The truth about the US’ most iconic food

The truth about the US’ most iconic food

A sizzling symbol of Americana eaten at stadiums and barbecues, the humble hot dog originated in a very unlikely place: the beach.

If there’s any food that represents Americana, it’s the humble hot dog. Today, these bunned frankfurters are sold at every baseball game, grilled at nearly every backyard barbecue and available at roadside convenience stores from the Carolinas to California. In fact, this most archetypal of American foods originated as the US started to stitch itself back together in the 1860s following the American Civil War and forge its new identity. But while you can now find these seasoned sausage sandwiches across the American heartland, the hot dog’s iconic home is on the boardwalk at New York’s Coney Island.

The truth about the US’ most iconic food
View image of If there’s any food that represents Americana, it’s the humble hot dog (Credit: Credit: Loop Images/Getty Images)

As the city was sweating its way through a heat wave, I recently descended into the furnace that was the New York City subway and fled Manhattan for the soothing breezes of the Coney Island seashore. The beachside Brooklyn amusement park is a mixture of kitsch and family-friendly fun: its wooden boardwalk and golden sand is crowded with rides, games and food joints that have catered to hardworking New Yorkers for more than a century. On the corner of Surf and Stillwell Avenues, I saw a swell of beachgoers line up under tall, white signs bearing the name ‘Nathan’s Famous’ that proudly advertises: ‘This is the original: World famous frankfurters since 1916’.

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Yet, a mere two blocks away, I spotted another sign attached to a small shop directly beside the historic Cyclone rollercoaster that read: ‘Feltman’s of Coney Island: The original hot dog – 1867’.

Up to that point, I’d thought that Coney Island hot dogs began and ended with Nathan’s, whose name has been synonymous with the seaside theme park for as long as anyone can remember. But while Nathan’s boasts that it’s ‘the original’, it turns out that they weren’t even the first company on the boardwalk to bun a hot dog. According to Brooklyn native and Coney Island historian Michael Quinn, a German immigrant named Charles L Feltman was serving hot dogs along the bustling strip decades before Nathan’s was conceived.

The truth about the US’ most iconic food
View image of The hot dog’s iconic home is on the boardwalk at New York’s Coney Island (Credit: Credit: All Canada Photos/Alamy)

Feltman came to the US in 1856. Like many German immigrants at the time, he brought with him a fondness for the frankfurter sausages that were common in his homeland. A trained baker, Feltman opened a Brooklyn bakery in 1865 and earned a decent living delivering pies to Coney Island businesses from a push cart, while selling clams on the side.

As the newly opened Coney Island and Brooklyn Railroad brought many more people to the seaside from Manhattan in the late 1860s, customers told Feltman that they wanted to eat hot food, not cold clams, according to Richard F Snow, the former editor of American Heritage Magazine. So in 1867, Feltman called on the wheelwright who’d originally made his cart and asked him to modify it. The craftsman built a custom charcoal brazier for cooking sausages and a metal box for warming bread.

Feltman’s American beachside take on the German beer-garden speciality proved to be a sizzling success

That summer, as much of the nation was recovering from the Civil War, Feltman pushed his custom cart up and down the Coney Island sand, selling nearly 4,000 ‘Coney Island red hots’ in his signature long bun for a nickel each. It was that bun, a modification from the way frankfurters were served back in Germany without bread, that made the sausage easy to eat at the beach. The term ‘hot dog’ wouldn’t be coined for some years yet, but Feltman’s American beachside take on the German beer-garden speciality proved to be a sizzling success.

In 1871, Feltman leased a small seaside plot on West 10th Street and opened a restaurant called Feltman’s Ocean Pavilion. With success came expansion, and by the turn of the century, Feltman’s humble pie cart had grown into a full-on empire spanning an entire block – complete with nine restaurants, a roller coaster, carousel, ballroom, outdoor movie theatre, hotel, beer garden, bathhouse, pavilion and Alpine village that once hosted US president William Howard Taft.

According to Sharon Seitz and Stuart Miller in their book, The Other Islands of New York City, Feltman even persuaded Andrew Culver, president of the Prospect Park and Coney Island Railroad, to extend his new railroad’s timetable so customers could stay at Feltman’s for dinner. At its peak, Feltman’s managed to churn out up to 40,000 red hots a day, as well as seafood dinners in the more salubrious surroundings of his Ocean Pavilion complex. Feltman died in 1910 a wealthy man. His company, by then managed by his sons Charles and Alfred, employed more than 1,000 people, and by the 1920s, Feltman’s was considered the largest restaurant in the world.

