To foreigners, I imagine apple pie, hamburgers, cheap beer and Coca Cola are the most typically American foods. And while it would be uncommon to find apple pie in my belly, they do to some extent embody the American national identity. However, in creating their generalizations about America, outsiders often overlook a crucial culinary character: the hot dog. I find this remarkable, seeing as how the hot dog makes its way to just as many burger joints and barbecues as hamburgers do. And I’m sure many would argue that hot dogs are just as succulent as hamburgers (myself included). Yet, abroad, they aren’t quite as powerful a symbol of America as a hamburger or apple pie.
The hot dog is very a humble food indeed, to remain quiet while it’s grill-mate, the hamburger, gets international fame and glory. After all, I’d argue both are equally delicious and a staple of American cuisine. Perhaps it is this humility that prevents the hot dog from spreading across the world as a proud symbol of America. It simply doesn’t embody the arrogance of the United States like greasy burgers, SUV’s, George Bush, and the other big American symbols do. But like I mentioned above, hot dogs are everywhere in this country, and I’m sure many Americans feel that the hot dog is to some extent, as strong a symbol of national identity as the apple pie. So why does it get less recognition as an American staple?
In case you’ve been living with wolves your entire life (and even then I think you’d come across a hot dog), a hot dog is a combination of two things: meat and bread. The hot dog itself is a soft, edible, tube of processed meat(s) that is usually grilled or barbecued. You shouldn’t be surprised to find that your hot dog contains at least one of the following: beef, pork, turkey, or chicken. You place this meat product inside an aptly shaped special hot dog bun, and load her up with condiments. The condiments department is where regional preferences take over, and we really see some American food ingenuity.
At home, the hot dog is a American staple food and can be found all across the country, but what toppings are added on top is a local preference. Similar to how Chicago style pizza and New York style pizza differ, toppings on a dog can be a matter of regional pride. Order a Chicago-style hot dog and you’ll get an all beef frank loaded with mustard, onions, sport peppers, relish, dill pickles, salt, and fresh tomatoes. That’s very different from a Coney Island hot dog topped with yellow onion, mustard, and heaping with chili. Or maybe you prefer Italian hot dogs from New Jersey featuring peppers, potato, and onions atop their franks. (By the way, if you stick to merely ketchup and mustard, get on the level…dog!) Hot dogs are a food eaten by all (real) Americans, but at the same time, hot dog variations acknowledge the differences between many of the United States’ incredibly unique locales. That’s more than hamburgers ever did for America. Yet, somehow hot dogs still fail to be included on the International List of Iconic American Foods (the ILIAF is not an official document).
Like all things in the United States, hot dogs weren’t originally American and were most likely brought over by immigrants. But despite their unpatriotic nature, I don’t think it explains the hate for the hot dogs. Frankfurters (named after Frankfurt, Germany) and soft hot dogs are thought to have evolved from larger German sausage into their more wieldy form over time. But while eating sausage in a bun may be a very old practice, no one is sure where exactly the term “dog” came from. Some speculate that it was in response to a theory that hot dog manufacturers used dog meat until as late as 1845. Others say the term was coined by a cartoonist in 1900, while talking about a New York Giants baseball game. Either way, it’s agreed that the term “dog” entered the common vernacular in the later half of the 19th century in the United States. What other nation would call one of their favorite foods a “hot dog”?
Despite their foreign roots, these meaty treats have grown into a food featured at many of our country’s most revered events and traditions. Attend a football or baseball game and you’ll easily find hot dogs; in fact, a hot dog vendor will probably find you first. Head to an amusement park and you’ll absolutely find a frank. If, like me, you’re fond of cook-outs during barbecue season (or “summer” as some call it), you know hot dogs are a must-have commodity.
Hot dogs are simply one of those image-conjuring All-American foods. Like the image of the apple pie cooling on the window sill, I imagine a couple in 1950’s America eating hot dogs on a sunny day. And while that image must be at least somewhat a result of propaganda, the reality of hot dogs is no less dramatic. You can buy a hot dog at every other New York City street corner; it’s practically a tourist attraction.
Maybe I’ll never understand why outsiders consider hamburgers, apple pie, and Coca Cola to be the quintessential American foods, but often fail to recognize hot dogs in the same category. Are hot dogs not greasy enough? Are they not controversial enough? Americans agree that hot dogs belong on the list of American foods. Yet, despite the universal and local American novelty, internationally, hot dogs are dwarfed by their cousin, the hamburger, and unrecognized as a symbol of the United States of America.
So that’s it, I’m off to Gray’s Papaya to quell my frustration; a frustration that can only be satisfied by the taste of what might be America’s best kept secret: the hot dog.
(No, I am not bitter against hamburgers.)
[Image via nolageek]