American Sandwich Project: Hot Dogs, Coney Dogs, and Carlos SpicyWeener
I have this very strange dream of cooking all the American sandwiches. Why? Because sandwiches are delicious, not horribly complicated, and they’re a great way to learn about the history and geography of the United States. Old and new, East and West, North and South, red states and blue. It’s a project I’ve set out to do several times and then been too broke or busy to follow through with it, but in this time of bubbles and divisiveness it seems like a noble cause. After all, who can hate a sandwich? They’re both yummy and apolitical. Maybe sandwiches are just the thing we need to heal the rifts in our country and bring us together again – at a picnic table, in the sunshine, passing the napkins, talking about the things we all agree on.
Big T is tablespoon, small t is teaspoon, c is cup.
Since we just observed Memorial Day and I didn’t get this article done in time to post it then, let’s discuss one of those sammies that is as American as Mom and Apple Pie, by which I mean it isn’t American at all and we shamelessly stole it from some other people.
Anyone who is about to debate as to whether a hot dog is a sandwich or not, first let me direct you to Ye Olde Comments Section where you can do just that to your heart’s delight. Just don’t expect me to read the comments, because the truth is, I don’t CARE if hot dogs are sandwiches or not. I’m not a sandwich taxonomer, I’m a sandwich geographer. Hot dogs are American, dammit, kinda, or at least we eat them a lot here, and there is bread involved, and that’s good enough for me. After all, I once wrote a sandwich article about tamales, so if you’re wanting a very high standard of sandwich purity, you’re probably not gonna find it in the digital pages of the American Sandwich Project.
But wait though…are hot dogs even American? Or are they interlopers from abroad? Cuckoos in the nest? Snakes in our boots? Like having a dad-blamed furriner for a First Lady??
Because an American Sandwich Project with a food that is neither American nor a sandwich will have people rioting in the streets!
Ok, I’ll level with you here. Hot dogs were not invented by Americans, but by Germans, back in the 1400s before America was even “discovered”. In fact, rumor has it that Christopher Columbus ate a hog dog and thought it was so good he needed to go out and find a country worthy of it and five years later (no, really, five years later) he “discovered” America and would have immediately set up a hot dog stand but he was too distracted plundering paradise. Little did he know there was more gold in selling hot dogs than he ever found in the New World.
Hot dogs originated in Frankfurt, Germany, where they were eaten not on buns, but bread, and so all us white trash poor folk who do exactly that are actually the only ones truly honoring the hot dog’s noble pedigree. These sausages were quickly embraced, and then devoured, by the people of Vienna, who ate so many of them they came to be called wieners in honor of that city.
This YouTube has nothing to do with hot dogs, it’s just a good song which is made infinitely more amusing now that I know that Vienna is synonymous with wiener.
The precursor sausage to hot dogs was brought to America at some point in the 1800s along with dachshunds, and allegedly people noted the resemblance between the dogs and the sausages, undoubtedly wondering “what is up with these Germans and their predilection for long skinny things, and OMGosh did you see that huge horn that they blow”, and thus the hot dog was christened.
Or so the story goes. What we do know for sure is that by 1895, they were popular enough so they were being eaten at Yale where they were definitely called “hot dogs”. We know this because Yale is full of smart people and smart people are careful to write everything down. By 1939 hot dogs were so synonymous with America that Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt served hot dogs to the King of England at Hyde Park and they were so good the king asked for seconds.
Originally, in America, hot dogs were served on neither bun nor bread. They were sold straight from the cart by a variety of vendors in New York, Chicago, and St. Louis depending on which apocryphal story you prefer and people who bought them were given a pair of gloves to protect from burning their hands on the hot wiener juice. Back then people didn’t have disposable gloves, and so customers were expected to return the gloves to be used again and again.
And people are worried about their reusable grocery bags.
