Memorial Day Weekend marks the official start of the American summer. Grills will be dusted off, charcoal or gas refreshed, and our collective love affair with the hot dog rekindled. The hot dogs we champion remain (mostly) tied to the legacy of the stands around that country that founded regional traditions and transformed a humble snack into something worthy of intense local pride.
On Coney Island, the spiritual home of the American hot dog, Charles Feltman is credited with introducing tubesteaks to New York City at the tail end of the 19th-century. Like all working-class culinary solutions, the idea to stuff a sausage in a bun was little more than a practical cost-saving measure. No utensils and plates, no washing. Meanwhile, in St. Louis, enterprising immigrants were shifting a near identical product and also bringing them to the burgeoning temples of baseball, solidifying a connection between national pastime and national sausage (folks throughout the Midwest were doing the same). In 1916, Feltman’s employee Nathan Handwerker established the legendary Nathan’s Famous. The stand, and its locale, is an entry point for national hot dog traditions—traditions that spread from coast to coast.
Nathan’s reopened this week, given an upscale retrofit after the savages of Hurricane Sandy. Now, there’s a raw bar to go along with crinkle cut fries and fantastic franks. The venerable flagship, at the corner of Surf and Stillwell Avenues, stands as both blast from the past and nod to the hot dog’s current and future state.
Hot dogs are a conduit for imagination.
The hot dog occupies an interesting space in our culinary history. Rarely has it been elevated to meal status—after all, who orders two dogs over a burger at a swank eatery? Yet Daniel Boulud has no doubt helped promote the potential of the haute dog through his DBGB restaurant, and the rare pleasure of enjoying a hot dog created by a famous chef at PDT, one of New York’s best cocktail bars, certainly demonstrates the hot dogs ability to straddle the highs and lows of the culinary landscape. Richard Rosenthal, founder of Hartford’s influential Max Restaurant Group, ended every culinary adventure to New York with a hot dog. I remember, fondly, that with each tale he spun of cutting-edge cuisine he’d discovered on his trip, Rosenthal was never too good for a stop at Gray’s Papaya (just as Boulud was never immune to a corner stop on the way to Daniel).
Hot dogs are democratic that way. The fact that no one really knows what’s in them helps us focus on the more important thing we can all agree on: They are delicious.
Hot dogs are also a conduit for imagination. Boiled, deep-fried, grilled, or split, the hot dog retains its essence while providing a canvas for culinary tinkering. Cover it in chili or cover it in relish. The choice, of course, is yours. Toss one back to round out a dozen oysters if you want. Nobody will think less of your taste. The item is glorious because of its mutability.
This week, First We Feast celebrates the wonders of the hot dog—from the classics of New York and Chicago, to the Japanese-inspired Oki Dog in L.A. You’ll find, if you didn’t already know, that the foodways associated with the hot dog are fierce and rich. The stories behind famous dogs are intensely compelling, the mark left on local communities powerful. Hot dogs bind our nation, fuel our fun, and supply an endless string of wiener jokes.
Join us as we give thanks to the official food of American summer. Follow along for hot-dog guides, chef picks, recipes, and more, and use the hashtag #hotdogweek to share your tubesteak thoughts and photos on Twitter and Instagram.