Hot dogs run the gamut from bargain basement wieners to high-end gourmet franks, but the kosher dog holds a special place in many people’s hearts. Here’s how the kosher hot dog made it big in America.
If you grew up near or currently live in a major U.S. city, there’s a good chance you associate hot dog vendors with everyday urban life—or catching a ball game at the local stadium. But that is nothing new. For well over a century, vendors have been selling hot dogs to busy Americans who want a quick, cheap meal on the go.
While it’s hard to pin down the frankfurter’s exact origin, it most likely evolved from the cuisine of European countries such as Germany and Austria, where sausages are well-loved. But if ever a wiener could be tied to the American dream, the kosher hot dog is it.
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The Kosher Dog’s Origin Story
According to food historian Bruce Kraig, author of “Hot Dog: A Global History” and co-author of “Man Bites Dog: Hot Dog Culture in America”, hot dogs have been a way up in the world for immigrants in the U.S. since the 19th century.
“In the 1860s, many German Jewish immigrants who had been middle class in their home country became peddlers here,” he says. They, along with Eastern European Jews who arrived a bit later, ended up selling street food in the Jewish neighborhoods of the cities where they lived, such as the Lower East Side of Manhattan and Maxwell Street in Chicago.
Sausages were a cheap source of protein, Kraig explains. “A vendor could get a hot dog for a penny or two and, with accoutrements, they could sell them for a nickel.” In addition to vendors, Jewish immigrants established sausage-making operations and delis that sold specialty items eagerly embraced by their community and the general public.
As for the name “hot dog,” Kraig credits American songwriter Septimus Winner, who published the song, “Oh Where, Oh Where Ish Mine Little Dog Gone” in 1864. Set to a popular German folk tune and often sung at the time with a fake German accent by vaudeville performers, the lyrics imply that the singer’s missing dog may have ended up as sausage. These types of jokes date back to medieval times, says Kraig, like the one about neighborhood cats and dogs disappearing when the German butcher comes to town.
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By the 1890s, the hot dog moniker was in widespread use across the country. But while it may have been based on a joke, the underlying health concerns about where meat came from was no laughing matter.
Kosher’s Marketing Cachet
In 1906, Upton Sinclair’s novel “The Jungle” exposed the ugly reality of the American meat industry to a horrified public. One of the many reasons it had such an impact was because it played on fears consumers had been grappling with for centuries, including what was in their beloved sausages.
Meanwhile, Jewish sausage-makers were producing all-beef franks (pork, at the time, was seen as a lesser meat and certainly wasn’t kosher) that sometimes even exceeded government standards. It didn’t take long for people to associate kosher hot dogs with high quality. This led to some of the most brilliant marketing campaigns the food industry has ever seen.
Hebrew National, founded in 1905 and one of the most recognizable kosher hot dog brands still in existence, owes much of its success to branding. Its founder, Theodore Krainin, was a Russian Jewish immigrant and sausage-maker on the Lower East Side. He marketed his business as having higher standards for cleanliness and quality because he complied with kosher law.
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In case you need to feed a crowd...or just really love hot dogs.
More than a century later, Krainin’s original kosher hot dog recipe has remained largely intact, although they eliminated the use of artificial colors and flavors in the 1980s. But it was Hebrew National’s marketing campaigns in the latter half of the 20th century that made it a household name. According to Dan Skinner, the manager of brand communications at ConAgra, which acquired Hebrew National in 1993, the famous slogan, “We answer to a higher authority” is a play on words that cleverly refers both to religion and to the rigorous standards of kosher certification. You might remember it from the famous commercial featuring an actor dressed up as Uncle Sam, which first aired in the 1970s.
You don’t have to be religious, Jewish, or from a major city to enjoy a kosher hot dog. Whether or not it’s actually the healthier choice is questionable—it can be just as high in fat and sodium as other types of hot dogs. But if you’re looking for a cheap, quick meal on-the-go that also represents the struggle for immigrants to achieve the American Dream, a kosher dog is certainly a worthy option.
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