Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Hot Dogs

A deep dive into this very American food.

By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
Americans will eat approximately 150 million hot dogs on the Fourth of July.
Americans will eat approximately 150 million hot dogs on the Fourth of July.
Americans will eat approximately 150 million hot dogs on the Fourth of July. TheBusyBrain

Americans will celebrate their Independence Day on July 4 by meeting friends, watching fireworks—and eating an estimated 150 million hot dogs. But the quintessentially American sausage is more than a once-a-year indulgence—a billion pounds of hot dogs are sold every year in U.S. retail stores.

How did hot dogs get to the United States in the first place? How exactly are they made today? And is the rest of the world interested in eating them?

Those are some of the questions that came up in my conversation this week with Foreign Policy columnist Adam Tooze on the podcast we co-host, Ones and Tooze.

Americans will celebrate their Independence Day on July 4 by meeting friends, watching fireworks—and eating an estimated 150 million hot dogs. But the quintessentially American sausage is more than a once-a-year indulgence—a billion pounds of hot dogs are sold every year in U.S. retail stores.

How did hot dogs get to the United States in the first place? How exactly are they made today? And is the rest of the world interested in eating them?

Those are some of the questions that came up in my conversation this week with Foreign Policy columnist Adam Tooze on the podcast we co-host, Ones and Tooze.

What follows is a transcript of the interview, edited for clarity and length. For the entire conversation, subscribe to Ones and Tooze on your preferred podcast app.

Cameron Abadi: Growing up in the U.S., the word “hot dog” was used interchangeably with “frankfurter,” “wiener.” Those are German words, which suggests this quintessentially American meat is actually an import from Germany. Could you tell us how the hot dog actually got to America in the first place?

Adam Tooze: So there literally is something called the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council of the United States, which makes it its mission to enlighten and clarify and disambiguate the entire zone of sausage and hot dog economics. The particular genealogy of the hot dog, as we know it, probably originates—well, it’s disputed between German cities, but let’s grant it to Frankfurt, in the center of West Germany on the junction of the Rhine and the Main rivers. The city formally celebrated 500 years of the hot dog, or the frankfurter, in 1987. So they date it to 1487. People of Vienna also claim it. But it’s clear the two local sausages converge essentially in the melting pot of North America in the late 19th century in places like the Lower East Side of New York or Chicago. And by the 1860s and 1870s, German immigrants are selling hot dogs, what we would now call hot dogs. They were at the time called “sausage dogs” or “dachshund sausages,” after the shape of the dog with the long, elongated, arched back. They’re being sold on pushcarts in New York’s Bowery from the 1860s. In 1871, Charles Feltman, a German baker, opened the first hot dog stand on Coney Island, and he sold 3,600 “dachshund sausages” on milk rolls in his first year at business.

An important date in American hot dog history is the Chicago Columbian Exposition, which exposed loads of visitors to the city’s German American cuisine. They became standard fare at baseball parks around the same time in 1893 when they were introduced in the stands in St. Louis. The term “hot dog” starts popping up in college magazines in the 1890s—mentions of hot dog stands beginning to appear in student magazines at Yale in 1894, 1895. So they were always cheap food.

And one of the particular American oddities, of course, which shapes hot dog consumption in the U.S. all the way down to the present day, is that they end up kosher. And this has to do with the overlap between the German migrant community and Jewish communities, many of them from Germany or Austria, but also, of course, Central Europe, on the Lower East Side [of New York]. And so the Hebrew National Kosher Sausage Factory, one of the bastions of kosher hot dogs, was established in 1905. And Hebrew National becomes a major supplier to New York delis. And from there they spread to the entire country. One of the fascinating things about them is that savvy non-Jewish consumers knew that kosher Hebrew national hot dogs probably didn’t contain dog or horse or any other animals that were non-kosher. And so buying them seemed like a clean choice. In fact, Hebrew National played fully into this. In the 1960s, believe it or not, they had an advertising slogan which was—buy our hot dogs. Why? Because, quote, “We Answer to a Higher Authority”: No greater force than the original monotheistic God endorses our hot dogs.

