hamburgers and hot dogs -- 3/20/17

Today's selection -- from Ten Restaurants that Changed America by Paul Freedman. Hamburgers and hot dogs:

"Why did the hamburger triumph as opposed to the hot dog? 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 centuries. This isn't easy to answer, but 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. Like the hamburger, the 'frankfurter' or 'wiener' shows its Germanic origin by its name. These sausages were brought to the United States by Ger­mans, who, along with the Irish, were the largest segment of immigrants in the mid-nineteenth century. The original Wiener was white and pre­dominantly veal; the Frankfurter spicier and with a greater proportion of beef. They were just another kind of sausage until the moment they started being wrapped in buns. This ingenious invention seems to have been first marketed by Charles Feltman, whose Feltman's German Gar­dens in Coney Island started as a food cart in 1867. Nathan Handwerker, an employee of Feltman's, opened Nathan's, also on Coney Island, in 1916. The hot dog was popularized by the St. Louis World's Fair of 1904, but so close was the association with its New York birthplace that the name for them in parts of the United States (Michigan, for example) is still 'Coney Islands.'

"As with the hamburger somewhat later, the innovation of putting a ground meat preparation inside a bun made it more convenient. At first this attracted amusement, even mistrustful derision. Because of the resem­blance to the (German) dachshund, the frankfurter was dubbed a 'hot dog' by the 1890s at the latest. A comical rhyme asked, 'How could you be so mean, to grind up all those doggies in your hot-dog machine?' This bit of doggerel also alluded to both the advantage and disadvantage of ham­burgers as well as hot dogs: they were produced with ground meat, which made them inexpensive compared to identifiable cuts of meat, but also regarded as dubious in their composition.

White Castle employee is assembling hamburgers.

"Before 1920, hamburgers and hot dogs were essentially novelties like cotton candy or saltwater taffy -- eaten at amusement parks, baseball games, state fairs, or from street carts (Sabrett's hot dogs in New York City and Vienna Beef in Chicago are survivors from this era). They were not considered real foods and were thus regarded as lower-class and unhealth­ful, although certainly tasty and amusing. More than any other purveyor, White Castle, founded in Wichita, Kansas, in 1921, created the modern hamburger. It perfected small, flat hamburgers accompanied by a spe­cially designed square bun with a flat bottom and puffed top that, unlike sliced bread or toast, could absorb the meat juices without becoming soaked. White Castle encouraged people to take the small hamburgers away with them, so that the stores functioned as rudimentary restaurants, but also as, in effect, purveyors of infinitely reproducible, simple, quickly prepared food. The company emphasized the purity of its burgers, using the white image of the crenellated castle exterior while the stainless steel counter gave a hygienic look to the establishments' interior. Standardiza­tion was publicized, even boasted about, to demonstrate the quality of a product otherwise viewed with suspicion. Here again, in our age in which individual, artisanal treatment is regarded as superior to robots or freez­ers for preparing food, it requires an effort to understand the attraction of machine-made, 'untouched by human hands' mass production. ...

Exterior view of White Castle number 1. Located in Wichita_ Kansas.

"Standardization is good ... not only because of hygiene but because an exacting and beneficent organization makes sure you are guaranteed a consistent product and experience. ... White Castle may not single-handedly have ensured the victory of the hamburger, but it set the path for the postwar fast-food industry. Some later chains, such as Krystal in the South, kept the small-format hamburg­ers (what would now be called sliders), but most companies made the burger larger than White Castle's dainty squares. The Big Boy, served by a hamburger chain with that name started in 1937, was imitated in the 1960s with McDonald's Big Mac (two 1.6-ounce patties, 'special sauce,' lettuce, American cheese, pickles, and onions on a three-layered bun) and Burger King's Whopper (4 ounces of grilled beef served on a bun with tomato, onion, lettuce, pickle, mayonnaise, and ketchup). The so-called supersizing of burgers and drinks was the result of this competition to provide lots of calories inexpensively.

"The urban hamburger model of White Castle was transformed by highways, suburban roads, and endless yet ubiquitous strip malls. Unlike White Castle, McDonald's embraced franchising, as did other chain res­taurants whose expansion had to be rapid. McDonald's may be thought of as combining the White Castle hamburger with Howard Johnson's fran­chising, close supervision, and roadside orientation.

"The durable hot dog remains a staple for backyard barbecues and the like, but in the vast, dreary world of highway commerce, it has for a long time been superseded by the juicier allure and aroma of burgers."



Paul Freedman


Ten Restaurants That Changed America


Liveright Publishing Corporation


Copyright 2016 by Paul Freedman


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment