Tis the season for backyard grilling. In fact, grilling basically has become an American pastime. Whether it is a simple family meal or a gathering of friends, usually on the grill are hamburgers and hotdogs. But how much do you know about where your food comes from… historically that is.

Hot dogs are fairly simple – a sausage (processed meat) served in a bun, however their history is anything but. In fact, the American root of this now ironically American food is uncertain. The one commonality in its origin story agreed that’s agreed on by most historians is that it became an American classic at the hands of German immigrants. By the time of its introduction in the US, this combination was decidedly old hat in German culture.

The most commonly accepted origin of America’s love affair with hot dogs begins with a German immigrant and his unassuming pushcart. Charles Feltman drove his food cart through New York City’s Bowery in the 1860s peddling frankfurters (a popular sausage also known as “dachshund” or “little dog”) with milk rolls and sauerkraut. This successful combination paved the way for Charles to open Coney Island’s first hot dog stand in 1871. In the first year alone he sold over 3,684 of his novel sausage and bread combo.[1]

The 1890s was an important time for fanning the flames of American fandom with the still foreign food. The Columbian exposition held in Chicago in 1893 introduced thousands of visitors to the ease and convenience of sausages sold by street vendors. The phenomenon attached itself to the sports world in the same year when the German owner of the St. Louis Browns baseball team started selling sausages in the ballpark.[2]

Another commonly cited, although not as reliably accepted, piece of hot dog history reportedly occurred at the St. Louis “Louisiana Purchase Exposition” in 1904. The Bavarian immigrant street vendor Anton Feuchtwanger began selling his steaming hot sausages with the loan of white gloves to patrons to keep their hands from being burned or greasy.[3] When Anton noticed his customers failed to return the borrowed gloves, he needed a solution that wouldn’t so critically cut into his profits. In desperation, he turned to a brother-in-law baker for a solution. What he devised was the first hot dog bun – a long roll suited for holding a sausage.[4]

What’s in a name? A lot it would seem. The name “hot dog” is equally as complicated. Its origins are attributed amongst a 1901 New York polo grounds and a New York Journal cartoonist and to Yale University in the 1890s. The phrase is believed to refer to everything from resembling the shape of the Germanic dachshund canines to the dubious origin of the encased meat, especially its relation to said dogs. This came in the way of lighthearted jokes to anti-immigrant slurs.[5]

This might not help you identify the mystery meat that makes it up, but now at least you know the story behind the hot dog. One of America’s favorite and iconic street foods emerged from an immigrant convenience food, which you’ll actually find is true of most of American dishes. While its history is dubious, the hot dog’s future seems certain.

[1] “Hot Dog History,” National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, 2016. https://www.hot-dog.org/culture/hot-dog-history.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “‘Hot Dog’ Meets Bun: Famous Food Discoveries,” NPR, April 29, 2012. https://www.npr.org/2012/04/29/151451448/hot-dog-meets-bun-famous-food-discoveries.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Jennifer Jensen Wallach, How America Eats: A Social History of the U.S. Food and Culture. (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013), 170.