CA: So if we were to look at hot dogs from the perspective of labor economics, who makes American hot dogs exactly? Where are the factories? Who’s staffing them?

AT: Well, perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s rather hard to research sausage-making conditions. Famously, it’s better not to know. I mean, having said that, if you’re interested, there are several videos on YouTube, which I’m not sure I can strictly recommend, but if you really need to know, they’re there. I think the best way to view these videos is to—let’s just abandon the conception that the hot dog is made out of meat. If you think about what’s going on in the videos, it’s something more like industrial baking. If you think of the ingredients as resembling something closer to batter, which I guess accounts for the smooth texture, then the whole thing begins to feel a little less gross.

There are factories which process up to 300,000 hot dogs an hour, which would feed that huge surge that you were mentioning earlier on the Fourth of July. They are highly mechanized. I don’t think there’s any doubt from watching the videos that this is pretty grim work, and you wouldn’t want to do it unless you had really few other options. But on the other hand, it’s also not slaughterhouse work, so it’s not as horrifying as the kind of ghastly labor that people have to do and truly dangerous labor, as well, because you’re using cutting tools, whereas this is just food processing of a particularly intense variety.

Again, getting hold of the market size is really tricky—in part because the hot dog is so suffused with nostalgia that people seem to lose their grip on kind of basic mental arithmetic. So the standard hot dog numbers that you’ll see is that through grocery channels, American households buy about 1 billion pounds of hot dog meat a year. Now, standard-sized hot dogs are either eight to a pound or 10 to a pound, so that’s between 8 and 10 billion hot dogs a year sold to American households. But the hot dog industry doesn’t really, I think, really like the idea of it basically being a domestic article. What they really want to do is associate it with Americana and above all, of course, with baseball. And so what they like to tell you is that, yes, they sold 1 billion pounds of hot dog to people’s homes, but they also sold 19.4 million individual hot dogs at ballparks. But if you just do the math on this, it’s quite obvious that that means that household consumption of hot dogs completely dwarfs anything that goes on in the baseball stands at this point by a factor of about maybe 500 to 1. The overwhelming majority of hot dogs are now produced, sold through retail, and consumed in people’s homes—by large families with young kid, that seems to be where they go. It’s basically huge gangs of hungry kids between, one imagines, the age of 2 and about 12 or 13 before it stops being cool to gobble these things up.

CA: So let’s go back to the sort of production process you were alluding to. Maybe I will regret asking more specifically here, but what sort of food science exactly goes into producing the modern American hot dog? What kind of ingredients or processes would be unrecognizable to the old-world butchers of Frankfurt or Vienna?

AT: Well, I think, first of all, there’s the type of meat and the relative lack of it in the hot dog. The beef hot dog is a truly American thing. More specifically, it’s a legacy of koshering practices, right? Because no one in Europe would have dreamt of making sausages out of beef. A) Beef’s too expensive, and B) it’s not fatty enough. It’s the same reason no one in Europe ever made a sausage out of chicken. Chicken is too expensive, and it’s not fatty enough, so it just doesn’t make a good sausage.

And of course, the majority of U.S. hot dogs aren’t made mainly out of beef, either. I mean, beef is one of the ingredients, but more than half of the standard hot dog is made out of water, fat, binding agent, and salt: sodium, phosphate, potassium lactate, all of that good stuff. Lots and lots of salt. One hot dog is 20 percent of your recommended daily allowance of salt. And within the meat component, they blend basically beef, pork, chicken, unless it literally says on it “beef only” or whatever. And the meat is what’s politely called “trimmings,” in other words, anything you can’t use anywhere else. So this is muscle trimmings, fatty tissue, head meat, animal feet, animal skin, blood, liver, and the whole works.

And this isn’t, it’s worth saying, some ghastly invention of capitalism, though the form it currently takes is, right? Because the traditional function of a sausage was you slaughter the pig, you cut all the classic cuts off, and then what was left was put into the innards to make sausage. And to European consumers and traditional foodways, the liver, or blood, or head meat, these are not necessarily—I mean, they are cheaper than the main cuts, but they are not gross stuff that has to be processed and hidden from the consumer, right? Like, I grew up eating liver sausage. I grew up eating liver. Many people around the world do. It’s very tasty. It’s got very strong flavor, and so it’s prized.

