Nathan’s Famous in Coney Island, New York, is home to the world’s biggest hot dog-eating contest—but no one really knows how it got started. According to Nathan’s website, it originated in 1916 from a bet between four immigrants. Each one claimed to be more patriotic than the other, and they allegedly settled the argument by holding a hot dog-eating competition at Nathan’s on the Fourth of July.
But this story is likely a load of bologna—or a load of beef, natural flavorings, sodium phosphates, hydrolyzed corn protein, and paprika, as the case may be.
In 2010, a public relations professional who worked with Nathan’s told The New York Times that the story was merely a piece of marketing made up “in Coney Island pitchman style.” Some of the first reports of a hot dog eating contest at Nathan’s are from 1967, when—supposedly to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the hot dog (which, spoiler alert, it wasn’t)—newspapers reported that truck driver Walter Paul downed 127 hot dogs in an hour. That said, some sources speculate that Paul didn’t even exist. And it doesn’t help that Nathan’s has since given differing years and total number of hot dogs for Paul.
There were hot dog eating contests happening in New York at least as far back as the 1920s. A December 1922 article in the New York Tribune about a parade in lower Manhattan noted that after the event, the “participants adjourned to their headquarters ... to witness the grand frankfurter devouring contest.” The contest was won “by the redoubtable Val Menges,” who consumed 51 hot dogs “both nude and in dough kimonos.”
The modern contest at Nathan’s is thought to have emerged in 1972, but even back then it was described as the “23rd annual,” so it’s a bit hard to be sure what’s real and what’s being said in “Coney Island pitchman style.”
Regardless of its origins, the event is famous today, and people travel from across the world to take part. The current reigning champion is competitive eater Joey Chestnut, who consumed a gut-busting 76 hot dogs at 2021’s contest. For that, he won a prize of $10,000, Nathan’s coveted Mustard Belt, and hopefully some antacid tablets for the road.
The story behind Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest isn't the only part of hot dog history that's hazy. From the food's origins to how it got its name to whether or not it's a sandwich, there's plenty about hot dogs that is up for delicious debate.
From Sausage to Hot Dog
The story of this quintessential American food begins with the invention of sausages thousands of years ago. A sausage is a product usually made from seasoned, processed meats, and different versions are eaten around the world: They can be fresh or cured, smoked or dried, making them an important form of food preservation in many cultures.
Some of the first records of sausage come from Ancient Mesopotamia roughly 4000 years ago. Texts from this era describe meat stuffed into intestinal casings, which is how many sausages continue to be made today. An early reference to what very well may be some kind of blood sausage also appears in Homer’s Odyssey. When Odysseus returns from his journey and finds his home flooded with suitors, he expresses his annoyance, at least in one translation, by “rolling from side to side as a cook turns a sausage.”
The line between hot dogs and other sausages isn’t always clear, which makes the hot dog’s origin hard to identify, but Germany claims to be the birthplace of the modern hot dog. One story traces the food's invention to Frankfurt in the late 15th century, just a few years before Christopher Columbus landed in the Americas. The city even celebrated the frankfurter’s 500th birthday in 1987. The German town of Coburg disputes this provenance, however, and claims that a butcher living there in the 1600s invented the hot dog before importing his creation to Frankfurt. To make matters more complicated, Vienna also insists that its wienerwurst was the world’s introduction to hot dogs.
No matter where they originated, food historians agree that German immigrants were responsible for popularizing hot dogs in the U.S. Back in the 1800s, after moving to New York City, many Germans sold sausages out of pushcarts to make a living. This was the start of the hot dog’s connection to both street food and the Big Apple.
Here in the States, we view hot dogs as quintessentially American, but their reach extends across the globe. The Sonora dog, from the Mexican state of the same name, consists of a sausage wrapped in bacon and stuffed inside a bolillo. It's topped with pinto beans, onions, tomatoes, jalapeños, mayo, and mustard. In Thailand, the Khanom Tokyo hot dog is served in a thin crepe (the aforementioned Khanom Tokyo) with either sweet or savory condiments. One of the most popular interpretations of the food may be Salchipapas, which are found in Peru, Ecuador, and other Latin American countries. The dish does away with the bun altogether and opts for fried sausage slices served on top of french fries.
The Legendary Etymology of the Hot Dog
So when did the name hot dog become associated with street meat? One legend traces its etymology to cartoonist T.A. "Tad" Dorgan. In this origin story, Dorgan was attending a New York Giants baseball game in 1901 where hot Frankfurter sandwiches were being sold. This inspired him to later draw a cartoon of a dachshund on a roll. Because he couldn’t spell the breed’s name, he wrote “hot dog” instead.
It’s a cute story, but it has a few issues. Though Dorgan did eventually draw a hot dog cartoon, it appeared in 1906 and it was in connection to a bicycle race, not a Giants game. There’s also the pesky fact that the term hot dog was already popular by the time Dorgon allegedly attended the baseball game.
