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Hot Dog: A Frank Story
An investigative report from Cheeseburger Brown
Hot Dog: A Frank Story, a history of the food by Cheeseburger Brown - illustration by Matthew Hemming

O where, oh where has my little dog gone?
O where, oh where can he be?
Now sausage is good, bologna, of course.
O where, oh where can he be?
They make them of dog, they make them of horse,
I think they made them of he.

Ever the target of cruel innuendo and nauseous folk legend, it is a phallic delicacy enjoyed around the world with roots deep in man's prehistory. Banned by gods and emperors, regionalized into thousands of revered variations, acme of summer, sport and various colorectal cancers: it is called the red hot, the frank, the wiener in a bun -- or, most famously -- the hot dog.

This is its story.

* * *

A hot dog is generally understood to be a cooked sausage (classically a "dachshund" sausage, also known as a frankfurter or wiener) served in a long, split bun (often a milk- or egg-bread roll coated in sesame or poppy seeds), topped with delectable condiments (mustard is the staple, but variations abound including sauerkraut, diced onions and tomatoes, ketchup, mayonnaise, crumbled bacon, peppers, chilis, olives, barbecue sauce, a host of cheeses and the full panoply of relishes).

But it was not always so.

Efficient prehistoric butchers noticed that while the popular cuts of meat would be consumed with little if any preparation, less palatable but highly nutritious items like the organs and blood required some finessing in order to move. The solution was pudding sausages composed of smoked offal stuffed into lengths of intestine with spices like coriander, cumin and watercress.

And as a man with a paunch pudding, that has been filled with blood and fat, tosses it back and forth over a blazing fire, and the pudding itself strains hard to be cooked quickly; so Odysseus was twisted and turning back and forth, meditating how, though he was alone against many, he could lay hands on the shameless suitors.

- Homer, The Odyssey (Book XX, Verse XXV)

And so the immortal Homer gives us one of our earliest literary references for sausage (c. 900 BC), familiar enough in the Hellenic world to be used as a metaphor for Odysseus' tormented state. Gastromonically-oriented archaeologists have found stone tablets from ancient Mesopotamia (c. 1700 BC) inscribed with satires about meat-filled intestine casings and the double entendres made possible by showcasing a penis-shaped food at the heart of a literary work -- a device also amply employed in Epicharmus' comedy Orya ("The Sausage") written around 500 BC.

Sausages were known even in God's time when His nagging was codified in the Hebrew testament that included prohibitions against unclean foods such as non-cloven hooved animals, harlots and various puddings.

You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.

- Holy Bible (Acts, 15:29)

His heart was in the right place: the chief concern was food poisoning. Knowing how enthusiastic the bacteria Clostridium botulinum is to multiply in offal, God recommended abstinence rather than risk the chosen ending up with mortal nerve damage (if possibly supernaturally smooth skin).

Sausages were popular at the annual Nero-era Roman festival of Lupercalia, precursor to our modern Valentine's Day commercial holiday, in which the founding of Rome by wolf-raised Romulus and Remus was celebrated in bloody fertility rites including animal sacrifice, the anointing of crops with gore-soaked hides, and sexual lotteries. Imaginative suggestions about sausages being used as masturbatory aids during the festival have helped to popularize a myth that sausages were banned by early Christian emperors like Constantine I (306-337 AD) on account of their penile semblance. In fact, it was the specific form of blood sausages and puddings that were banned centuries later by the comparatively anti-iconoclastic Leo VI (866-912 AD) according to the Corpus Juris Civilis anthology of Roman law. Leo's principal concern seemed to have been a desire to curb gluttony by casting convenience foods like black pudding under the pall of God's frown. The ban failed on account of the instant appearance of a thriving illicit blood industry, frittering away centurions' time hunting nefarious pudding gangsters instead of minding the barbarian hordes.

Rome, of course, was sacked.

