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Hot Dogs: Food For Americans Influenced By Immigrants

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Flickr: naotakem
Flickr: naotakem

By Sari Kamin

Dr. Bruce Kraig, a professor of history at Roosevelt University in Chicago and author of not one but two books about hot dogs told Heritage Radio Network about his latest book, Man Bites Dog, an account of hot dog culture in America. I think it's fair to say that this makes him the foremost authority of hot dog history.

Hot Dogs, typically an industrial factory product, are having a renaissance in the artisan meat community. No longer are their fillings restricted to ambiguous cow and pig-part mash-ups. They can now be found in varieties from artisanal goose to venison and everything in between. Chickens may be dogs now, but Bruce insists that a casing need only to be stuffed with meat to be called a hot dog, whether it comes from your local butcher, or your local Pakistani vendor. Indeed, the debate does not lie in the definition, but whether it is the sauce or the meat that makes the dog.

Before meeting Bruce, I hadn't given a lot of thought to hot dogs beyond their status as typical ball park and Fourth of July fare. Bruce made me realize how important hot dogs are as a symbol of national pride and a representation of the classic immigrant dream of "making it" in the United Sates. He talked about the centrality of hot dogs to American culture and of the "pattern of immigrants" who came to the United States, hocking hot dogs in the street in order to give their children a good life in a new country, and someday have grandchildren who would go to college. This dream would repeat itself over and over. Still today we see it on the streets of New York, Chicago, and other cities where hot dog vendors are as reliable as newspapers and rush hour traffic.

It is hard to escape the geographical influences that determine one's favorite hot dog. As Bruce explained, someone from Flint, Michigan is likely to be partial to a dog topped with a "mousakka" sauce, heavily inflected with cinnamon and tomato because of the Greeks who immigrated there at the turn of the century. This particular dog is named "The Coney" because its creators wanted to name it after an exotic and cosmopolitan location. Coney Island must have been the obvious choice at the time.

According to Bruce, hot dogs represent both individualism and community. There is a paradox that exists between the national nostalgia attached to hot dogs, and the quest to constantly update the cuisine and integrate other culture's flavors into the quintessential American food. As a nod to global cuisine, it has become positively trendy to find hot dogs with topped with kimchee, wasabi mayo, and the like. There may or may not exist a tension between the old school and the new school of hot dog proprietors; on one hand there are the purists who object even to ketchup ("mustard only, maybe onions"), and there are the new breeds of chefs, eager to reconnect with traditional comfort foods, while still needing to flex their global techniques. In this way, hot dogs act as something of a blank canvas for their toppings by giving its consumer the ability to customize it to their own individual preferences, and what could be more American than that?

Listen to the original interview and more here.