United States of Hot Dogs is a recurring feature exploring the historic origins and modern appeal of America’s regional hot dogs.
In 1916, Nathan Handwerker, a poor but industrious Jewish immigrant from Poland opened up a hot dog stand in Coney Island, Brooklyn, with a $300 loan from two friends. He began serving frankfurters seasoned with his wife Ida’s special spice mix; they were grilled and dressed with mustard, onions, and sauerkraut. On the Fourth of July that year, four immigrants held a hot dog-eating contest to determine which of them was the most patriotic. It became a beloved tradition that continues to this day.
Soon Coney Island became a shrine for hot dog pilgrims. Before he took off for Chicago, the gangster Al Capone was a fan of Nathan’s. Clara Bow was working as a counter girl there in the early 1920s when destiny beckoned and turned her into a movie star. In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor, served Nathan’s hot dogs to the King and Queen of England on their visit to America, which cemented the friendship between the U.S. and Great Britain so essential to the Allied victory in World War II. All these things transformed plain old Nathan’s into Nathan’s Famous, the quintessential American hot dog.
None of this is true, except for the barest outline. (Come on, how could anyone logically argue that consumption of hot dogs is a test of one’s patriotism?) There was an industrious young Jewish immigrant from Poland named Nathan Handwerker who opened up a hot dog stand in Coney Island in 1916 that still exists today, both on Surf Avenue and in outposts up and down the East Coast. The rest is a beautiful American dream. But, with maybe the exception of LA, the heart of the American dream beats strongest in New York City. If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. Or at least you can pay the rent. And in the meantime, you eat hot dogs.
So anyway, Nathan. His grandson Lloyd wrote a touching biography called Famous Nathan that describes Nathan’s hardscrabble early years in Poland. Lloyd speculates that the first sausage Nathan ever ate was kishke, the Jewish delicacy of cow intestine stuffed with grains, vegetables, and chicken fat. He didn’t eat a meat sausage until he came to America, because sausages in Poland were made with pork, and Nathan was a good Jew who kept kosher. That is why, when he opened his own hot dog stand, the hot dogs were all-beef.
By the time Nathan arrived in New York, there were already plenty of hot dogs in Coney Island, courtesy of a German immigrant named Charles Feltman. Feltman disliked hot dog stands—according to hot dog historian Bruce Kraig, in 1886, he joined several other businessmen in filing a complaint against small food vendors—but he was a baker who provided buns to his own Coney Island pleasure palace, the Ocean Pavilion, and other local sausage-sellers. Ocean Pavilion, in addition to being a full-service seafood restaurant, contained a dance pavilion, a carousel, an open-air movie theater, and seven sausage grills. It must have been quite the place.
But Nathan had an edge because he only charged a nickel for his hot dogs. Not everybody who went to Coney Island had the dough to pay for a nice sit-down dinner at Feltman’s joint. A stroll on the boardwalk with a hot dog is the epitome of the cheap luxury. (It’s the sort of thing people look back on with nostalgia once they can afford to eat at the Ocean Pavilions of the world.) Nathan’s frankfurters officially became Famous in 1925 when Nathan finally got around to putting up a sign. He was not above marketing gimmicks: He would give out free hot dogs to hospital workers who showed up in uniform (presumably they were more health-conscious than the average person, so if they were eating at Nathan’s, it must be all right) and, according to Lloyd Handwerker, would bribe police officers $2 a day not to give customers parking tickets. What a guy!
The hot dog eating contest began in 1972. Mortimer Matz, the press agent who dreamed it up, admitted to The New York Times much later that he invented the 1916 patriotism business as a publicity stunt. “Nathan Handwerker, the founder, was upset that the contestants weren’t paying for the hot dogs,” Matz said, “and would only let the contest last 12 minutes.”
I can find no evidence FDR and Eleanor fed the King and Queen of England hot dogs from Nathan’s. (Both the contemporary New York Times account, and also Hot Dogs and Cocktails, Peter Conradi’s book that describes the hot dog summit in granular detail, neglect this very important piece of information. All we know is that the hot dogs were cooked over a fire, served on a silver tray, and that Her Majesty ate hers with a knife and fork. I know, I’m disappointed, too.) I can also find no evidence for the Al Capone and Clara Bow stories, though both grew up in Brooklyn, so it’s not completely unlikely that they ate at Nathan’s. But maybe they liked Sabrett better?
Sabrett is the other famous hot dog in New York. It’s famous because Sabrett very kindly gave away umbrellas to all their street vendors, which made it the mark of a New York hot dog. Of those “dirty water” hot dogs, we will not speak. The name “dirty water” says it all.
But Sabrett also supplies hot dogs to Gray’s Papaya, a hot dog stand that is very near and dear to my heart. The summer I graduated college, I moved to New York dreaming of a better life, just like Nathan Handwerker had nearly a century earlier. I came from Chicago, not a Polish shtetl, but as far as many of the New Yorkers I met were concerned, it made no difference; the Midwest was all farms and small towns, right? My first berth in the city was in an NYU dorm on Fifth Avenue. (It was a dorm, yes, but also the fanciest address I will ever have.) Since I was still looking for a job, I was low on cash, and Gray’s on Sixth Avenue was a godsend. For $1.95, you could get the Recession Special, two hot dogs and a tropical drink. This seemed suspiciously cheap, but the hot dogs were delicious. I realize now that that’s because they have a natural casing, which gives them the nice, solid snap all good hot dogs have. I have vivid memories of standing in line and watching them sizzle on the grill, and then escaping outside to eat them on the steps of one of the brownstones on Eighth Street and dreaming of the glorious New York life ahead of me, which would, naturally, include such a brownstone.
You can guess how that went. Gray’s Papaya on Sixth Avenue no longer exists (it closed when the landlord wanted to raise the rent by $20,000, to $50,000), and the Recession Special has inflated to $4.95. Even seasoned New York food people admit that it’s become harder to find a decent hot dog there; there are still just 4,235 food vendor permits in New York City, and more and more of them are going to owners of kebab and halal stands. Time marches on. But a New York hot dog remains a cheap luxury and one of the great stories the city tells itself.