Time marched on and sausage technology improved. Though salt had been used as a preservative since foggy antiquity, advances in smoking and curing led to a newer, better European sausage that less frequently resulted in death. Preserved meat products exploded in popularity. While local variations cropped up everywhere it was at the hubs of the so-called Salt Roads that the real talent gathered to explore the art, tapping into the dense byways of a brisk salt trade to piggyback their processed meat wares -- hubs like Bologna, Salzburg and Bavaria.

And then a hero was born.

Johann George Lehner (1772-1845) learned the family trade in butchery as a boy in Gasseldorf amid the hills of Spessart, nestled in Bavaria's Lower Franconia region. As a young man Lehner moved to Coburg in Upper Franconia, flexing a newly found inventive spirit now freed from his father's domineering shadow. It was in that spirit that Lehner conceived the idea of a portable sausage -- a small, curved, spicy snack that a man might consume while walking down the street: precooked, cured and ready to eat.

They were dubbed dachshunds after the breed of low-slung badger-hunting dogs whom they resembled, and became an instant success. Encouraged, young Lehner picked up and moved to the bustling city of Frankfurt-am-Main where he dazzled the crowds with his Coburg-style dachshund sausages in 1804. But the meat guilds of Frankfurt were disgruntled by Lehner's punk notion of mixing beef and pork in the same casing, and so stifled his business with punishing levies and fines.

Lehner moved his operation to Vienna, where mixing beef and pork was perfectly cromulent. The fickle Viennese took an immediate shine to his little red sausages, dubbing them frankfurters after their perceived origin and consuming them hand over fist. They became such a recognizable staple of Viennese cuisine that people from abroad began to identify them as wienerwurst ("Vienna-sausage") or simply wieners.

Jealous of the wiener's fame, the guilds of Frankfurt put their heads together and decided it was time to fight back. In 1852 they issued a recipe for an "official" frankfurter sausage in a concerted effort to eradicate bastardized terms like dachshund or wienerwurst once and for all. Little did they suspect that a new name was roiling just under the surface of the public mind -- a name that would displace all others that had come before with the juggernaut irreversibility of a virulent meme...

Naturally, it would come from the New World.

Charles Feltman (1841-1910) emigrated to the United States from Bavaria in the 1860s. Like many German immigrants he took a stab at selling his wares (fresh meat pies and franks) from a wooden cart in New York's Bowery, and a burgeoning summer resort spot called Coney Island. It was there in the face of a cold Atlantic wind that Feltman first conceived the idea of serving hot food. He contracted a local wheel-wright called Donovan to build a tin-lined cooking barrel right into his pie-wagon.

Thus equipped, in 1867 Feltman started offering "red hot dachshunds" to the passersby and patrons of the Coney Island saloons, bath-houses and hotels, serving the sausages in a split milk-roll for easier handling. It is not certain whether or not Feltman actually pioneered this technique or imitated what he had seen in the Bowery, but either way it became widely popular with the resort crowd.

In 1871 Feltman ditched his pie-wagon, leased a narrow plot of land on Coney Island and erected a tin shed as his first fixed stand, reportedly selling 3,684 dachshunds in a single season. In the years to come that humble tin stand would be upgraded many times and eventually moved to a larger shore-front property, ultimately becoming a restaurant-hotel-bordello of note catering to the upper class New Yorkers of the early twentieth century.

The dachshund-in-a-bun was introduced to wider circles during the 1893 World's Fair (also known as The Columbian Exposition, sponsored in part by the Oscar Mayer & Co. heavy meat concern) held in Chicago, where it was proffered by several competing vendors. This food fad was noted by many, including drunken brewmeister and money-haemorraging baseball team owner Christian Von der Ahe (1851-1913), a man known for his walrus mustache, checkered suits, and impulsive obnoxiousness. Von der Ahe took the dachshund-in-a-bun back to St. Louis and made it a staple of his concessions at Browns games in an attempt to stem his losses. Von der Ahe ended up bankrupt and without the benefit of a working liver but the idea of eating dachshunds at baseball games was a big success, soon flattered via imitation by New York Polo Grounds concessionaire Harry M. Stevens (1856-1934), perhaps best known as the inventor of the baseball score-card. Stevens will re-enter our story again.

