Grilling Up History: Primary Sources and Hot Dogs

This is a guest post by Haleigh Reutershan, who was a Teaching with Primary Sources intern at the Library for the Spring 2021 term. She is currently a student at State University of New York at New Paltz, studying to receive her Master of Arts in Teaching in Social Studies for Adolescent Education. 

This July, grills across America are fired up and campfires are lit, signaling that we are in the midst of summer cooking and barbecue season. Families and friends, if they are feeling safe, will gather together again to carry out this American tradition, perhaps for the first time in two years. And of course, the age-old question will pop up: hot dog or hamburger?

This summer, I am choosing hot dogs. If hot dogs are a part of your family life, where do you eat them? Perhaps you eat them on the beach or roast them over the fire when you go camping, or maybe you get your fill at a baseball game.

I decided to take a look at the history of the hot dog, to share a couple of ways you can explore the Library’s collections together through this classic American food. The hot dog is a type of sausage, but it tastes very different from other sausages around the world. According to this article from 1922, “the hot dog originated in Bologna, Spain. He was originally plain Bologna sausage, Germans borrowed the bologna formula from the Spaniards, put it up in sheep gut casings and it became a Frankfurter in Frankfort and a Weenie in Vienna. Only when it hit Coney Island fifty years ago did it become Hot Dog.” The hot dog is an iconic American dish, but like many aspects of American culture, it originated elsewhere and changed over time.

A black and white photograph of a crowd outside a Nathan's hotdog stand.

Crowd at Nathan’s from corner. Photograph by Al Aumuller, 1947. Prints & Photographs Division.

Look at this image above with the children in your life and imagine jumping into the scene. Where would you land, on this hot summer day? Are you walking down a bustling boardwalk? Do shop and carnival signs flash around you? What might it sound like? What might it smell like?

If you jumped into this moment, you would be walking down the block at Coney Island, an amusement park in New York City that is considered the birthplace of the modern American hot dog. In 1896, a German immigrant from Frankfurt introduced them there, and it is still considered home to the best hot dogs in the nation. You can learn more about Coney Island and Americans’ relationships with the hot dog in this StoryCorps interview.

Clipping from a 1951 newspaper article, with the headline "Chafing Dish Recipes? Texas Hot Dogs."

“Chafing Dish Recipes? Texas Hot Dogs.” Evening Star. March 6, 1951

Or, perhaps you have a favorite home recipe that includes hot dogs or a variation of hot dogs. How do you take your hot dog? Do you eat it in a bun with a squirt of ketchup and mustard? Maybe a dollop of relish or onions on top? Have you ever had a meal made with hot dogs like this Texas Hot Dog casserole recipe from 1951? What do you think inspired someone to turn a hot dog into a casserole with rice on top?

Maybe it’s because hot dogs have always been a cheap and easy source of protein. This article notes that “It is the chunk of meat and the loaf of bread for a dime that makes the Hot Dog a favorite with American pocketbooks, in a land where pocketbooks have more consideration than stomachs.” When shopping for a family, it’s easy to see how a blanket of hot dogs might have been a better choice than a hunk of ham, which cost nearly twice as much as a frank in 1953.

As a challenge, try a hot dog in a way you have never tried before, maybe with sauerkraut or baked beans. While you eat, ask your friends and family about their own takes on hot dogs. When is the first time they ate a hot dog? Why do we eat the things we do? What makes a great hot dog? Is it the way we eat it or the people we eat it with?

Share your favorite or invented way of eating hot dogs in the comments! Happy summer!

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