The Hot Dog Files: 12 Tales From America’s Era of Sausage-Hating
Before FDR helped the hot dog become a Fourth of July favorite, it was an outcast associated with squalor, crime, and moonshine
On the evening of October 20, 1909, 600 millionaires—”pork princes,” The St. Louis Post-Dispatch called them—gathered at Chicago’s La Salle Hotel for the annual banquet of the American Meat Packers’ Association. “Bratwurst, bockwurst, wienerwurst,” they chanted, shouting a kind of pump-up song. “Leberwurst, blutwurst, bologna, hot dog.”
“Hot dog” came last. According to the Post-Dispatch, J. Ogden Armour, one of America’s biggest meat tycoons, proceeded to “deliver a defense of the sausage family, showing he believed what he said by eating (actual count) seven ‘hot dogs,’ the most abused member of the family.”
Why should the hot dog—a food so entrenched in American culture that more than 150 million of them will be consumed this Independence Day, according to the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council—have needed such defending, and to a roomful of the men who should have been its most loyal allies? One compelling answer: Until the 1930s, when our hot-dog-lover-in-chief, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, gave hot dogs a much-needed boost, many Americans hated them.
Newspaper articles from the early 1900s often make hot dogs, despite their widespread consumption at the time, seem like the lowest of the low. These were not plump Ball Park Franks you might squirt with primary-colored condiments and give to your five-year-old. They were gritty symbols of booze, drug dealers, and adulterated food. “SECRET OF HOT DOG IS EXPOSED,” said one 1921 Los Angeles Times story about a novel alcohol-smuggling technique, adding, “Innocent-Looking Sandwich Found to Contain Moonshine.” The connection between hot dogs and liquor was particularly strong. As a 1929 New York Times article put it, “For every frankfurter sold by a delicatessen in the ante-Volstead days, three had been speared and consumed by patrons of the saloon.” Even the tendency of reporters to bracket the term with quotation marks—”hot dogs”—gave the whole topic an air of shadiness and skepticism.