The American Hot Dog Craze
The exact time and location the hot dog first took our veritable Republic by storm are unfortunately lost to memory, different cities and people claimed to have been the first to serve the modern hot dog on a bun, but its ancestral roots are clear. Before Hispanics, Italians, Jewish, or Polish, the country’s first mass immigrant group was from the fatherland of ground tubed meat, Germany. German immigrants had been a part of the US since before the revolution, though they didn't start flooding the nation until the 1840s. Displaced by political upheaval back home, Germans populated not only the farmland of the Midwest, but filled the burgeoning industrial cities as well. By the end of the 19th century, 25% of Chicago’s population was either born in Germany or first generation.
As anyone who walked Taylor St in 1920s or Devon Ave today could tell you, food is an essential part of cultural identity. What we eat, how we eat it, and who we eat with will make up the backbone of daily life, and as immigrant groups attempt to survive and assimilate it is often their cuisine that sustains them. The Germans of Chicago were no different than any group that came after, they brought a taste of home along in the form of sausages, in particular the frankfurter, the skinny mixture of pork, beef, and spices from Vienna, godfather of the hot dog we love today. Americans of the 19th century were no less hungry than us for the newest food craze, and the frankfurter exploded across the country as a quick, cheap, and most importantly, delicious on-the-go meal.
With their sausage skills in demand and a huge pool of cheap labor, Germans dominated Chicago's meat industry. In 1880 its estimated 36% of all butchers in the city were German immigrants and many more were of German origin. The frankfurters they brought with them were the perfect industrial food item. Chicago was the meatpacking capital of the world, butchering hogs and cattle from all over the Midwest, and thus was a leader in the industrialization of food. The introduction of steam-powered meat choppers allowed Chicago factories to turn less desirable meat trimmings, from their plants in the Union Stock Yards, into the affordable street food. Chicago's oldest hot dog brand, David Berg, was founded in 1860, and national brands like Armour and Oscar Mayer soon followed.