Why Are Hamburgers The Fast Food King Instead Of Hot Dogs?

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Hamburgers and hot dogsJuly 20th is National Hot Dog Day. It’s a perfect time to consider this intriguing question asked by Paul Freedman in his book The Restaurants That Changed America while describing the impact of the fast-food industry on Howard Johnson’s: “Why did the hamburger triumph as opposed to the hot dog?”

He points out, “Frankfurters are also easy to eat in the car and historically they were the food item most closely identified with the United States in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century… it’s clear from the lack of mammoth national hot-dog chains that even now there is something about the frank that doesn’t lend itself to the industry.”

Why are hamburgers and not hot dogs the more popular/sustainable fast food business model? This is all the more interesting because hot dogs arrived on the scene well before hamburgers.

Search newspaper archives from the mid-nineteenth century and you’ll see plenty of references to “hot dog days” and even “red-hot dog days.” But this alludes to meteorology, not culinary, phenomena, as it refers to the sizzling temperatures during the dog days of summer.

Internationally recognized food historian Bruce Kraig’s book Hot Dog: A Global History cites classic Greek and Roman literature mentioning sausages, but says the food may date back earlier in Middle East and Mediterranean history. While he remains skeptical regarding popular hot dog origin myths pertaining to Coney Island and St. Louis, he makes it clear today’s dogs evolved from German immigrants’ wieners.

Barry Popik, renown entomologist, shows the clear link between the original German “wienerworst” to the American “hot dog” occurring as early as 1884 as reported in the September 14th edition of the Evansville Daily Courier. That article says, “Even the innocent ‘wienerworst’ man will be barred from dispensing hot dog on the street corner.”

That’s a year before Frank and Charles Menches served the first hamburger. Certainly, both foods’ origins come from outdoor events like carnivals, sporting events, etc… Freedman likens them to “novelties like cotton candy and saltwater taffy.” Kraig says, “Hot dogs began as a kind of fun food among raucous Coney Island crowds, with the rough street vendors of city streets, boxing matches, horse races, and ballgames.”

That being said, diner menus listed the “Hamburg Sandwich” in the late 1890s (as far away as Manila in the Philippines in 1898 and Omaha, NE in 1899). A 1904 diner menu in Poultney, Vermont offered “Hot Frankfort.”

Notice, they didn’t say “hot dog,” although the term had appeared regularly in the media for at least two decades. Perhaps that’s because “dog” didn’t sound appetizing. There’s certainly evidence of this. The September 10, 1937 edition of The Miami News reported, “In 1913 the Coney Island Chamber of Commerce passed a resolution forbidding the use of the name, ‘hot dog,’ on signs in Coney Island.”

Indeed, the Menches Brothers (the concessionaires who first sold the hamburger) took a picture of one of their carnival tents in 1907. It listed everything they sold: Hot Sausage, Cigars, Orange Cider, Oysters, Hot Coffee, “Hot Hambergs” (sic) and Ice Cream Cones – no hot dogs! But in a 1923 retelling of their Akron Fair concessionaire story, Charles Menches said “We sell, on an average, 1,500 pounds of wieners at a fair. In addition, we sell a ton of chopped beef or hamburger in sandwiches.” The headline refers to him as the “Hot Dog” man. Clearly, that tent must have been missing something, unless “hot sausages” and “wieners” are the same thing.

It appears hamburgers and, to some extent, hot dogs, began to evolve out of food stands and into diners by the turn of the 19th Century. Hot Dogs (and hamburgers) were already popular well before the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, which seems to get credit for almost everything except the one thing (cotton candy) that was actually invented for it.

Pamela Vaccaro, a St. Louis Culinary Historian, writes (in Beyond the Ice Cream Cone) the hot dog bun was “born” in St. Louis in 1883 (this is an alternative to the Coney Island origin story). She also notes Kraig (actually it was Gerald Cohen, David Shulman and Barry Popik in their book Origin of the Term “Hotdog”) traces the term “hot dog” to various college magazines, including one at Yale in the fall of 1894. But we know “hot dog” was used well before then.

Furthermore, Vaccaro says 1893 was the critical year for hot dogs because that was when it had explosive popularity at the Chicago World’s Fair as well as being introduced at a baseball park (perhaps for the first time) in St. Louis by the owner of the St. Louis Browns (the team eventually became the Baltimore Orioles).

Nonetheless, the question remains: Why the hamburger and not the hot dog? Why has White Castle (1921), McDonald’s (1948), In-N-Out (1948), and their many rival national burger fast food chains ascended to such heights while the much older Nathan’s Famous (1916) and its local hot dog competitors stayed mostly regional (at best)?

Remember, what could be more American than baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet (to quote a popular yet ironic 1974 jingle)?

In 1949, when the St. Louis World’s Fair hamburger origin myth was firmly established, Dan O’Connell, a Chicago hamburger franchise owner (he had 15 locations and claimed to sell 1 million a year), piggybacked off his successful “World’s Largest Hamburger” stunt and formed the Hamburger Society of America.

Through this organization, he appealed to President Harry Truman to declare a “National Hamburger Week” as compensation for the late President Roosevelt serving (Nathan’s Famous) hot dogs to the British king and queen when they visited Hyde Park. Thus, the war between the hamburger and the hot dog was officially declared. Remember, this was before all but the very few were thinking of “fast food.”

Within 10 years, the hamburger was well on its way to becoming the king (Cornell grads James McLamore and David Edgerton started Burger King in 1959 and McDonald’s already had more than 120 locations). Ironically, by the time Chevy aired its 1974 commercial, there more than 1,000 McDonald’s restaurants in operation and the burger had long ago relegated the hot dog to the back seat. (The same could have been said of baseball, too, which had been surpassed by football – which, if you think about it, is not a good look for Chevrolet).

Speaking of irony, the story of New York City’s rebuilding of Madison Square Park presents an apt metaphor. In 2000, the City chose to install a high-end hot dog cart that became very popular. Lines would form and sales grew. In 2004, the City opted to replace the cart with a permanent kiosk. The hot dog cart was replaced by Shake Shack which has since become a trendy publicly traded “fast casual” chain best known for its “Shackburger.”

Sure, Shack Shake still sells hot dogs, but its featured last in the restaurant’s online menu. You’d have to page through eight different versions of hamburgers, a grilled cheese sandwich, three chicken choices, three kinds of crinkle cut fries, six kinds of shakes and frozen custard before finally ending with a single ordinary hot dog. Yes, even the everyday grilled cheese sandwich gets a higher billing than the lowly hot dog.

What happened to this once quintessential American food?

One theory: Hamburgers, unlike hot dogs, can be made in your own kitchen with ease. This can be seen in a 1923 Messenger-Inquirer (Owensboro, Kentucky), column titled “The Home Kitchen,” by Jeannette Young Norton, “The Authority on Home Cooking.” Under the banner “Appetizing Ways to Prepare Hamburg Steak,” she describes hoe the everyday housewife can fashion “Hot Hamburg Sandwiches” for her hungry family. This article appears two years after White Castle emerged as a popular (albeit clandestine for wealthy folks) Midwest eatery. Perhaps Jeanette saw a wave coming and wanted to catch it.

This “do-it-yourself” theory, however, ignores the fact that hot dogs aren’t even #2 in the fast-food industry. That slot goes to pizza, something until recently was not usually made from scratch at home (unless you’re Italian).

Maybe there’s a better explanation. Maybe it’s as simple as this: juicy hamburgers make you mouth water in ways hot dogs can never do.

The bottom-line is simply this: Hamburgers just taste better.

Have a happy National Hot Dog Day!

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