Is a hot dog a sandwich? What do you serve with hot dogs? What’s even in a hot dog? Never fear: we’ve got the answers, plus hot dog recipes…and more!
If there were ever a quintessential American food, it would have to be the hot dog. An automobile company once mentioned its brand along with the trifecta of “baseball, hot dogs and apple pie”. While apple pie certainly belongs, it’s really mostly in season in the fall. On the other hand, hot dogs are available year-round, and taste as good in the winter as they do in the summer…well, maybe not. They’re available at football games all over America on cold fall and winter days, but hot dogs have been inseparably linked to baseball since the 1890s. And National Hot Dog Day is in the heart of baseball season (July 23).
Whether you call it a hot dog, a wiener or a frank, it’s about as American as it gets…or is it? The answer, as it often does, lies in the name.
Why is a hot dog called a frank?
“Frank” is short for “frankfurter”, indicating that it originated in the city of Frankfurt, Germany. (See also “hamburger”, named after the German city of Hamburg.) The city of Frankfurt embraces its place in hot dog history, and celebrated the 500th birthday of the popular sausage in 1987. However, people in neighboring Austria’s capital, Vienna, dispute this origin. The German spelling of Vienna is Wien, which is why hot dogs are also known as “wieners” or, sometimes, “Vienna sausage” (although here in North America the latter term generally only refers to the shorter version sold in a can).
Sometime in the 1800s a German immigrant got the idea of putting franks in buns to keep customers from burning their hands on the hot sausages (because, after all, they were street food). Nobody knows who the particular immigrant was, but in those days virtually every hot dog vendor was German. This became known as the “Frankfurter sandwich” or “Coney Island sandwich”…because, after all, anything consisting of meat served between bread is a sandwich, right? Well…
Is a Hot Dog a Sandwich? (and Other Burning Questions)
This question generated a bit of controversy in late 2015, spurring arguments on network TV news and sports shows and an NFL locker room, and even a comment by a presidential candidate. Frankly (pun definitely intended), we don’t like to see the nation divided like this, so to settle things once and for all we consulted the experts at the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council. Is a hot dog a sandwich? The answer is a resounding “no”.
How did the hot dog get its name?
Once again, we have differing theories. The most popular myth is that it came from New York Post sports cartoonist T.A. Dorgan in 1901. Legend has it that he was at a New York Giants baseball game on a cold April day at the Polo Grounds when he saw a vendor selling franks from a hot water tank and shouting, “They’re red hot! Get your dachshund sausages while they’re red hot!” The cartoonist supposedly then drew a cartoon of a dachshund in a bun but, since he didn’t know how to spell “dachshund”, just wrote “hot dog”.
This story is utterly false; for starters, no one has ever found the cartoon in question. Also, the fact that they were referred to as “dachshund sausages” is a bit of a giveaway in itself. German immigrants gave the sausages that name in the 1800s as a reference to the long, thin dogs they also brought with them to North America. Plus, the actual term “hot dog” was first documented in the 1890s, when lunch wagons on college campuses sold hot sausages in buns. The wagons were frequently called “dog wagons”, a sarcastic reference to the questionable nature of the meat inside the sausages. Which calls to mind another question: What’s actually in a hot dog?
What is a hot dog made of?
This has been the subject of jokes for decades: “You don’t want to know.” “If you ever saw them being made you’d never eat them!” And certainly there’s a grain of truth to this, as sausages are often cheap and made from what butchers refer to as “trimmings”. Some commercial brands of Mexican chorizo even somewhat shockingly disclose on the label exactly which parts are used. The ingredient declarations on most American franks are a little less visceral but still graphically refer to “mechanically separated pork or chicken”. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with using trimmings. After all, wasting meat is a much greater sin than grinding up the less desirable cuts and using them to create something tasty.
Also, not all sausages are made from less desirable cuts. They’re not cheap, but some top-of-the-line franks are made from premium meats like genuine Angus beef and smoked over hardwood.
Hot Dog Recipes
While you can use wieners, franks, etc., to make other dishes (franks in beans, pigs in blankets, etc.) there’s really only one hot dog recipe: 1) cook frank as desired; 2) place in bun; 3) add toppings. And it’s that third step that really makes a “hot dog recipe”: the toppings.
Hot dog toppings tend to be very regional and, not surprisingly, the subject of much dispute. Every city or region seems to have its own style, but the one almost universally loathed topping is ketchup. The National Hot Dog and Sausage Council declares that you should not “use ketchup on your hot dog after the age of 18. Mustard, relish, onions, cheese and chili are acceptable.” Clint Eastwood’s San Francisco-based character, Dirty Harry, famously said, “Nobody puts ketchup on a hot dog”. And it’s not just Harry: seemingly the entire city of Chicago is averse to ketchup. Chicago Tribune writer Bill Savage says you’re not a real Chicagoan if you put ketchup on a hot dog, and Vienna Beef executive Bob Schwartz even wrote a book titled, “Never Put Ketchup on a Hot Dog.”
So what do Chicagoans put on their hot dogs? Everything but ketchup. In fact, Chicago leads off our short list of types of hot dogs:
Chicago-Style Hot Dog
A true Chicago dog is an all-beef frank loaded with an array of toppings which can vary, but always includes fresh tomato (as opposed to ketchup), pickle spears, hot peppers (known as “sport peppers”), sweet onion and an impossibly bright green pickle relish, the hue of which does not occur in nature.
New York-Style Hot Dog
New Yorkers keep it simple, as did the German immigrants who first sold dachshund sausages there: Nathan’s Famous Empire Dog is an all-beef frank topped with sauerkraut and spicy brown mustard. Other vendors replace the kraut with onions sautéed with tomato paste.
Coney Island Dog
Although Coney Island is in New York (Brooklyn, to be specific), the Coney Dog originated in Detroit and was sold by Macedonian immigrants. It’s topped with chili sauce and raw onions, and sometimes cheese.
The Bacon Dog
It’s common in Western states to wrap or top a hot dog with bacon. In San Francisco, one might add mayo and lettuce (though we’re not sure how Dirty Harry would feel about the mayo), where in Arizona the bacon-wrapped dog—called a Sonoran—would be topped with mustard, mayo, pinto beans, onion, chopped tomato and jalapeño.
The Dixie Dog
In Atlanta and other Southern cities, they like their dogs topped with coleslaw, as they do a pulled pork sandwich.
So now that you’ve got some ideas for how to prepare your hot dogs, what are you going to serve with them?
What to Serve with Hot Dogs
Hot dogs are casual food, of course—picnic food, even—so your favorite ideas for a picnic lunch will generally work great with hot dogs. Classic side dishes include:
- Potato salad
- Coleslaw (though not if you’re topping your dogs Atlanta-style)
- Corn on the cob
- Pasta salad
- Mac and cheese
One way to customize your side dishes is to add flavors to coordinate with your style of dog. For example, a German-style potato salad will go well with the sauerkraut-laced New York dog. If you’re doing an Arizona-style Sonoran dog, season your corn with a squeeze of lime juice and a sprinkle of chili powder, and jazz up your coleslaw with a generous dash of cumin (trust us, it’s amazing). You get the point.
Same goes for your beverage of choice. An Atlanta-style dog loves sweet tea or Coca-Cola; an ice-cold Mexican beer with lime wedge is the perfect choice for a Sonoran; and for your Chicago dog choose a Chicago craft beer by Goose Island or an old-time Windy City favorite macro like Old Style.
Finally, to really create the All-American atmosphere for this summer treat, turn the radio to a baseball game and pretend you’re tailgating. Now that’s the perfect summer meal! (We won’t even tell if you break out the ketchup.)