People being people, many of them looked at those fabulous grease-soaked, germ-laden gloves and thought “hmm maybe I’ll just keep these bad boys for myself” and did exactly that. The rate of glove-stealery was so high that eventually one of the hot dog vendor’s wives suggested putting the dog onto a split roll instead, probably in no small part because she was sick of washing the damn things every night at the end of a long day of cleaning the tenement. They called hot dogs on a bun a “red hot”, and the rest is history. According to famed American curmudgeon HL Mencken, who claimed to have eaten a dawg in Baltimore in 1889, hot dog rolls used to be GOOD, instead of the “soggy rolls prevailing today, of ground acorns, plaster-of-paris, flecks of bath-sponge, and atmospheric air, all compact.”
But forget history. We want to know, are the rumors true?? Are there really earthworms and hog anuses in hot dogs?? And the answer to that is, no earthworms at all (that “erythorbate” the schoolyard kids used to swear were ground up earthworms is just a preservative made from corn starch) and surprisingly few hog anuses. I mean the percentage of hog anuses is pretty low, overall. Encouragingly low. Like, a couple enterprising anuses may have sneaked through by showing fake IDs, but when you butcher an animal, the first step is removing the guts, and the way the guts are removed is by removing the anus at the same time, in one fell swoop, because without a tightly clenched anus to keep the intestines in line the guts blow apart and send their contents spewing everywhere. Working in a meat packing plant is not a fun job under the best of circumstances so they try to contain these blowouts as much as they can, and that entails preventing gut spew whenever possible. This means the anus goes with the guts and not into the hot dogs.
Getting hungry yet?
The guts and most organs of the animal are legally considered “offal” and cannot be sold as human food. So rather than into hot dogs, offal goes off to the neighborhood dog food plant where it is turned into food for our furry friends. Think of that when your dog licks you later.
Slightly political aside that is not at all in keeping with the spirit of the American Sandwich Project:
I find it amusing when the same people who will lecture about how “the Native Americans used every part of the animal” would clutch their pearls and say that it’s animal cruelty to feed offal to dogs, when the truth is, dogs eat offal in the wild and love that shit (literally). I also find it amusing when the same people who would happily eat artisanal and exorbitantly priced sausage in natural casings (natural casings is the guts y’all) and cheered when the late Anthony Bourdain slurped down a plate of tripe, get all like “ewww hog anuses” when they see poor folks eating hot dogs. There is nothing wrong with using slightly-off-the-beaten-path animal parts in hot dogs, dog food, and Anthony Bourdain. It means the animal in question did not die so a greedy human can eat a sliver of the best of the best meat in keeping with their keto diet and then feed the second best sliver of meat to their dog, who is on Xanax from being cooped up inside all day instead of outside scrounging up some offal like God intended. Using every part of the animal is noble and that’s why we all think it was cool that the Native Americans did it.
People who bemoan the “grossness” of hot dogs are very often engaging in class warfare and should be viewed as such.
I apologize for that, but like so many other things in our culture, hot dogs, which should be sacrosanct, have become horrifically politicized.
Hot dogs have lots of variations but the most famous ones are my personal fave, the corn dog, which Andrew Donaldson generously and eloquently wrote about sparing me the need to do so, the chili dog, and the Coney Dog.
But before we get into all that we need to talk about how to cook a dawg to begin with. You probably have your own method, but first let me tell you how I learned to love hot dogs. I never liked hot dogs growing up, probably because my mom would get the absolute cheapest ones she could find, and then didn’t quite cook them all the way through, or else my stepfather cooked them on a grill, burning them black because he had accidentally doused them with lighter fluid, and yet still somehow managed not to cook them all the way through. Then to add insult to injury, they forced me to join a bowling league, despite the fact that I have no discernible sports abilities whatsoever and absolutely no interest in bowling. So every Saturday for a whole entire formative year I had to spend several hours at a bowling alley wearing shoes that were as vile as reusable hot-dog-eating gloves, and being embarrassingly bad at a sport in front of a lot of people who cared much more about bowling than I did, when I could have been watching MTV.
Hmm now that I think about it, the bowling alley was probably preparing me a lot more for what actual life was like than MTV. Humiliation, wasting massive quantities of time doing things you have no interest in, mysterious smells, and hardly any fedoras at all.
