American Plate - Bite #61: Hot Dogs

Tuesday, July 7, 2015
Careful observers might take a look at the timeline on the main page of The American Plate Project and think to themselves: "Hey, why are hot dogs listed in the period from 1900-1928? Haven't people been eating sausages since forever ago?" Good catch, careful observer! It's true. Americans have been stuffing meats into casings for more than 200 years. Sausages, weiners, frankfurters, bratwurst... Whatever you call them, they were a part of the American experience long before 1900, and it's not difficult to see why. They're inexpensive. They're portable. They have a long shelf life (when dried). And though we're in no danger of forgetting this, they're delicious.

So why the placement in the Progressive Era? Because not only did the modern form of hot dogs come into vogue at the 1893 fair in Chicago, but hot dogs are a handy symbol of the big societal shift that occurred in that time when it comes to how our food is prepared. Everyone may have been eating sausages long before 1900, but there weren't many people verifying that the meat that people were consuming was safe. At that Chicago fair (the World's Columbian Exposition), an awesomely-named vendor, Anton Feuchtwanger, noticed that the white gloves he provided to customers who purchased his sausages had a habit of not being returned. His solution was to start serving the franks in long, narrow buns, and the present-day idea of a hot dog was born. From 1893 to 1906, hot dogs flew off the shelves (or the food carts, as it were).

But along came Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, and the party was over. Sinclair was attempting to expose the terrible working conditions of the men who toiled in Chicago's meatpacking slaughterhouses, but readers took a more self-interested lesson from it: The meat they were eating was being processed in disgusting, filthy conditions. There was a huge public outcry, and reformers immediately began advocating for federal legislation to improve the quality of food preparation.

Teddy Roosevelt was totally on-board with this, and a short six months later, the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed. The popularity of processed meats quickly bounced back, and by 1939, the reputation of the hot dog had been restored so thoroughly that Franklin D. Roosevelt served them to King George VI and Queen Elizabeth when the royal couple was visiting him in Hyde Park. News coverage of the picnic cemented the warm feelings between the United States and the United Kingdom, which was a pretty big deal, given the world war that loomed on the horizon.

So, it's entirely fitting that hot dogs are considered an intensely patriotic food, even to this day. I'm writing this a few days after the Fourth of July, and you can bet that plenty of hot dogs have been consumed this past week, and not just by me. They're not only handy for celebrating our nation's birthday, but other very American things, both noble (enjoying a footlong at a good ol' American baseball game) and ignoble (grabbing a quick hot dog from the local gas station because you don't feel like waiting for dinner).

Both of those activities are represented in the picture above, as well as a backyard BBQ, another extremely American activity. Come to think of it, though this entire project is about how our national identity has been shaped by what we eat, there may not be a more quintessentially American food on the list than the humble hot dog. So if you're a true patriot, do your civic duty and chow down on one with me.