Despite roots that go back to the wursts and sausages of Europe, hot dogs are an American phenomenon. Indeed, a Coney Island vendor named Charles Feltman is generally credited with being the first visionary to fork a warm sausage into a split roll and offer it with the condiment of choice.
That said, hot dog history, warns author Donald Dale Jackson, is a compendium of myths, guesswork and public relations inundating a scanty dossier of facts. Look at the origin of the name "hot dog," for instance. The product was originally called "dachshund sausage" for its resemblance to the low-slung German dog. One story has it that a newspaper cartoonist drew a picture of barking dachshunds between buns and labeled them "hot dogs" because he couldn't spell "dachshund." Trouble is, no one has ever found the cartoon. The earliest known mention appeared in a story in the Yale Record of 1895 in which students "contentedly munched hot dogs."
Whatever they were called, they had become patriotic fare by the 1920s. "They were Americanized through their association with public events," says scholar Bruce Kraig. "People ate them at baseball games, horse races, fairs and circuses." Today, America is hot dog headquarters, with rival hotbeds in New York and Chicago. One New Yorker declares, "In Chicago, they put an entire salad over the hot dog because they're embarrassed at the way it tastes." But a guide to Chicago fast-food bad-mouths the New York dog as "a little limp wiener drowning in gloppy stewed onions and sauerkraut."
Regional differences aside, the hot dog is a favorite of folks from all walks of life. And if a free spirit called "Uncle Frank" Webster has his way, the thousands of hot dog artifacts he has collected will become part of a hot dog hall of fame, with a museum, gallery and gift shop. And if that fails? "I'll give it to the Smithsonian," he muses.