The truth about the US’ most iconic food
View image of Hot dogs were first invented by Charles L Feltman in 1867, and they quickly became a success (Credit: Credit: Granger Historical Picture Archive/Alamy)

In the midst of this early 20th-Century red hot boom, the Feltman family hired a Polish immigrant named Nathan Handwerker whose job was to slice the rolls. According to Lloyd Handwerker (Nathan’s grandson) in his book Famous Nathan, after two friends encouraged Handwerker to open up his own red hot business, he sometimes slept on the kitchen floor at Feltman’s to save money. Then in 1916, armed with a $300 loan and his wife’s family’s recipe, Handwerker opened his own shop mere blocks away from his old employer. Handwerker realised that to compete he needed to appeal to the masses, so he sold his hot dogs at a nickel each, undercutting Feltman’s, who by then, charged a dime for theirs.

After a rocky ride during the Great Depression and World War Two, the Feltman family eventually sold their business in the 1940s. The new owners nursed along a business whose tagline had once had been the ‘caterer to millions’ before closing its doors for good in 1954. For the first time in over half a century, Nathan’s was the only hot dog to be reckoned with on Coney Island’s boardwalk, and the many fans of Feltman’s larger, juicier franks were left hungry for more.

The truth about the US’ most iconic food
View image of In 1916, one of Feltman’s former employees, Nathan Handwerker, opened his own hot dog shop (Credit: Credit: Erica Schroeder/Alamy)

“My grandfather was a faithful Feltman’s customer during the Depression era,” Quinn said.

“How did the two compare?” I asked Quinn.

“My grandfather said he always preferred the overall quality of Feltman’s to Nathan’s,” he replied. Even though Quinn wasn’t alive to ever taste the original Feltman’s hot dogs before it closed, his grandfather’s stories of eating Coney Island red hots stayed with him – so much so that as an adult, “I set out to recreate my grandfather’s experience,” he told me.

Quinn and his two brothers grew up in southern Brooklyn, and Coney Island was their playground. As a child, Quinn dreamed of opening a business with his siblings, but when his brother Jimmy passed away in the World Trade Center on 9/11, he and his brother Joe decided to honour Jimmy by resurrecting the Feltman’s brand. Fortunately, Quinn’s grandfather was good friends with a former employee who made Feltman’s hot dogs and he gave him the original Frankfurter spice blend Feltman used in his red hots. Quinn’s grandfather later passed this recipe along to Quinn. Several years and a “few bucks” later, Quinn purchased the Feltman’s name in 2015 and opened a tiny takeout window from the inside of a theatre in the East Village. He was finally able to reopen Feltman’s in the exact same location as Feltman’s original Coney Island restaurant in May 2017.

It’s likely to be the best hot dog you’ll ever eat in your life

As the historical wooden Cyclone creaked and rattled in the background, a small group of customers gathered outside Feltman’s. Quinn asked me if I wanted to try one of his red hots. Made from premium beef with just the right measure of spices and no additives, it was as tasty as he had promised. He added a heap of sauerkraut to give just a hint of sharpness, and a squirt of mustard, made with his own recipe. At first, I hesitated to add mustard. But when Quinn looked disappointed that I wasn’t going to try his signature blend, I changed my mind.

It was good – so good in fact, that in the past few years, Feltman’s has been named one of the US’ 10 best hot dogs by The Daily Meal, with Gothamist declaring, “There is only one item on the Feltman’s menu, and it’s a hot dog… but it’s likely to be the best hot dog you’ll ever eat in your life.” Today, Feltman’s hot dogs are available in roughly 1,500 supermarkets from New York to California, and just last week, it set the Guinness World Record for creating the world’s largest hot dog: a 75lb, 5ft-long bunned behemoth.

The truth about the US’ most iconic food
View image of When Feltman’s closed its doors in 1954, Nathan’s was the only hot dog to be reckoned with on Coney Island’s boardwalk (Credit: Credit: Pacific Press/Getty Images)

And what of Nathan’s? Handwerker’s business acumen and his wife’s grandmother’s recipe laid the foundation for an international empire whose products are now sold in more than 55,000 supermarkets, club stores and restaurants across more than 10 countries.

Today, Nathan’s Famous Inc.’s international Hot Dog Eating Contest, which has taken place each 4 July since 1972 at its original Coney Island location, is televised across the country. While the Nathan’s name and its annual gross income of more than $40 million now dominate Feltman’s franks, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the best. Allegedly, the Guinness World Records competitive eater Takeru Kobayashi (who knows a thing or two about seasoned sausage after winning the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest six straight times) prefers the taste of Feltman’s.

But don’t just take Kobayashi’s word for it. Find Feltman’s in the supermarket aisle, order Nathan’s across the globe and decide for yourself which is your favourite.

Culinary Roots is a series from BBC Travel connecting to the rare and local foods woven into a place’s heritage.

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