The Ohio Origins of the Beloved Hot Dog

Introduction

The origins of the hot dog are heavily disputed, with various regions and countries claiming to be the true birthplace of this iconic sausage. While the modern hot dog on a bun was likely perfected in the United States, the origins of its main component – the frankfurter sausage – can be traced back to Germany in the late 1600s.

The history and evolution of the hot dog gives insight into immigration patterns, innovations in food processing and preservation, the beginnings of commercial food enterprises like baseball stadiums and fast food stands, and even how regional customs can create intense rivalries. Examining the evidence and competing claims provides a glimpse into the hot dog’s critical role in American food culture.

Early History of Sausage

Sausage making dates back thousands of years to ancient civilizations like Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, and Babylonia. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, various forms of sausages were known in ancient Babylonia as early as 3,100 BCE, with evidence discovered in the ruins of Babylon.

ancient roman fresco showing sausages

The Wikipedia article “Sausage” explains that sausages may have originated with the Sumerians in the region of Mesopotamia around 3,000 BCE when people created preserved meats enclosed in animal stomachs. The ancient Greek sausage was called ‘orean,’ meaning intestine or gut, showing the early use of animal intestines to encase sausage.

An early example of Italian sausage is lucanica, discovered by Romans after the conquest of Lucania. As the Britannica article describes, lucanica’s recipe changed over the centuries and spread throughout Italy and the Roman empire. Sausages were ubiquitous in ancient Rome, with various types seasoned with pepper, parsley, and other herbs and spices.

Frankfurters in Germany

The origins of the hot dog can be traced back to Frankfurt, Germany in the late 1800s. Sausages similar to hot dogs were sold in Frankfurt and became known as “frankfurters” or “frankfurter würstchen” (Frankfurt sausages). According to the Wikipedia article on frankfurters, “A Frankfurter Würstchen (Frankfurt sausage) is a thin parboiled sausage in a casing of sheep’s intestine. The flavor is acquired by a method of low temperature smoking” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frankfurter_W%C3%BCrstchen). The frankfurter gained popularity in Germany and eventually made its way to America with German immigrants in the mid-1800s.

Hot Dogs in America

Hot dogs as we know them today trace their origins to German immigrants bringing over traditional European sausages to America in the mid-1800s (https://www.hot-dog.org/culture/hot-dog-history). These type of sausages were known as “dachshund sausages” or “little-dog sausages.” The German butchers specialized in various sausages that were packed into casings, smoked, and sold from carts in major cities like New York.

Hot dogs grew in popularity in the early 1900s when they were first introduced at baseball stadiums. Vendors walked through the stands selling hot dogs on buns to fans watching the games. The low cost and convenience made hot dogs an ideal snack to eat at sporting events. They became synonymous with baseball games and summer in America.

Important Hot Dog Vendors

Several key vendors helped popularize hot dogs in America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries:

vintage hot dog cart

Feltman’s got its start in 1867 when German immigrant Charles Feltman began selling hot dogs from a cart on Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York. Feltman is often credited with being the first to sell a hot dog on a bun rather than just the sausage by itself. His cart expanded into a huge restaurant and entertainment complex, introducing Coney Island visitors to the convenient meal. Feltman’s Coney Island Original Hot Dog.

Nathan’s Famous opened its first hot dog stand on Coney Island in 1916. Founded by Polish immigrant Nathan Handwerker, Nathan’s gained fame for its high-quality grilled hot dogs. The company holds an annual hot dog eating contest every July 4 that has become a popular event. Today Nathan’s hot dogs are sold across the country. Hot dog.

Oscar Mayer began selling hot dogs out of a Chicago meat market in 1883. It became one of the first national hot dog brands due to its distinctive packaging and popular Wienermobile marketing. Generations of Americans grew up on Oscar Mayer hot dogs, one of the most iconic hot dog brands. Hot dog.

Cincinnati’s Claim

The city of Cincinnati stakes a strong claim as the birthplace of the hot dog in Ohio. Many sources point to the Antarctic Bar, opened by Macedonian immigrants Tom and John Kostopoulos in 1867, as the first establishment to sell hot dogs in Ohio. The story goes that the brothers started serving hot dogs with their Greek-style chili sauce as a topping in the late 1800s, calling them “coneys.” This version of the hot dog became emblematic of Cincinnati’s unique chili and hot dog culture.

