If we're talking about hot dogs, we might as well start with a #hottake: "A hot dog is a sandwich. It's a stupid argument," says professor Bruce Kraig, a noted hot dog historian. "It's something stuffed in bread; it's walking around food. The early hot dog vendors used to call them hot dog sandwiches."
It's unlikely that Kraig's assertion would sway the opinion of the millions of others who've turned this argument into semantic sport, but when discussing the hot dog, much of its history is up for debate anyway. "The myth you read online about hot dogs getting its name from baseball games isn't true," says Kraig. Harry M. Stevens, a caterer who popularized the food at sports venues like the Polo Grounds, did not actually inspire a sports cartoonist to invent the name.
What we do know is that hot dogs came to America through the massive wave of German immigration in the mid-19th century. Butcher shops were established, breeding a sausage culture that took off due to the abundance of street vendors. Americans' preference for meat, speed, and convenience made it an easy fit. "We have a lot of commentary from European visitors who were revolted by our eating habits," says Kraig. "Charles Dickens described them as 'gobble, gulp, and go.'"
The sausages brought over from Germany weren't initially called hot dogs, but instead were designated by their regional names like Weisswurst and Frankfurter— distinctions which gradually disappeared. "If you look at the USDA website and look up hot dogs, it will tell you that the words wiener, frankfurter, hot dogs, and bologna are interchangeable," even though, initially, Frankfurters were mostly composed of pork, while wieners were made of a pork and beef mixture. "They become naturalized," says Kraig. As the words changed, the meaning and product followed suit. In the hands of the next generation of Jewish immigrants, for instance, a Frankfurter in New York becomes an all-beef product due to obvious dietary restrictions.
But even as Oscar Meyer entered pop culture with their jingles in the 1950s, the hot dog never really became chain food despite several attempts. "There are a lot of local companies and stands in America," says Kraig. "They're neighborhood places. This began with immigration around the 1890s, when hot dogs stands were one of the ways that immigrants used to move up in the world." The hot dog's entry point for immigrants triggered a path of innovation, reaching its apex in places like New Jersey, where Greek immigrants re-mixed chili toppings to distinguish their product. Here, they borrowed spices from moussaka, and even marketed their dogs by referencing popular Western movies.
Through it all, we are left with a wide spectrum of regional hot dogs that ought to be celebrated and explored. To get you started, we compiled a panel of chefs and writers who admire the unique American quality of a hot dog:
- Edward Lee, chef/owner of 610 Magnolia (@chefedwardlee)
- John Birdsall, award-winning food writer based in Oakland (@john_birdsall)
- Kathy YL Chan, food and travel writer (@kathyylchan)
- Daniel Vaughn, barbecue editor at Texas Monthly, author of The Prophets of Smoked Meat: A Journey Through Texas Barbecue (@bbqsnob)
- Gabriella Gershenson, food features editor at Rachel Ray Every Day (@gabiwrites)
- J. Kenji López-Alt, managing culinary director at Serious Eats and creator of The Food Lab (@thefoodlab)
- Naomi Tomky, food writer and founder of GastroGnome (@gastrognome)
- Chris Schonberger, editor-in-chief at First We Feast (@cschonberger)
- Edmund Tijerina, food and drink editor at San Antonio Express-News (@etij)
- Suzanne Loudermilk, restaurant reviewer for The Baltimore Sun (@lsuzanne)
- Mike Gebert, award-winning editor of Fooditor.com and Sky Full of Bacon (@skyfullofbacon)
- Jessica Leigh Hester, writer and editor at CityLab, The Atlantic's urbanism site. (@jessicahester)
- Farley Elliott, senior editor at Eater L.A. (@overoverunder)
- Joe Ricchio, food, drink, and travel author based in Portland, Maine (@joericchio)
- Angel Diaz, staff writer at Complex (@adiaz456)
- Jackson Connor, news editor at First We Feast (@jacksonmconnor)
- Dave Cathey, food editor at The Oklahoman (@thefooddood)
- Sam Hiersteiner, writer based in Boston (@samsgoodfeed)
- Brian Luvray, New York-based producer who misses Tony Packo's and the Maumee River on a daily basis
- DJ Dieselboy, drum and bass DJ (@djdieselboy)
Here are 20 bucket-list hot dogs to try before you kick the bucket.