I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
One of the most popular foods in America, the hot dog has a long pedigree. It provides very low-cost protein—but a health food it isn’t.
Who Invented the Hot Dog?
To find the inventor of the hot dog we have to locate the inventor of the sausage.
It’s known that sausages existed almost 2,900 years ago because Homer mentions them in his epic poem The Odyssey: “As when a man besides a great fire has filled a sausage with fat and blood and turns it this way and that and is very eager to get it quickly roasted …” But, the name of the first sausage maker is lost.
Centuries of culinary twists and turns produced the hot dog of today that both Germany and Austria claim as their invention.
In 1564, the coronation of Maximilian II as Holy Roman Emperor took place in Frankfurt and the monarch had been born in Vienna. At the celebratory banquet sausages called frankfurters were served; so, one point to Germany, although the country did not exist as such at the time.
But, Maximilian was from Vienna, from which comes another word for the hot dog―wiener; so, one point to Austria. Perhaps, the provenance of the hot dog should be declared a tie.
Iconic American Food
Political unrest in what was to become Germany in the middle of the 19th century caused many people to immigrate to the United States.
By 1860, the Library of Congress notes that “An estimated 1.3 million German-born immigrants resided in the United States; 200 German-language magazines and newspapers were published in this country; in St. Louis alone, there were seven German-language newspapers.” And, there were German sausages everywhere, in particular frankfurters/wieners.
And, this is where we meet Charles L. Feltman. He was a German immigrant to America who opened a bakery in Brooklyn in 1865 and made a living selling pies to businesses at Coney Island.
Around 1870, Feltman had a vending cart made with a charcoal burner on which he cooked frankfurters. He pulled his cart along the beach at Coney Island selling hot dogs in a bun at a nickel each. They were called “dachshund sausages” and were an immediate success.
As the BBC reports, within a short space of time Feltman’s humble cart “had grown into a full-on empire spanning an entire block–complete with nine restaurants, a roller coaster, carousel, ballroom, outdoor movie theatre, hotel, beer garden, bathhouse, pavilion, and Alpine village that once hosted U.S. President William Howard Taft.”
Soon, Feltman was selling 40,000 hot dogs a day. His sons took over the business and, by the 1920s, Feltman’s was thought to be the biggest restaurant in the world.
The success of the hot dog was duly noted and hundreds of competitors arrived in the marketplace.
What's in a Hot Dog? The Ingredients Revealed
There’s a poll floating about on the internet that says that 43 percent of Americans really don’t want to know what’s in hot dogs. In some cases, it’s not very appetizing. It’s obvious that a 39-cent wiener isn’t going to be made of pork loin, prime rib, or chicken breast.
The phrase “mechanically-separated meat” crops up; this means that after meat cutters have removed the steaks and other juicy bits, the scraps are “recovered.” The BBC describes how “It is pressure-blasted off the bones by machinery and forms a reddish slurry …” Had enough yet? Want more? Okay.
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Salt is added to the crimson goo followed by nitrites and nitrates. Then, comes the chemistry lesson producing ingredients with names such as autolyzed yeast extract, maltodextrin, sodium erythorbate, and hydrolyzed vegetable protein.
Each manufacturer has its own flavour recipes―garlic, celery powder, paprika, coriander, cinnamon, allspice, cumin, and nutmeg, are likely to turn up in varying concentrations.
The whole mixture is whirled around in industrial-sized food processors until it’s reduced to a paste that is then stuffed into casings. Sometimes, the casings are made from sheep’s intestines, at other times cellulose is pressed into service. But, cellulose is indigestible unless you have a complex, four-chamber stomach like a cow.
In 2015, a company called Clear Labs announced it had found traces of human DNA in some hot dog samples. Panic ensued. Had the mob found a way of slipping inconvenient rivals into the food chain? Did an inattentive worker tumble into a vat of goo unnoticed?
The New York Times attempted to put the public’s minds at rest: “There’s no evidence that hot-dog lovers are unwitting cannibals. It’s more a matter of hygiene in food production. The tiniest particles of hair, nails, and skin could show up in these tests.”
That’s really comforting to know.
Are Hot Dogs Healthy?
Checking in with dietitian Keri Glassman is a little unsettling for lovers of processed meats such as hot dogs. Ms. Glassman has a long string of qualifications related to clinical nutrition and says “Regularly eating processed meats is associated with serious health risks …” However, she stops short of saying “Never eat wieners at the ball park.”
Some of the risks she notes are:
- High levels of sodium that is connected to heart disease;
- “Research shows regularly eating processed meats (like hot dogs) raises your risk of certain cancers, like stomach, bladder, breast, and especially colorectal;” and,
- Grilling meat at high temperatures can create cancer-causing compounds.
Ms. Glassman’s is not alone in issuing warnings about frankfurters. Here’s nutritionist Leslie Beck in The Globe and Mail: “Hot dogs aren’t exactly nutritious―not even close. They’re made of processed meat and they’re loaded with cholesterol-raising saturated fat and sodium.”
Ms. Beck also advises against regular consumption of processed meats; it’s okay once in a while, just not daily or even weekly.
- Antonoine Feuchtwanger was a sausage vendor in St. Louis in the late 19th century. In the traditional German manner, his sausages were served without buns, but customers were given white gloves so they didn’t burn their hands. But, the gloves kept disappearing, so Feuchtwanger started serving his sausages in buns. He called them “red hots.”
- The National Hot Dog and Sausage Council says that “On Independence Day, Americans will enjoy 150 million hot dogs, enough to stretch from D.C. to L.A. more than five times.”
- The name “hot dog” may have developed from rumours that in the early days the meat in them came from dodgy sources. Woof, woof?
- A polish immigrant called Nathan Handwerker was employed by the Feltman family at its Coney Island restaurant. He scrimped and saved until he had enough money to open his own hot dog stand a few blocks away from Feltman’s. Nathan’s Famous eclipsed Feltman’s and now holds an annual Fourth of July hot dog eating contest. In 2020, Joey Chestnut won the contest for the 13th time. He drove down 75 hot dogs and buns (and kept them down) in 10 minutes―a new world record. You can watch, but it’s not pretty.
- “The Germans in America.” Library of Congress, April 23, 2014.
- “How Sausages Conquered the Globe.” Igor Stramyk, The Conversation.com., October 21, 2016.
- “A Brief History of the Hot Dog.” Alexia Wulff, Culturetrip.com, November 14, 2016.
- “The Truth About the U.S.’ Most Iconic Food.” Julia Hammond, BBC Travel, June 27, 2020.
- “From the Odyssey to Kobayashi: A Brief History of the Hot Dog.” Carmel Lobello, The Week, July 4, 2013.
- “No, Hot Dogs Do not Contain Human Meat.” Jonah Engel Bromwich, New York Times, November 5, 2015.
- “Are all Hot Dogs Unhealthy?” Keri Glassman, Nutritious Life, undated.
- “IARC Monographs Evaluate Consumption of Red Meat and Processed Meat.” Press Release, October 26, 2015.
- “Why Hot Dogs Are not Exactly Man’s Best Friend.” Leslie Beck, Globe and Mail, July 1, 2013.
© 2020 Rupert Taylor