At this point it is important to note that while authentic Frankfurt-style dachshund sausages are made with only the finest cuts of viscera and congealed fat, their popularity inspired ranks of wannabe-wieners whose purveyors were less than fussy when it came to purchasing filler material. It was these crude, sphincter-stuffed mini-sausages that caused the first rumours that dachshunds were made from horse meat. These rumours were compelling enough to move despotic municipal politician John Y. McKane to institute a punitive "excise tax" on all Coney Island sausage stands, rationalizing that though "we cannot dictate to a man what he must sell...we can make it hard for him to carry on his business."

It was not a far leap from horse to dog.

The leap seems to have been made by undergrads at Yale sometime around the autumn of 1895. On 5 October of that year a satirical student rag printed the following piece of doggerel:

"'Tis dogs' delight to bark and bite,"
Thus does the adage run.
But I delight to bite the dog
When placed inside a bun.

- Echoes from the Lunch Wagon, Yale Record

This was followed on 19 October by an anonymous short story detailing the imaginative tale of a popular sausage-selling "dog wagon" known as The Kennel Club, the owner of which ends up selling his wares to churchgoers after a series of misadventures. The story concludes, "They contentedly munched hot dogs during the whole service."

The term hot dog itself already had some history, having come to mean a dapper extrovert or a natty braggart, perhaps inspired by an older bit of university slang for describing pretense, "to put on the dog."

This confluence of wordplay set the stage for the wide-spread adoption of hot dog for dachshund sausages. St. Louis concessionaire Adolf Gehring would claim to have personally invented both the snack and the name eight years later, but his assertion is generally drowned out by the popular legend that the credit goes to the aforementioned Harry M. Stevens and a cartoonist named Thomas Aloysius "Tad" Dorgan (1877-1929).

The apocryphal story describes how Stevens had a moment of inspiration and began hawking hot franks stuffed into rolls one cool spring day at a New York Giants game in 1901, commanding his concessioneers to cry out, "Red hots! Get your red hot dachshunds!" Tad Dorgan, charged with coming up with a sports comic for the afternoon's game, drew a Dachshund dog rolled in bread and -- due to an inability to spell Dachshund -- captioned the image simply "Hot dog!"


Even if we ignore the fact that dachshund sausages served in a bun had been wildly popular fare for more than twenty years, that the term "hot dog" had been common for at least seven years, and that the highly literate Tad Dorgan worked in San Francisco at the time, the single biggest problem with this story is that no copy of the famous cartoon has ever been found. A Dorgan illustration from 1906 featuring sweaty hounds on bicycles does contain the term, but this usage follows even Adolf Gehring's ridiculous claim of late priority.

It is possible that this story began with Stevens' own obituary (New York Herald Tribune, 4 May 1934), which borrowed heavily from a lackadaisically researched article that appeared in the magazine Restaurant Man in 1929 suggesting that Dorgan, who had a penchant for coining interesting terms, had originated hot dog with his comic. If the author had the 1906 cartoon in mind he may have massaged the dates a bit to make them work with Stevens' self-promotional propaganda as the head of a multi-city ballpark concession monopoly.

The modern shape of the bun was likely crafted in 1904 by Bavarian emigrant Anton Feuchtwanger. Legend suggests that Feuchtwanger attempted to sell hot sausages in a white glove at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, eschewing the more popular delivery system of paper. Due to the expense of the gloves Feuchtwanger turned to bread, instead -- a story remarkably similar to that told by Louis Lassen of New Haven when he claimed (falsely) to have invented the hamburger a decade earlier.

