The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

January 28, 2014

Hot dogs have colorful history

POINT BLANK: John Blankenship

— I can eat three of them. I’m talking about hot dogs. When I run out of cooking ideas in the kitchen, I often turn to the old standby: the hot dog.

And though lots of consumers dress it up quite a bit, I guess I’m a purist when it comes to the popular cuisine. I prefer the wiener on a bun with chili and mustard and onions. Sometimes I’ll add a taste of ketchup or even a spoonful of chopped-up hot, spicy pickles.

Historically, most Americans think of the hot dog as being a traditional food item born in New York City.

Actually, though, the history of the hot dog begins 3,500 years ago with the Babylonians, who used to stuff animal intestines with spiced meats.

Ancient writers such as Homer in his “Odyssey” even sang the gastronomical praises of sausage, believed to be its first reference in literature: “When a man beside a great fire has filled a sausage with fat and blood turns it this way and that and is very eager to get it quickly roasted.”

We’ll come back to the fare’s colorful history in a moment, but first it’s interesting to note that in 1906, the slender, streamlined sausages were still something of a novelty in America, and they went by an assortment of names: frankfurters, franks, wieners, red hots and dachshund sausages.

Two immigrants from Frankfurt, Germany, are credited with independently introducing the sausage to America in the 1880s. By the early 1900s the sausage had become a familiar food at New York City baseball games. At the Polo Grounds — the home of the New York Giants baseball team before it moved out West — vendors worked the bleachers, bellowing, “Get your hot dogs here!”

Cartoonists portrayed the hot dog as a dog-like curve of a wiener sandwiched on a bun and smeared with mustard.

Perhaps it was the universal acceptance of the term “hot dog” that caused the world to regard the frank or wiener as a thoroughly American invention, since the U.S. quickly became a major producer of hot dogs: Today it’s something like 17 billion are turned out each year, or about 75 hot dogs for each man, woman and child in the country.

Historically, the decline of the sausage preceded that of the Roman Empire. According to the oldest known Roman cookbook, written in A.D. 228, sausage was a favorite dish at the annual pagan festival Lupercalia, held Feb. 15 in honor of the pastoral god Lupercus, for whom the sausage served as a kind of fertility icon.

When sausage was banned from consumption by early religious leaders, the obvious thing occurred. As would happen in the 20th century with liquor prohibition, the Roman populace indulged in “bootlegged” sausage to such an extent that officials, conceding the ban was unenforceable, eventually repealed it.

Whatever the origin, three facts are indisputable: The frankfurter originated in the 1850s in the German city from which it derived its name; it possessed a curved shape; and it was alternatively known as a “dachshund sausage,” a name that trailed it to America, where the frankfurter would also become known as the hot dog, its worldwide name today.

In the early 1890s, when Coney Island inns began to serve a variety of hot dishes, the hot dog emerged from pie wagons, largely because of the stiff competition from food vendors. As a result, the pie men changed their menus to accommodate sandwiches, which included the hot dog.

Frankfurter sandwiches were served with traditional German toppings of mustard and sauerkraut. The move would open a new chapter in the hot dog’s unfolding history: The so-called “wiener” or “wienie” now is a popular dining staple all over the country and shows no signs of weakening.

So, all you need to do in order to come up with a quick winner at suppertime is to grab a bag of buns, a jar of mustard, a bottle of ketchup, some chili and onions and a package of your favorite franks.

Remember that the next time your tribe is hungry and nobody can seem to agree on a menu solution.

Just throw out a platter of hot dogs and watch them disappear.


Top o’ the morning!

— Blankenship is a columnist for The Register-Herald. E-mail: