The hot dog is such an integral part of American food culture that few commentators can agree on exactly what it is and where it came from.
Called, without its distinctive soft bun, either a “wiener” or a “frankfurter,” the Austrian capital of Vienna and the large German city of Frankfurt are called to mind as points of origin; but even here imprecision rules.
The Oscar Mayer company, as a major producer, can give us some guidance. Oscar Mayer wieners contain at least some pork, while the company’s “franks” are all beef. Wieners tend to be lightly spiced, frankfurters made with a bit more spice, though both types of sausage are mild compared to nearly all other sausage varieties sold in the United States; they are also softer in texture. Sausages with similar names are produced using varied meats: chicken, turkey, or even soy-based vegetarian formulations. These alternates have the typical hot dog spicing, coloring, shape and feel.
Opinion tends to be fairly consistent on the notion that either type of sausage becomes a “hot dog” only when encased in a soft, oblong-shaped bun, similar in texture and taste to a soft hamburger bun, but not as likely to be seeded. “Foot-long” or longer novelty hot dogs are sold, often in a format that causes the sausage to stick out from either end of the bun for effect.
By and large, both franks and weenies are pre-cooked, though heating by boiling or grilling is generally necessary to make them appealing to diners. More often than not, commercially produced franks or wieners are skinless; they are cooked in their skins, but the skin is removed before final packaging. “Natural casing” hot dogs are available for gourmets. Health brands may be available using organic fillings, free-range meats, or preservative free.
Hot dogs are generally enjoyed with some form of condiment: mustard is the most popular, but some hot dog purists believe that only ketchup will do. Sauerkraut, pickle relish and onions round out the top five toppings, although nearly anything edible can be placed on top of a hot dog.
Pink’s Hot Dogs in Los Angeles, in operation since 1932 and famous for its many celebrity patrons, is renowned for its chili-dogs, but will also serve diners a “Guadalajara Dog” with relish, onions, tomatoes and sour cream, or even a “Brooklyn Pastrami and Swiss Cheese Dog.” Matt’s Gourmet Hot Dogs in Chicago will serve you a dog slathered with salsa or coleslaw. The Detroit Coney Island Hot Dog (having little to do with its Brooklyn, New York namesake) is covered with a mustard-based sauce, chopped onions and chili. A hot dog served with all available toppings at once is served with “the works.”
New York style hot dogs, influenced heavily by kosher franks that contain neither pork nor dairy fillers (so as to conform to Jewish dietary laws), are generally preferred boiled. If anything can be said to describe the proud Chicago hot dog it is an aversion to the addition of ketchup. At least a dozen American cities claim to have the best hot dogs, and they are all correct.
The hot dog stand, with or without interior seating or counter space, is an American urban institution. Particularly in the Los Angeles area but also elsewhere, hot dog stands may be constructed in the shape of a hot dog or feature large hot dog likenesses, often anthropomorphized, on their roofs. In New York and other cities, hot dog carts with their distinctive umbrellas ply the streets and make their dogs available for a quick lunch or snack. All over the United States, in cities, suburbs and in rural areas, independently operated hot dog wagons, trucks and trailers—some gleaming with chrome, others rickety and broken down—sell freshly-made hot dogs as their signature item.
Because hot dog preparation is so relatively simple, the hot dog business has not become as chain and franchise-oriented as have the hamburger and pizza business. “Hamburgers and frankfurters” are often thought of together in American pop-gastronomy, though in many ways their culture, preparation, and followings are different. Strand an American on a desert island and he or she will usually crave one or the other. They are both thought of as fast foods, but due to physical considerations a hot dog is a faster food, easier to eat with one hand or on the run.
Though hot dogs are available at all sporting venues, the delicacy has a particularly strong association with the American sport of baseball. A family trip to a baseball game on a hot summer day would not seem complete without a hot dog or two. A televised broadcast of a baseball game will invariably show close-ups of fans enjoying their hot dogs, or of vendors moving up and down the aisles shouting out the availability of these treats. Both baseball and hot dogs figure strongly as American cultural references; combined, the image is inviolable.
The corn dog, long associated with carnivals and fairs, is a hot dog dipped into a corn-based batter and deep-fried. Most corn dogs are served on sticks to make them easy to eat with one hand. The thick batter obviates the need for a bun.
Wieners, with or without buns, are often popular among American children, especially in varieties that are only lightly spiced. Cut up chunks of frankfurter with baked beans—“franks and beans”—are a popular favorite and are available pre-mixed in cans. When American restaurants have a separate children’s menu, it will often offer hot dogs in one or several configurations, even if the adult menu does not. Frankfurters without buns, often cut into chunks, have become the major protein base of numberless economical American family recipes.
“Cocktail franks” are miniature sausages served as hors d’oeuvres, often with decorative toothpicks for easy handling. Miniature hot dogs wrapped in and baked in biscuit dough are known colloquially as “pigs in a blanket.” The “Vienna sausage,” invariably canned in water, is virtually the same as a frankfurter but cut into ready-to-eat two-inch lengths. As a cultural stereotype, Vienna sausages have a decided association with unsophisticated “low-budget” eating.