But what they do to it now is they basically turn it into a slurry or a batter. And the really important innovation in hot dog production is not really the sausage per se, but the casing, right? Because classically sausages are made using intestines as casings, and if you buy artisanal European liver sausage or something like that, you can literally see the animal intestines. And hot dogs are characteristic precisely because they somehow made this casing thing mysterious, right? So a classic casing on a hot dog would have a snap sound, and lots of people don’t really like that, because you have to kind of bite through something. And so what really made the all-American hot dog, this smooth meat tube that somehow hangs together without actually having a skin, is an invention by this guy Erwin O. Freund in Chicago in [1925], which is the skinless hot dog. And so what you do there is you cook the meat slurry in a cellulose casing and then you peel it off. And so you’re left with this just sort of amazing—it’s kind of magical, this pillar of meat that you can play around with or whatever and it doesn’t fall apart. Apparently, the trade name in local Chicago sausage markets for these original casing-less sausages was “Nojax,” or “no jackets.” So the Nojax caseless frankfurter is really the breakthrough innovation of the hot dog world.

CA: There’s a growing market for meatless meat for vegans and other people trying to reduce their meat consumption. Is that starting to catch up in popularity when it comes to hot dogs? I would imagine that it would be easier to replicate a hot dog in a vegan form just because of the texture.

AT: Yeah, I’m totally with you on the texture thing. I mean, I’ve given up eating meat recently and certainly it would be easy to replicate the texture of a hot dog with maybe tofu or seitan or something like that. But I think the thing to focus here is on the economics, right? Because hot dogs are cheap food. And if you’re in the business of expensive innovation and trying to claw back margin with some sort of substitute, I don’t think you’d start with hot dogs. So what the vegan innovators have done instead is to start with beef, because it’s higher-priced. And you have to say that these new meatless alternatives they created for hamburger in particular are, to my mind, at least, astonishingly effective.

But what they cannot do and what no one has yet managed to do in a satisfactory way is create a substitute for the taste, to my mind, of cured pork. And so that for me is the real challenge. I go anywhere with serious sausage culture, and it’s a battle. I mean, we went to Thuringia in Saxony a couple of weeks ago, and, man, it was hard to resist that particular flavor of cured pork. And so no, as far as I’m aware, there are no really good meatless substitutes for cured pork sausages. Maybe we’ll get one of our callers who’ll be able to chime in and suggest something that will scratch that particular itch.

CA: Are hot dogs a significant export at all for the United States? Is this something that the rest of the world wants from America, our hot dogs?

AT: When I first read this, Cam, I have to admit, it triggered my European hauteur—I was just so tickled by this idea that anyone in the world would conceivably want to import an American hot dog, you know, for anything other than the creation of Americana. I thought maybe Japanese baseball fans like to eat them or something like that.

But it turns out, when you Google this, that there are countries in the world which import American hot dogs, and it’s Chile, Ecuador, and Panama—Latin American neighbors of the United States. And, you know, the more I thought about it, the more I realized I shouldn’t really be scoffing, because I was actually raised on an even weirder American meat export. Like many people around the world around World War II and in the early Cold War, my parents were raised on special processed American meat, otherwise known as Spam, which is a more pork-based American processed product which comes in a can, which has this great key that you turn and you lever off the top, very exciting for children. And they passed this taste on to us as kids. So in the late ’60s, early ’70s, I grew up eating grilled Spam. You put it under a grill that creates this caramelized texture on both sides. It’s no one’s idea of health food, but it’s quite yummy. And apparently it’s quite big in Asia and notably in Korea.

And, you know, the logic here is it’s the American Cold War presence that takes these products around the world, and then they become incorporated into people’s cuisine. Notably, I think the Asians have been much, much more innovative in what they do with Spam. In Britain, we just added it to beans on toast or something like that. But this reverse European import of an American processed meat was still very much around just three or four decades ago.

Cameron Abadi is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @CameronAbadi

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