The connection between Cincinnati and hot dogs grew stronger in the 1920s when chili parlors proliferated around the city, selling cheap coneys to customers. By the 1950s and 60s, hot dog chains like Mr. Gene’s Dog House were fixtures around Cincinnati, cementing the city’s reputation as a hot dog haven. While the claim is disputed, there is a long tradition of hot dogs in Cincinnati dating back to the late 19th century Antarctic Bar.

Other Regional Claims

While Cincinnati may have the strongest claim as the birthplace of the hot dog, several other cities and regions also stake their claim in the iconic sausage’s origins. According to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, places like New York City, Frankfurt, Germany, and even Antarctica all claim to be the first to sell or eat hot dogs (Hot Dog History | NHDSC).

New Yorkers say the first hot dogs were sold by German immigrant Charles Feltman at Coney Island in 1867. Others credit Nathan Handwerker for popularizing hot dogs when he opened Nathan’s Famous in 1916 (15 Regional Hot Dog Styles in America). Frankfurt claims the hot dog was invented there and brought to America by German immigrants. Some even say explorer Roald Amundsen introduced hot dogs to his men at the South Pole in 1911.

While the exact origins are difficult to prove, what is clear is that many American regions now have their own unique hot dog styles, from New York’s Coney Island dog to Chicago’s all-beef dog. The regional variations highlight how the humble hot dog has become an American cultural icon.

Examining the Evidence

There are several competing claims about the origins of the hot dog in America. According to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, hot dogs as we know them today trace their origins to German immigrants in the 1800s (https://www.hot-dog.org/culture/hot-dog-history). Many sources agree that hot dogs were popularized in America by German street vendors selling “dachshund sausages” and various types of sausages in buns. The specific claim about hot dogs originating in Cincinnati stems from stories about a German immigrant named Charles Feltman selling sausages in buns at Coney Island in New York in 1867 (https://www.cnn.com/travel/article/hot-dog-classic-american-summer-food/index.html). While these stories provide some evidence, the exact origins are difficult to verify. There is consensus among food historians that the modern hot dog evolved from multiple regional claims and immigrant traditions throughout the 1800s.

The evidence surrounding the specific claim about hot dogs originating in Cincinnati is limited. Some food writers cite an apocryphal story about a German butcher named Charles Feltman selling “dachshund sausages” at a stall in Cincinnati in the 1860s, but the details are unverified. While German immigrants in Cincinnati were involved in popularizing sausages, there is stronger evidence that hot dog vendors in New York and other east coast cities played a key role in shaping the hot dog into its current form. Overall, the evidence does not conclusively support Cincinnati or any single city as the sole origin point of the ubiquitous hot dog.

The Hot Dog’s Evolution

Hot dogs have evolved quite a bit since their origins. In the late 19th century, hot dog carts started appearing in major cities like New York and Chicago, selling simple hot sausages in buns. The hot dogs were made of pork and didn’t always have much seasoning beyond basic spices like salt, pepper and garlic (Hot Dog History).

modern hot dogs with many toppings

By the early 20th century, hot dog ingredients and recipes started to vary more regionally. All-beef hot dogs became popular, as did hot dogs with alternate seasonings like paprika and mustard seed. Natural casing hot dogs also rose in prominence. Regional topping preferences emerged too, like chili in the Midwest and sauerkraut in New York (Hot Dog History).

In modern times, hot dogs are made with beef, pork, chicken or turkey and a huge array of seasoning blends. There are also alternative styles like veggie dogs, turkey dogs and chicken dogs. Topping variations have exploded as well. So while the classic hot dog in a bun remains, there are now endless riffs on the original idea.

Conclusion

In summary, while the origins of the hot dog are debated, evidence points to the frankfurter sausage having originated in Germany in the late 1600s. German immigrants later brought the frankfurter to America in the 1800s, where it was sold from carts in large cities like New York and St. Louis. Several vendors helped popularize the hot dog and its pairing with a bun, including Antonoine Feuchtwanger in St. Louis and Nathan Handwerker of Nathan’s Famous in New York.

hot dog and french fries

The hot dog evolved from German sausages and eventually became an American staple, with its own regional styles. Places like New York, Chicago, and Cincinnati all claim to have invented the hot dog or perfected the recipe. While the exact origins are hard to pinpoint, the hot dog has undoubtedly become an iconic American food with a rich and storied history.

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