The origin of the Coney Island hot dog is a uniquely American story A Coney dog. (Diádoco via WIkicommons/Benlmoyer via WIkicommons)
The origin of the Coney Island hot dog is a uniquely American story
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The hot dog is a quintessentially American food. It has been associated with Coney Island, America's most storied amusement resort. Hot dogs have been associated with Coney Island since frankfurter first met bun. But Nathan's century-old triumph of entrepreneurship is only part of the Ellis-Island-meets-Coney-Island story. Thanks to immigrants from Northern and Eastern Europe alike, the name "Coney Island hot dog" means one thing in New York and it means another in the Midwest and beyond.

Historians disagree on the hot dog's origin story. But many credit Charles Feltman. He was a Coney Island pie-wagon vendor who is credited with inventing the fast food. He served hot dachshund sausages in milk rolls as early as 1867. The National Hot Dog and Sausage Council says Feltman opened a hot dog stand on Coney Island in 1871. He sold 3,684 sausages that year. Sausages took Feltman far and by the turn of the century, he'd gone upscale. He created Feltman's German Gardens, a huge complex of restaurants. It was on Surf Avenue and employed 1,200 waiters. Seafood became Feltman's specialty, but he still had seven grills dedicated to hot dogs. In the 1910s, he sold them for ten cents apiece.

Nathan Handwerker was a Polish immigrant. He had a day job as a restaurant delivery boy. He worked Sunday afternoons at Feltman's German Gardens slicing rolls. According to Handwerker's 1974 New York Times obituary, Jimmy Durante and Eddie Cantor encouraged Handwerker to strike out from Feltman's and sell hot dogs for a nickel instead of a dime. Durante and Cantor worked as singing waiters on Coney Island before they found fame.

In 1916, he did just that. He opened a small hot-dog stand with his wife. The stand was at Surf and Stillwell. The subway's extension to Coney Island in 1920 brought countless New Yorkers to his stand. "Society people, politicians, actors and sportsmen flocked to Nathan's." That is according to the obituary. "They brushed shoulders with truck drivers, laborers, and housewives." 

Franklin D. Roosevelt famously served Nathan's hot dogs at a 1936 lawn party for Britain's George VI and his wife, Queen Elizabeth. She is the late mother of the now-reigning Queen Elizabeth II.

But outside New York, the Coney Island name evokes an entirely different hot-dog tradition. In Michigan, "Coney Island" doesn't mean an amusement park. Instead, it is but one of an estimated 500 diners in the Metro Detroit area alone. They serve Greek food and "Coney dogs." Coney dogs are hot dogs smothered in chili or ground beef, plus mustard and onions. There are plenty more diners elsewhere in Michigan, across the Midwest and beyond.

The Coney dog was spread across the eastern U.S. by various Greek and Macedonian immigrants in the 1900s and 1910s. The restaurateurs were part of the great wave of Greek migration to the U.S. that included 343,000 people between 1900 and 1919. They fled the economic desolation caused by Greece's 1893 bankruptcy and a crash in the price of currants. Back then, currants were Greece's main export. "Many of them passed through New York's Ellis Island. They heard about or visited Coney Island. They later borrowed this name for their hot dogs, according to one legend." That's according to Katherine Yung and Joe Grimm in their 2012 book “Coney Detroit.”

In that era, Americans associated New York's Coney Island with hot dog authenticity. Back then, the name "hot dog" was out of favor; amid the concern about meat-packing standards inspired by Upton Sinclair's book “The Jungle.” It still carried a hint of suggestion that the cheap sausages were made of dog meat. Handwerker called them "red hots," others "Coney Island hots."

Naming the inventor of the Coney dog - the first person to slather chili or sprinkle ground beef on a sausage - is a fool's errand. Various Coney Island restaurants in Michigan and Indiana vie for the title, claiming founding dates in the mid-1910s, but they don't appear in city directories from the era until the 1920s. Many Greeks and Macedonians likely hit upon the idea of dressing hot dogs in variations on saltsa kima, their homeland's spicy tomato-based meat sauce. 

"The Coney Island's formidable beef topping with a sweet-hot twang has a marked Greek accent," wrote Jane and Michael Stern in their 2009 book “500 Things to Eat Before It's Too Late.”

It's easy, though, to locate the Coney dog's ground zero, the Midwest's version of Surf and Stillwell: the corner of West Lafayette Boulevard and Michigan Avenue in Detroit.

Today, Nathan's is an international chain, with more than 300 restaurants and stands, mostly on the East Coast. It's added a chili dog to its menu. Coney Island blogger and historian Michael Quinn is reviving the Feltman's red-hots brand, which went extinct with Feltman's restaurant in 1954. He's teamed up with a sausage-maker to make a red hot in homage to the original, which he's selling at pop-up event

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why does the article say that the story of the Coney Island hot dog is "uniquely American"?
Write your answers in the comments section below


COMMENTS (49)
  • AnnabelleA-del
    10/27/2017 - 04:25 p.m.

    I found this article pretty interesting. I myself, am not a fan of hot dogs. I used to be, though. The article's main idea was about how the coney island hotdog came along and i felt that it was described vividly.

  • NatalieH-del
    10/27/2017 - 06:26 p.m.

    The Coney Island hot dog was brought from immigrants. It's dipped in chilli and other toppings.

  • AkshayB-del
    10/28/2017 - 02:34 p.m.

    Overall the story was interesting to me because i learned something new and like to know funny interesting facts. In the this article it talks about how the Coney Island hot dog is a uniquely American story. Nathan Handwerker was a Polish immigrant who worked at Feltman's German Gardens. People from the New York Times encouraged Handwerker to strike out from Feltman's and sell hot dogs for a nickel instead of a dime. In 1916, he opened a small hot dog shop with his wife and people were lining up for his stand just for buying a hot dog. Even after everybody started making it which became known as the coney dogs. The coney dogs had beef topping with a sweet-hot twang, a bun, sausage, with onion, and mustard.

  • MarianaG-del
    10/28/2017 - 03:11 p.m.

    This article is about Coney Island hot dogs. It tells about who made the hot dog. It also tells you about Coney dogs.

  • TiffanyW-del
    10/28/2017 - 03:24 p.m.

    The article says that the story of the Coney Island hot dog is “uniquely American”. In that era, Americans associated New York's Coney Island with hot dog authenticity.

  • GregoryM-del
    10/28/2017 - 06:04 p.m.

    The hot dog originated in Coney Island a renowned American theme park. Then the food started to grow and develop in America

  • PriscillaD-del
    10/28/2017 - 08:42 p.m.

    This story is about the origin of the hot dog. Also how the origin of the hot dog began in Coney Island.

  • ChloeT-del
    10/28/2017 - 11:39 p.m.

    This article is about how different hot dog companies started and how their stories were unique and different. For example, it shows that Nathan from the "Nathans" company that sells hot dogs first started out as a delivery boy and slicing rolls. Then he turned out to have a business of hot dogs which is currently still selling.

  • ZofiaT-del
    10/29/2017 - 09:17 a.m.

    The hot-dog looks interesting. The article comments about how its an American favorite, but I am not so sure about that. The different ingredients dont sound healthy, along with the hot dog.

  • ReesePratt-del
    10/29/2017 - 10:18 a.m.

    Many people love hot dogs but coney island hot dogs are great. They are great and original.

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