Hunting the humble hot dog in New York City
Any New York hot dog jaunt must include a trip to Coney Island in Brooklyn to taste Nathan's firsthand. (Lonely Planet/Getty)
In New York City, the hot dog is as iconic as the yellow taxi. For locals, one bite triggers memories of sand-strewn lunches on the beaches of Coney Island or the smell of just-cut grass and yeasty beer at a summer baseball game. A garlicky grilled sausage served on a sliced bun with spicy mustard and sharp sauerkraut is engrained in the city’s culinary identity. But like so much of New York’s history, the hot dog’s ancestry lies elsewhere.
A hot dog is a frankfurter-style sausage that is made of ground pork, beef or a combination of the two, flavoured with garlic, mustard, nutmeg and other spices, gut-encased, then cured, smoked and cooked. And though the sausage has been around for 20,000 years, the modern frankfurter has roots in German-speaking Europe. One story credits a Viennese butcher with its creation in 1805. Others say that spiced and smoked sausage was first introduced in Frankfurt in 1852 and named after its hometown.
Whatever its true origins, during the second half of the 1800s Germans had a love for frankfurters that they carried with them when they came to the United States, making it a mainstay of European immigrant households. By the American Civil War, which lasted from 1861 to 1865, New York butcher shops were regularly preparing and carrying the smoked sausages.
But a frankfurter is not a hot dog until it is on a bun. And in 1870, Brooklyn-based Charles Feltman made that legendary move. A German immigrant, Feltman began his career pushing a pie cart in Brooklyn’s seaside neighbourhood of Coney Island. To meet customer demands for a hot sandwich, he switched from pies to sausages and began forking them onto a roll at lunch hour. The rest is hot dog history.
Starting from that fateful moment when the sausage met the bun, Feltman built an empire around his humble invention. Soon, he was selling thousands of hot dogs a year to hungry beachgoers, first from carts and then from restaurants, beer gardens, bars and more. By 1920, his Ocean Pavilion restaurant was touted as the largest in the world. But it was a Polish immigrant named Nathan Handwerker that made Coney Island as synonymous with the hot dog as it is today.
A one-time employee of Feltman’s, in 1916 Handwerker opened his own stand in the neighbourhood and sold hot dogs for five cents each based on a secret recipe cooked up by him and his wife, Ida. By charging half of what Feltman charged, they won over Coney Island’s working class residents, opened a brick-and-mortar restaurant and soon eclipsed Feltman as the go-to hot dog stop. That same Nathan’s – formally known as Original Nathan’s Famous Frankfurters – remains a landmark today.
Every 4 July, the country turns their focus to that original Nathan’s for the Nathan’s International Hot Dog-Eating Contest, an annual competition featuring dozens of men and women who compete to down the most hot dogs in 10 minutes. Joey Chestnut is the current record holder with a whopping 68 hot dogs and buns.
Regardless of the season, any New York hot dog jaunt must include a trip to Coney Island to taste Nathan’s firsthand. Resting along the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, Coney Island’s wooden boardwalk is peppered with rickety amusement rides, old school arcades and candy shops from decades past. Stop in at Nathan’s to order a hot dog with chilli, onions and mustard and eat outside where you can taste the brininess of the salted air coming off the ocean for an experience like Handwerker would have had.
Though Hurricane Sandy badly affected Coney Island’s shoreline in October 2012, forcing the restaurant to close for the first time in its history, the original Nathan’s is set to reopen in May 2013 just in time for summer beachgoers.
From the streets
Back in Manhattan, walk down most streets and you will find silver hot dog carts parked on sidewalk corners, their yellow-blue-and-red striped umbrellas dotting the cityscape. In equal parts disparaging and loving, New Yorkers refer to these as “dirty water dogs” for the warm water the hot dogs rest in before being plucked into a typically stale white bun. Still, the hot dog tradition had its roots in pushcarts – not only in Brooklyn but also in Manhattan’s Bowery neighbourhood, where hungry workers during the turn of the 19th Century clamoured for the hot dog vendors’ cheap eats.