Another theory credits a food vendor named Thomas Francis Xavier Morris. Originally from the Caribbean, Morris toured Europe as a strongman before moving to Patterson, New Jersey, where he started a business selling frankfurters and adopted the nickname “Hot Dog Morris.” Though it’s difficult to prove, his marketing strategy may have helped the name catch on in the late 1800s.
There’s a third origin story, and it’s less wholesome than the first two. It’s also the story that’s most widely accepted by food historians. It’s that hot dogs were once thought to contain actual dog. In 19th-century Germany, consuming dog meat was not unheard of. This led to rumors about the true contents of the mystery meat tubes German immigrants were selling on street corners. Prejudice against German-Americans, who made up one of the largest immigrant groups in the country in the 19th and early 20th centuries, likely stoked these fears. According to writer and sometime-etymologist H. L. Mencken, the belief was so widespread by 1913 that the Coney Island Chamber of Commerce banned the word hot dog from signage so that guests wouldn’t get the wrong idea about the food’s ingredients.
What Hot Dogs Are Made Of
So what are hot dogs made of, if not actual dog? It depends. Pork and beef are the most common meats, but we’re not necessarily talking prime cuts. Typical hot dogs start as “trimmings,” which is an industry euphemism for the parts leftover from meat production. Once the trimmings are precooked to kill bacteria, they're emulsified into a meat paste, ground up, and forced through a mesh sieve. Next, flavorings and preservatives are added and the whole thing gets pureed a second time. Finally, the meat amalgamation is cooked in tubular casings to give it its signature shape.
But rest assured that hot dogs approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture aren’t made from earthworms. This urban legend originates with sodium erythorbate, which is used in curing processed meat products. Due to similarities between the words earthworm and erythorbate, rumors spread about the true nature of the hot dog ingredient. The USDA reportedly gets a lot of questions about sodium erythorbate’s true source, and they insist that it isn’t made from ground-up creepy crawlies.
The Many Hot Dog Debates
According to some, a hot dog’s most important ingredient is its bun. Merriam-Webster describes hot dogs as usually being served on long split rolls, which could make the fluffy vehicle a distinguishing factor between hot dogs and other sausages. It’s unclear where the hot dog bun originated, but many food historians point to Coney Island, where, in the 19th century, an Austrian-born baker named Ignatz Frischmann developed an oblong Vienna roll specifically for holding hot dogs. (Prior to this innovation, boardwalk sausages were typically served between two slices of bread.) Frischmann supplied his unique rolls to vendors around Coney Island, and when he died in 1904, he was credited with the invention of the hot dog bun in his New York Times obituary.
The introduction of the bun eventually led to an inflammatory question: Is a hot dog a sandwich? If you ask the California legislature, the answer is yes. Its tax code mentions “hot dog and hamburger sandwiches” served from “sandwich stands or booths,” which means a hot dog is legally a sandwich in the state. Oscar Meyer and Merriam-Webster also fall on the pro-sandwich side of the debate. Among those arguing that hot dogs deserve their own category is the National Hot Dog And Sausage Council. In 2015, the organization said that “limiting the hot dog’s significance by saying it’s ‘just a sandwich’ is like calling the Dalai Lama ‘just a guy.’” According to their statement, “a hot dog is an exclamation of joy, a food, a verb describing one ‘showing off’ and even an emoji. It is truly a category unto its own.”
Perhaps just as controversial is the New-York-versus-Chicago-dog debate. Like New York, Chicago saw an influx of German immigrants in the 19th century, and those transplants brought sausage recipes from their home country with them. By the early 1900s, hot dogs were an important part of the city’s cuisine, but the Chicago dog as we know it didn’t become popular until later. A traditional Chicago hot dog that’s been "dragged through the garden" comes with yellow mustard, onion, tomato, relish, sport peppers, celery salt, and a pickle spear—all served on a poppy seed bun. That bun, incidentally, originated with Sam Rosen, a Polish immigrant who brought his baking skills to Chicago in 1909.
French’s popularized yellow mustard as a hot dog condiment at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. The other toppings that make Chicago hot dogs unique came out of the immigrant community of the city’s West Side. Adding unique flavors to their dogs was a way for vendors to appeal to the diverse tastes of different ethnic groups. This style of hot dog really took off during the Great Depression. Cash-strapped Chicagoans needed cheap food, but one hot dog wasn’t filling enough to make a meal. Vendors met this need by adding ingredients to the hot dog. The item was still affordable, and the extra toppings made it hearty and nutritious enough to sustain customers. As for whether the Chicago dog’s role in history makes it better than the Coney Island version, we can't say.
This story has been adapted from an episode of the Mental Floss series Food History on YouTube.