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
Lexile

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)
  • GemmaV-del
    10/29/2017 - 10:41 a.m.

    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."

  • SarahT-del
    10/29/2017 - 11:56 a.m.

    You eat hot dogs but never realized how the origin story started. Just by creating a restaurant near the subway to serving hot dogs at Roosevelt's lawn party seems like it took a lot of work to create these hot dogs and why theres over 300 stores serving these frankfurters.

  • ChloeR-del
    10/29/2017 - 12:25 p.m.

    According to the article,there are at least two things that make Coney Island hot dogs "uniquely American". First, the place where it all started is a typical and historical American amusement park in Brooklyn,New York. Secondly,the history of the different Coney Island hot dogs is an illustration of the specific American experience of immigration from Europe through Ellis Island. People from Germany,Poland,Greece,and Macedonia brought their own food and taste to make the Coney Island hot dogs what they are today!

  • JuliaA -del
    10/29/2017 - 12:33 p.m.

    The article states the story of the Coney Island hot dog is "uniquely American." As you can see in the picture above, it doesn't look like any other hot dog.

  • AngelinaB-del
    10/29/2017 - 03:29 p.m.

    This article is about the origin of the hot dog. Many historians disagree about the origin of the hot dog but most believe it was Charles Feltman who was responsible. Charles Feltman was a pie-wagon vendor who is known for inventing the fast food. The Coney dog was spread across the eastern U.S. by immigrants in the 1900s ad the 1910s.

  • JustinM-del
    10/29/2017 - 04:41 p.m.

    The main idea is how the origin of the Coney Island hot dog is a uniquely American story and how Hot dogs have been associated with Coney Island since frankfurter first met bun.it is also about how hot dogs were made there and founded by

  • RushB-del
    10/29/2017 - 05:56 p.m.

    The story of the Coney Island hotdog is "uniquely American" because of the interesting and dynamic different sauces and meat it had


  • JadeR-del
    10/29/2017 - 06:21 p.m.

    The article says that the story of the Coney Island hot dog is "uniquely American" because "Hot dogs have been associated with Coney Island since frankfurter first met bun."
    It is like an old story and for example George Washington was the first president we all know this, and we always reference back to him, just like many others do with hot dogs beginning in Coney Island.

  • OlivierJ-del
    10/29/2017 - 08:39 p.m.

    Coney Island has many great restaurants and this is definitely one of them.I have visited Nathan's and they sure do have great hotdogs.

  • WilliamF-del
    10/30/2017 - 07:03 a.m.

    This is pretty cool. The article explains how coney island and hot dogs are related. I also like hot dogs so it was interesting that Nathanile might have been around when a hot dog was made

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