Corn Dog: The Beef Wellington of Common Folks, On a Stick
When he isn’t inspiring a worldwide audience with food porn, throwing things and cursing at contestants on any of his several television programs, or raking in millions worldwide in various business dealings, Chef Gordon Ramsey is proselytizing foodies everywhere to convert to the Gospel of the Beef Wellington. “Beef Wellington has to be the ultimate indulgence, it’s one of my all-time favourite main courses and it would definitely be on my last supper menu,” proclaims the superstar chef on his own website’s detailed page about his now-signature dish.
He isn’t wrong about the indulgence part. Ramsey’s version of Beef Wellington cranks the culinary catharsis up to 11 with ingredients like Parma ham and a layer of cooked mushrooms all wrapped in a meticulously prepared puff pastry and the finest cut of beef filet, with a sauce as rich as the rest of it. A meal fit for a conquering hero, foodie checking off their bucket list items, or well-to-do diners at any of Gordon’s higher-end restaurants who find that blood has just been shooting too freely through their veins and need something to slow it down a bit. It helps if their money flows just as freely as the calorie counter for such a meal, as the pricing of Beef Wellington at the Savoy Grill in London will run you 94 Pounds Sterling, or $120 odd US depending on exchange rate. But that is for two, and you can spend that and more on starters and wine in the 45+ minute wait you are advised it will take to serve it up.
Worth it? Absolutely.
Realistic for us humble folks? Absolutely not.
But that’s ok, since Wellington probably doesn’t haven’t anything to do with it anyway. In fact, the origins of this pinnacle of glutinous awesomesauce are actually very humble.
Wrapping meat in pastry has been a favoured culinary technique in many countries for many centuries- The Greeks were the first to wrap a flour and water paste around their meat to seal it before cooking, and the Cornish Pasty (the stalwart of miners’ lunchboxes) has been around since the 14th Century. However, the Beef Wellington most closely resembles the French filet de boeuf en croute and may well have been renamed the Beef Wellington after the Battle of Waterloo – rather than being a dish specifically created for the Duke of Wellington.
Now, you can go chasing the actual origins of the Beef Wellington down an internet rabbit hole of legends, myths, and really fun stories but the truth is no one really knows. Beef Wellington does have most of its similarities to French cuisine of encasing beef in pastry, and the humble Cornish Pasty (for the American imagination, think homemade hot pocket and you have a good idea what’s going on) does seem to resemble something that could be upscaled to the modern day marvel of chef excess. Really it’s the perfect dish for someone like Gordon Ramsey; a French trained Scottish Chef who gained fame in London before conquering America via television. Rags to riches, simple sustenance to haute cuisine, easy peasy lemon squeezy. Makes for a nice, neat, story arc, but the expanded universe of “pastry ensconced beef” is even more complicated.
Wellington was here in the states before Gordon, though. While the other side of the pond debates the who, what, and why of it there, the American theory of the case of wrapped meat is pretty simple. Recipes for “Wellington” are found in published form in the 30s and before, and by the 1960s it was reportedly Nixon’s favorite and was included in the White House cookbook. But mostly, Beef Wellington gained fame the way a great deal of European cookery was brought to the masses of America in that era, this time another foreigner who found food love in France and returned home triumphant, Julia Child.
But there was a domestic disturbance in the culinary force a generation before that, an American twist on the millennia-old tradition of dough and dead animal vittles.
No one really knows for sure, it depends on which version of the story you believe, but if you think the battle over Beef Wellington gets complicated the conqueror of Napoleon doesn’t have anything on pre-WW2 American fair food.
While the miners in Cornwall may have been stuffing whatever they could find in dough for their Cornish Pasty lunches for a long time, the quintessential common folk street food found its way to New York City via a German immigrant. It didn’t take long for Americans to figure out that one way to make a hot dog even better was to batter and fry it. A generation after NYC and Coney Island made the meat tube a staple, what would come to be known as the corn dog started popping up all over the country.
Widely popular by the time WW2 rolled around, who got there first is a regional war of foodie bragging rights that probably will never be settled. Minnesotans will claim the “Pronto pups” as the first, but don’t call it a corn dog unless you want it served with a side lecture on the cornmeal vs pancake batter debate. That “Pronto Pup” name also appears attached to battered meat on a stick at George and Vera Boyington’s soda fountain in Portland, Oregon at roughly the same time. Texans usually claim the Fletcher brothers and their “corny dog” the vaudeville performers sold as a side hustle. A drive-in in Muskogee, Oklahoma claims they created it to speed up cooking cornbread sandwiches and should be famous for both stick fried food and Merle Haggard songs. Then there is this Jenkins feller up in Buffalo, New York who might predate all of them by inventing a process to make corn dogs but not how to sell it and make himself famous, or any money for that matter. Then there is the breakfast cousin of the corn dog of pancake batter and sausage on a stick, or as my own children called in in their early speaking days “sausage biscuit pancake on a stick.”
The point is, working class folks have been eating meat wrapped in dough, batter, or pastry for as long as we’ve had folks, dough, and meat. There is evidence the Egyptians took time out from building pyramids to deep fry stuff, and in the intervening seven-thousand-odd years to American fair midways plenty of meat-and-dough combinations have occured. From the Cornish miners’ Pasty to the West Virginia miners’ pepperoni rolls, such vittles have been a Trans-Atlantic food staple. Add a stick, a hotdog, and deep fry it and you got yourself something special, not to mention portable. Make it a beef filet and add French technique while subtracting the stick, you have fine dining.
So is it really foodie sacrilege to compare the vaunted Beef Wellington to the humble corn dog? Not historically, at least. Food has been, is, and always will be the product of inventive minds, whether they be in the Michelin-bedecked kitchens of Gordon Ramsey or the freezer section of your local Walmart. Meat in a dough is just good eats, and if there is a stick involved portable good eats. If you want to make it sound more fancy, you could always claim the stick in the corn dog is a metaphor for the stick Napoleon clearly had up his butt before Arthur Wellesley kicked it all over the field at Waterloo. It’s just as true as most of the legends of Beef Wellington and corn dogs, and as we all know, the story just makes the dish all the better, true or not.
No matter if you are dining in your finest at The Savoy in London, mining tin in Cornwall with a pouch of leftovers in the 18th century, eating a corn dog at the county fair, or even microwaving good eats on a stick just to shut the hungry kids up after school, hold your head high. You are the participant in a proud culinary tradition that spans from the most common of folks to the food elites, which can only be made better with knowledge and condiments. But mostly condiments. Knowledge dipped in mustard or ketchup is just weird.