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Hot Dog 101

F rom the humble hot dog eating contests to the upscale restaurant haute dogs, these little sausages are a ubiquitous part of American cuisine. What is summer without hot dogs on the grill? Call them frankfurters, wieners, dogs, or chien chaud (as they do in France), hot dogs are perhaps the most popular sausage made of beef or pork….or turkey, buffalo or even duck!

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Where the Hot Dog Began
There are disagreements as to who introduced the hot dog to America, but no one will debate its long history, which can be traced back to the 1400s in Germany. That's when the good people of Frankfurt claim they made the first frankfurter - also called a dachshund, after the dog which looks an awful lot like a sausage.

If you want to trump Frankfurt’s claim, perhaps you would give the invention to the Greeks, since Homer mentions sausages for the first time in written history in his 9th century BC epic “The Odyssey.” You might be reaching slightly there, since the mention does not include any specifics about emulsified forcemeat, skins that snap, the correct bun to accompany the sausage, nor does Homer address the ultimate question regarding condiments. To ketchup or not to ketchup your hot dog is the eternal question.

Vienna (Wien) claims to have invented the hot dog, too. And like Frankfurter, the name itself “wiener,” would seem to indicate the place it was first made.

When exactly the hot dog came to America, and how it came to be eaten out of hand, snuggled into a soft bun is the real debate. Was it Charles Feltman, a German butcher with a place at Coney Island, in Brooklyn, NY that first served up hot dogs in the 1870s? We do know that Nathan Handwerker, one of the bread slicers from Feltman’s place, broke away and established his own hot dog stand - Nathan’s Famous - in 1916. What about the nameless German immigrants who sold wieners with sauerkraut from pushcarts on the Bowery in the Lower East Side of New York City as early as the 1860s?

At the Chicago Columbian Exposition in 1893, hot dogs made a splash into popular culture when they were served as convenient-to-eat, inexpensive meals in a bun. Baseball, which gained popularity in the late 1800s, and hot dogs were made for each other. It’s just so convenient to eat a dog in a bun without ever missing an inning. Everyone seems to want to take responsibility for the hot dog or the innovation of eating it in a bun. But when it all comes down to it, the practice was handed down by German immigrants and it made its way into the heart of American culture.

How the Hot Dog is Made
Hot dogs are traditionally made of pork or beef - and like any other sausage, usually from the secondary cuts and parts. Originally, the puréed meat would be mixed with fat and seasoning, then forced into a casing, usually the small intestines of sheep, and then cooked. Hot dogs that are made with intestinal casing today are called “natural casing” hot dogs and they offer a satisfying snap when bitten. Skinless or uncased hot dogs use a casing (usually thin tubes of cellulose) in the cooking process, but removed before being packaged. They have a softer texture than the natural casing hot dogs.

Eating Hot Dogs
Every region in the United States has a favorite way to prepare and dress up the humble hot dog. Since they are precooked, hot dog preparation is really about heating the sausage; they can be steamed, grilled, boiled, griddled, or even dipped in batter and deep fried, as in the case of the Texas corn dog. In New York City, the dirty water dog is kept in a tub of hot water, and nestled into a soft bun which absorbs some of that water.

But it’s the dressing of the hot dog that makes all the difference. The Chicago beef hot dog is served in a potato bun and is "dragged through the garden,” an evocative way to describe the mustard, relish, onion, cucumber, pickle, tomato, sport pepper and celery salt topping. Everything has been thrown on a hot dog, it seems. Mustard, sauerkraut, onions, relish, hot peppers, pickles, chili, melted cheese, coleslaw are all classic toppings, in infinite combinations. Many consider ketchup on a hot dog to be sacrilege, but others like that sweet-tart tomato flavor. Lately, it’s a free-for-all, as hot dogs have been getting the international treatment, sporting anything from kimchee to salsa, guacamole or wasabi mayonnaise on top. Hot dogs themselves are now being made of grass-fed beef, pastured heritage pork, game meats and duck. Hot dogs have evolved from their street food origins and even show up on the menus of fine restaurants.