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Origins of the Chicago-style Hot Dog

Jul 27th, 2020

If you only read one sentence of this, read this one: never ever ask for ketchup on a Chicago-style hot dog!

When it comes to iconic food, Chicago stands proudly with both the Chicago-style deep dish pizza and the Chicago-style hot dog taking center place in local gastronomic culture. The deep dish pizza evolved due to a combination of cultural nostalgia and a desire for hearty indulgence, and the same goes for the Chicago hot dog. Both these dishes were cultural foods brought over from Europe, and they were tweaked to fit the new city culture in Chicago.

Whether you live in our South Loop apartments, or anywhere else in the Chicago-area, it's easy to find some Chicago-style pizza or hot dogs nearby. Now, let’s dive right into the origins of the Chicago-style hot dog!

Origins of hot dogs

In the words of Maria von Trapp, let’s start at the very beginning. We will understand the Chicago hot dog much better when we can see where it came from!

It’s said that the true origins of the hot dog go back to the origins of the sausage itself. Historians believe that the Roman emperor Nero had a cook who began experimenting with sausage-making, and that after discovering that one could stuff meat in pig intestines, the sausage spread through Europe like wildfire.

The sausage may have had its origin in Roman kitchens, but the invention and development of the modern-day hot dog is generally credited to Germany. Two towns each claim that the hot dog began there: Frankfurt, which claims that the frankfurter was invented there in 1487, and Vienna (called Wien in German), which claims true ownership of the wienerwurst. It’s quite the conundrum, as there is no way to absolutely prove which town had the first true German sausage.

Regardless, the sausage/frankfurter/wiener eventually made its way to the United States along with German immigrants to New York City. The very first hot dog stand appeared in the 1860s in the Bowery area of the city, where it’s believed that the wiener was first served in a milk roll and topped with sauerkraut. The first Coney Island hot dog stand popped up in 1871 and was owned by a German Baker named Charles Feltman. Whether it was Feltman or the unnamed Bowery businessman who first served the modern-day hot dog, however,  the world will never know. 

The name “hot dog” also likely came from the same German immigrants who brought the sausages over to the United States. Germans called the frankfurter a “dachshund,” meaning “little dog” in reference to its long, thin and slightly-curved look. The name caught on in the U.S. as people grew fond of both the actual dogs and the sausages, and soon people were calling the sausage and roll combos “dogs” left and right. The exact origin of the word and who used it first is unclear, but nevertheless, it’s stuck.

Hot dogs in Chicago 

German immigrants flocked to the United States in the mid-19th century. Not just to New York City, mind you, but to the Midwest, too. By the end of the century, plenty of German families lived in both Midwestern farms and cities, including Chicago. Over a quarter of Chicago’s population was German

The Germans who brought frankfurters, wienerwurst and sausage to New York also brought them to Chicago. As Chicago quickly became the meatpacking capital of the world, the popularity of the frankfurter increased exponentially across the country, and when the World’s Columbian Exposition (also known as the World’s Fair) was hosted in Chicago in 1893, guess what was the easiest, cheapest and most convenient food that people bought? 

Yep, it was the hot dog.

Companies like Oscar Mayer and Armour began popping up in Chicago, further securing the city’s role as the hot dog capital of the country. Hot dog stands took up shop on street corners across the city, and the industry provided a much-needed path to financial success for immigrant families and lower-income communities. 

During Chicago’s industrial boom in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, the health and well-being of many of these low-income communities suffered greatly from diseases related to poor hygiene and a lack of overall cleanliness in the city. It was during this time that the Chicago River was reversed and actions taken to improve the health of the population, and part of those measures was to start eating healthier foods.

The German-Jewish community in Chicago revolutionized the hot dog industry in this time because the Jewish kosher tradition required that food be packed and prepared in a much more safe and pure way, so Jewish immigrants quickly began to take over the hot dog industry.

And, most of all, the Jewish community made hot dogs that were entirely made from beef. Thus began the Chicago-style hot dog. 

What makes the Chicago-style hot dog so special?

The Chicago hot dog is the product of Italian, German and Jewish influence. 

Germans traditionally ate their hot dogs with mustard, and the Jewish community added the all-beef sausage. 

Hot dog stands in Little Italy (just 7 minutes from our South Loop Chicago apartments!) started adding tomatoes and onions to their hot dogs because of all the fruit and vegetable stands in the area. 

The pickle was a popular food nationwide by that time, and the sport pickle was brought to the area by Mexican tamale sellers who visited Chicago for the 1893 World’s Fair

Relish was attributed to the English, and celery salt was promoted as the latest fad-diet trend in Lakeview, which was the celery capital of the United States at the time.

Finally, the ingredients are nestled in a bun (German tradition) sprinkled with poppy seeds (post-WWII Jewish Eastern European influence).

The sweetness of ketchup was considered to distract from the other rich flavors of this sausage concoction, so it became a tradition to vehemently avoid adding the red sauce to the dog. 

So next time you pick up a hot dog from one of the many hot dog stands in Chicago, remember all the people, cultures and religions whose influences went into making the Chicago-style hot dog in your hand.  And think about how you’d be disappointing them all if you even think about putting ketchup on there.


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Featured photo courtesy Unsplash/Roman Arkhipov

Author of Article

Colleen Ford is a South African who now lives in Spokane, Washington. She loves to travel, camp (in warm weather) and bake.

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