It’s one of the happiest days of the faux-holiday calendar, a day when you can splurge on a couple of delicious frankfurters loaded up with all your favorite toppings. The hot dog, perhaps our most all-American sausage product, is both ubiquitous and oh-so-flexible, and by flexible, we don’t mean bendy like the dog that’s been sitting on the grill machine at 7-11 for the past week. No, we mean you can customize it in countless ways. From mustard to sauerkraut, have it your way. Fennel. Jalapenos. Put a donut on that thing if you want!
Our appetite-enhancing new release The Chicago Food Encyclopedia offers an entry on the history of the hot dog in the meatiest of cities. Why not scroll down and read it while you wait for your order? We promise the article doesn’t mention a word about what’s actually inside the thing:
Of all foods commonly perceived to be Chicago icons, none is as important as the hot dog. With about 2,500 locations, the Chicago area has more fixed-location hot dog restaurants than any other city in the world. The hot dog stand has cultural cachet and the modern Chicago hot dog is a unique regional style that is known across the world.
Hot dogs are sausages descended from several varieties brought by German immigrants, beginning in the 1850s. The other terms for hot dogs are frankfurters and wieners, named for two German cities, and still used interchangeably with the name hot dog. As German food became incorporated into Chicago’s culinary lexicon, sausages became mainstream.
Three trends brought hot dogs to the fore in Chicago. From its inception as a tiny village, the city grew to a million people in 1890, three million by 1930. People packed into the central city for work and also to visit entertainment venues such as baseball games, theaters, and the lakefront. With them came street food vendors, who served, among other things, cooked German-style sausages. By the 1880s, vendors were everywhere calling out for customers to get their “red hots.” By the 1890s, the sausages also were called “hot dogs,” a joke referring to unsavory meat ingredients: the city’s meatpacking firms did little to help the hot dog’s reputation. Sausages were made from the leftover scraps from butchering, with unsavory bits getting into the products. But hot dogs were a source of cheap protein for impoverished Chicagoans, many of whom worked for the self-same packers. Hot dogs also could be eaten on the run, and soon they became part of the exciting new sport that gripped the city: baseball.
Finally, immigration helped the hot dog’s popularity. In the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, massive migration from eastern and southern Europe brought new foods to Chicago. By 1900, 270,000 Ashkenazi Jews lived in the city, many in the Maxwell Street area near Halsted and Roosevelt Road. This enclave adjoined Italian and Greek communities. Many from all three groups went into the street vending business, and later into food manufacturing and distribution. Because Jews did not eat pork and beef was so plentiful, all-beef sausages became the default hot dog in their area. The modern Vienna Beef Company, whose origins were on Halsted near Maxwell Street, is a prime example. By the 1920s, the Jewish hot dog makers’ reputations for quality were so good that the all-beef hot dog became the sausage of choice for street vendors and the growing number of hot dog stands.
Street food from carts and wagons was severely restricted by city ordinances after 1902 and in subsequent legislation into the 1960s. In the 1920s, mobile food selling operations settled into permanent stands in neighborhoods all over the city, though many unlicensed street vendors existed. Stands could be simple wooden shacks or more well-built structures, but the model was the same: a box with a service window on one side. They served hot dogs heated in a hot water bath (grilling was deemed a fire hazard), with steam-heated buns and simple condiments such as mustard, chopped onions, relish, and perhaps pickled peppers. Called “Depression Dogs,” these simpler versions of the now-standard dog “dragged through the garden” were the mainstays of the business until the 1950s.
After World War II, hot dog stands grew more sophisticated in décor, foods, and numbers. Veterans returning to Chicago looked for businesses to start, and what better than the familiar and beloved hot dog? One example is Maurie and Flaurie Berman who opened the celebrated Superdawg in Norwood Park in 1948. Stands became canvases for vernacular art and described the social character of neighborhoods. To this day, Chicagoans are attached to their local stands, often arguing with fellow citizens about the merits of each place.