Another pioneer, Manhattan restaurant manager Nathan Handwerker (1892-1974), got his start at Charlie Feltman's Gardens on Coney Island in 1915. After a year of being paid in hot dogs Handwerker opened his own modest stand across the street from Feltman's and undercut his previous employer's price by half on the advice of shameless actor Eddie Cantor (1892-1964) and known entertainer Jimmy Durante (1893-1980), from whom he may also have borrowed $320 to help fund the enterprise. It is not known whether Durante and Cantor sang Handwerker a song in order to convince him of the soundness of their plan, but it seems likely.

At any rate, Nathan's "famous" franks went on sale for a nickel a piece in 1916. Using sirens to garner attention and crowding his stand with bums dressed as doctors were among the bag of tricks Handwerker employed in order to best Feltman's, which finally went under in 1954. Today Nathan's Famous Corporation owns several large restaurant chains around the world, including Kenny Rogers' Roasters.

The innate human fascination with the physical form factor of franks was first tapped commercially in 1936 with the introduction of a hot dog shaped vehicle, known as the Wienermobile, to promote the processed products of Oscar Mayer (1859-1955) and his ugly brother Gottfried. Response to the Wienermobile was overwhelming, making it one of the most popular marketing gimmicks ever employed. The Mayer brothers are also well remembered for this 1964 advertising jingle:

Oh I wish I were an Oscar Mayer Wiener.
That is what I'd truly like to be.
'Cause if I were an Oscar Mayer Wiener,
Ev'ryone would be in love with me.

The final milestone of the classic age of the hot dog came in 1939 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) elected to serve hot dogs to His Royal Majesty King George VI (1895-1952) on an official picnic at Springwood -- the first ever visit of a British monarch to the United States. King George reportedly enjoyed the "delightful hot dog sandwich" and commanded Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) to fetch him another.

To press and public alike, George VI proved that day that it was not untoward for a king to be seen to be fellating a foodstuff. The hot dog had bridged the trans-Atlantic gap a revolution had opened, and received the royal bob of approval.

Also in 1939 the world witnessed the popularization of the chili dog at the hands of southern Californian Paul Pink, followed by the debut of the Texan corn dog from the Fletcher brothers (1942), and finally the tofu dog from northern California, invented by hippies (1963).

While some manufacturers of frankfurters disdained the term hot dog, American anti-German sentiment during World War II provided the impetus necessary to seal the deal with a steadfast preference for homespun terms winning out over "foreign" words, similar to the way sauerkraut had been called "liberty cabbage" throughout World War I and the way French fries would be dubbed "freedom fries" during the War on Terror launched in 2001.

Americans consumed over 7 billion hot dogs in 2003, 150 million of which on Independence Day alone (at the time of this writing there are slightly less than 300 million Americans in existence), possibly an influential factor in the rise of ass cancer.

America's National Hot Dog Month is July.

But it isn't Americans alone who crave the meat: hot dogs are popular the world over, from China to Chile. The Danish prefer to eat them French style, and the French eat them injected into pre-cored lengths of baguette filled with dijon. (I have personally taken the wiener French style, and can't recommend it enough.)

They may be poison, but they are tasty when they're made just right. They may be cock-like, but eating them does not in and of itself influence your sexual orientation. Some people eat them very fast, but it's not a requirement for enjoyment.

Today we live in a hot dog world, in all senses of the term.

Decked out in the finest brands, today's New World-style ego cowboy is the hero of business, romance and leisure, preaching by loud example the virtues of convenience, individualism and avarice to every town around the globe the throbbing signal of the West touches. Hot dogs are the limp, meaty swords of an advancing army whose lives are short but rich.

Grilling in the open air, they smell like summer and taste like baseball. Whether they're pork, beef, turkey, chicken or curd, there's just something nice about being able to pick your own toppings.

Celebrate, and fellate a little piece of history today! Get them while they're red hot.


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