American Jewish food is most typically defined as pastrami sandwiches, chocolate babka or bagels and lox. But I am here to argue that the greatest American Jewish food may actually be the humble hot dog. No dish better embodies the totality of the American Jewish experience.
What’s that you say? You didn’t know that hot dogs were a Jewish food? Well, that’s part of the story, too.
Sausages of many varieties have existed since antiquity. The closest relatives of the hot dog are the frankfurter and the wiener, both American terms based on their cities of origin (Frankfurt and Vienna, respectively).
So, what differentiates a hot dog from other sausages? The story begins in 19th century New York with two German-Jewish immigrants.
In 1870, Charles Feltman sold Frankfurt-style pork-and-beef sausages out of a pushcart on Coney Island, Brooklyn. Sausages not being the neatest street food, Feltman inserted them into soft buns. This innovative sausage-bun combo grew to be known as a hot dog (though Feltman called them Coney Island Red Hots).
Two years later, Isaac Gellis opened a kosher butcher shop on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. He soon began selling all-beef versions of German-style sausages. Beef hot dogs grew into an all-purpose replacement for pork products in kosher homes, leading to such classic dishes as franks and beans or split pea soup with hot dogs.
Like American Jews, the hot dog was an immigrant itself that quickly changed and adapted to life in the United States. As American Jewry further integrated into society, the hot dog followed.
In 1916, Polish-Jewish immigrant Nathan Handwerker opened a hot dog stand to compete with Feltman, his former employer. Feltman’s had grown into a large sit-down restaurant, and Handwerker charged half the price by making his eatery a “grab joint.” (The term fast food had yet to be invented, but it was arguably Handwerker who created that ultra-American culinary institution.)
Nathan’s Famous conquered the hot dog world. Like so many of his American Jewish contemporaries, Handwerker succeeded via entrepreneurship and hard work. His innovative marketing stunts included hiring people to eat his hot dogs while dressed as doctors, overcoming public fears about low-quality ingredients. While his all-beef dogs were not made with kosher meat, he called them “kosher-style,” thus underscoring that they contained no horse meat. Gross.
The kosher-style moniker was another American invention. American Jewish history, in part, is the story of a secular populace that embraced Jewish culture while rejecting traditional religious practices. All-beef hot dogs with Ashkenazi-style spicing, yet made from meat that was not traditionally slaughtered or “kosher,” sum up the new Judaism of Handwerker and his contemporaries.
Hebrew National began producing hot dogs in 1905. Its production methods met higher standards than were required by law, leading to their famous slogan, “We Answer to a Higher Authority.”
While the majority of Americans may be surprised to hear this, Hebrew National’s self-supervised kosherness actually was not accepted by more stringent Orthodox and even Conservative Jews at the time. But non-Jews, believing kosher dogs were inherently better, became the company’s primary market.
American Jews have successfully integrated into their society more than any other in history. So, too, the hot dog has transcended its humble New York Jewish immigrant roots to enter the pantheon of true American icons. So when you bite into your hot dog this summer, you are really getting a bite of American Jewish history and the great American Jewish food.
This story originally appeared on The Nosher.