature.
Routes and allegiances run deep, with hot dog lovers arguing over beloved stands like Jimmy’s Red Hots, Portillo’s, Wolfy’s, Gene & Jude’s, and The Wieners Circle. The Vienna Beef company supplies the hot dogs to many Chicago spots, providing that signature “snap.” Locals take their hot dogs as seriously as they take their Italian beef sandwiches and deep-dish pizza. Visiting Chicago without sampling a loaded dog would be downright un-American!
Mainstay of State Fairs
A visit to an American state fair is incomplete without some quintessential fair fare, and hot dogs inevitably make the list. The unique atmosphere of the state fair – that distinct mix of fried food aromas, carnival music, exhibition livestock, and enthusiastic crowds – pairs perfectly with snackable, hand-held hot dogs.
State fair hot dogs often get extravagant toppings, from chili cheese to peanut butter and bacon. Vendors compete to create the most over-the-top dog, knowing fairgoers crave indulgence during their annual visits. Hot dog historian Bruce Kraig notes, “It’s the state fair, everything has to be on a stick or over the top. The hot dog is one of those foods that lends itself to that kind of excessive branding.”
Some state fairs have their own claims to hot dog fame. At the Richmond Country Fair in Maine, the signature toppings include crispy fried onions, sweet pickle relish, and tasty brown gravy. Colorado’s legendary Pueblo chilli dogs smother the meat with flavorful chili verde sauce and shredded cheddar cheese. And the Fletcher’s Corny Dogs introduced at the Texas State Fair back in 1942 have become iconic, with their hot dogs dipped in sweet corn batter and fried to golden perfection.
From coast to coast, state fairs satisfy appetites and foster community with hot dogs in all their gastronomic glory. The hot dog’s ability to be customized with endless toppings makes it a perfect state fair dish.
Variations on a Theme
The brilliance of the hot dog lies in its adaptability – it can be customized and riffed upon in endless ways. Regional hot dog styles have sprouted up across America reflecting local tastes. In the South, hot dogs get wrapped in soft, steamed buns and garnished with crisp coleslaw. Meaty chili and oyster crackers top dogs across the Midwest. The Seattle-style hot dog piles cream cheese, grilled onions, and teriyaki sauce atop the wiener. And Hawaiian hot dogs feature a slice of pineapple and bacon.
From coast to coast, Americans can find a hot dog rolled and tumbled any which way their imaginations desire. Food vendors continue putting new spins on old favorites, dreaming up combinations that make hot dog connoisseurs drool. The possibilities are endless when that tender bun meets the succulent wiener.
An Enduring Tradition
Like baseball and fireworks, the hot dog has become a symbol of America itself. The salty, savory, smoky flavor immediately conjures images of boardwalks, ballgames, amusement parks, and street carts. Its elegant simplicity makes it endlessly adaptable while still retaining its essential character.
Despite its humble immigrant beginnings, the hot dog has been embraced by people across America regardless of background. It has permeated our popular culture and become ingrained in our very identity. As long as Americans continue seeking fast, tasty snacks to enjoy in groups or on the go, the beloved hot dog will remain a staple of street food culture for generations to come.
So the next time you sink your teeth into that succulent sausage cradled in a soft bun, take a moment to savor a bite of American history. With a rich tradition spanning more than a century, the hot dog stands as a lasting symbol of quintessential Americana.