Here’s a fun fact you might not be aware of: technically speaking, brats, sausages, wieners, and frankfurters aren’t hot dogs. We use the terms more or less interchangeably (even on this site), but if you want to be pedantic, these goodies don’t actually become hot dogs until you add one more ingredient: a bun. It’s the sandwich aspect that officially makes the meat a hot dog.
Who exactly created the first hot dog sandwich is open to debate; several legends (or historical tales, depending on your point of view) exist, but none of them are irrefutable. We tend to stand by idea that hot dogs were the conscious or unconscious invention of street vendors–probably one of German descent–working in either New York or perhaps Chicago. Why? Well, sausages are a heavy component of German culture, so it makes sense that German immigrants would be selling them here. And as for being created in the US? Americans have long had a reputation for choosing convenient foods: with all due respect to the Earl of Sandwich, Americans can eat anything if it’s between two slices of bread.
The most commonly accepted story has a street peddler named Antonoine Feuchtwanger selling what he called “red hot” sausages nestled into a soft, split bun. The legend says that Feuchtwanger originally served the sausages along with a pair of gloves patrons could use to hold the meat. Unfortunately, this was long before our age of disposable everything–meaning you were supposed to give the gloves back … which, not surprisingly, many people neglected to do. Switching to rolls saved his business–and his customers’ fingers–and gave us the hot dog.
But this is somewhat like claiming that Henry Ford invented the automobile, which of course he didn’t: automobiles had existed for years before Ford came along. His accomplishment was creating a way to get them to the masses. Feuchtwanger did more or less the same thing: the start of universal hot dog acceptance can be traced back to him, but he didn’t invent frankfurters.
The true beginnings for our favorite ball park treat may go as far back as 64 A.D., when a man named Gaius–personal cook to Emperor Nero Claudius Caesar–stuffed pig intestines with ground meat and spices. But the development timeline of the frankfurter also passes through–wait for it–Frankfort, Germany, where a smoked, spiced sausage was created with a slightly curved shape, as well as Vienna, birthplace of a packed pork and beef sausage: “Vienna” in German was “Wien” … hence the word “wiener” entered our vocabulary.
And of course, no history of the hot dog would be complete without giving credit to Charles Feltman, who turned a humble pie wagon into the hot dog empire that most of us visualize when we hear the words “Coney Island.” Perhaps even more famously, one of Feltman’s employees, Nathan Handwerker, apparently in an effort to make a list of top entrepreneurs, split off into his business which eventually grew into what we now know as Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs. Which is not to say Nathan’s put Feltman out of business. They weren’t really in direct competition: Feltman had created an entire amusement park, where Nathan’s was more of a lunch counter.
That being said, the two did have a rivalry that has existed to this day. According to one source, Handwerker once hired men to wear surgeons’ smocks and eat lunch in his restaurants in an effort to counteract the stories of unhealthy ingredients in hot dogs. Which just goes to show, there’s nothing really trivial when it comes to being the … top dog.