Anyhoo the good thing about the bowling league was that kids got a free hot dog for lunch, and the bowling alley hot dogs were like nothing I ever had before. They were delicious, and they came out of this weird vat of greasy water, which I rightfully assumed was the secret formula. I went on to eat more than my fair share of hot dogs, but it never occurred to me to try to create that witches’ brew at home.
Luckily for me, the Internet came along and I stumbled onto this whole world of what is deemed “Dirty Water Hot Dogs”, in which people try to recreate the magic which is the brine in which thousands of dawgs have been cooked over time and space. Because all those street carts you see on the streets of your big city – they rarely change the water in those carts. The water becomes a magical elixir of hot dog goodness, and the temps are kept high enough so that germs cannot ever get a foothold (or maybe germs are grossed out by the potential of hog anuses too, who knows) so it’s all perfectly safe. The first recipe I tried was This Old Gal’s Instant Pot recipe and I liked the results so much I’ve been making hot dogs in the IP ever since, even though I came up with my own recipe for the seasonings. But you can boil ‘em on the stove too; just be sure you let them cook for at least 10 minutes.
When it comes to a question of what dawg to cook, I am a heathen who doesn’t like the all-beef hotdogs like Nathan’s. I prefer good old Oscar Meyer, even though Armour has a much better theme song.
Man, I wish I could watch this ad without the taint of modernity whispering sweet nothings about the Pied Piper in my ear, but it’s kinda creepy, isn’t it?
Oscar Meyer has the better ad hands down, and vastly superior hot dogs, too, probably because Armour hot dogs are made of children, judging by that old ad campaign.
A brief note about nitrates (and nitrites) in meat: People fear nitrates because some studies have linked eating a lot of preserved meats with a slightly increased rate of cancer, and scientists, as they so often do, were like “welp it’s gotta be the nitrates probably” rather than waste their important scientist time pondering the thousands of other factors that might have come into play. As they even more so often do, the media seized upon that fact and has never shut up about it since. Interestingly, as is so often the case with scientific studies, that preserved meat causes cancer is very far from proven and it’s even less proven that nitrates/trites are truly the culprit.
What is proven is that the occasional eating of a hot dog is not going to give you cancer anyway. This is because nitrates and their associated chemicals are in you all the time anyway. That’s right, the nitrates are calling you from INSIDE THE HOUSE! Your body actually makes those horrible things – 62 mg a day of them in fact – and they also occur in high amounts in vegetables. Vegetarians are getting an average 250 mg nitrates on average a day from their diet, which is way, way more than the average American eating an average amount of hot dogs (75-100 mg) is getting from their meatier diet. And if American data isn’t good enough for you, the BBC reports only 5% of the nitrates in the diets of the average European comes from meat; 80% comes from vegetables! Some people even think that the nitrates in vegetables are good for health, and this is because they come at ya alongside antioxidants which inhibit their bad effects and encourage their good ones. But the makers of hot dogs and deli meats know this too, and put antioxidants into hot dogs and deli meats to mimic these protective effects and have for pretty much our whole entire lives, meaning the hot dogs we have today are much safer than the hot dogs our grandparents had growing up.
By the way all my grandparents lived into their 80s and 90s, and being from Indiana they all ate a shocking amount of ham, so.
As for those fancy “nitrate free” hot dogs – they totally have nitrates (and nitrites) in them, and in many cases MORE, it’s just that they were derived from vegetable sources instead, but chemically they are the exact same thing. Still totally artificial, still highly processed, and they act exactly the same inside your body. The only people who need to worry about nitrates is babies who absorb way more of it than the rest of us do, and who are getting it from the water that is used to make their formula with (yes, these chemicals can also be in your drinking water!) Please don’t give hot dogs to your newborn, and we’re all good.
And if you’re still worried, gargling with antibacterial mouthwash cuts way down on the amount of nitrates (and nitrites) your body ingests since the harmful components are actually formed by bacteria in your body since they’re actually totally natural. Despite what your crunchy friends will tell you, just like ptomaine, botulisum, and salmonella, natural things can actually be harmful-er than man-made things, but in the case of nitrates I promise that the nitrates in a couple hot dogs are really NBD.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, onto the recipes.
Dirty Water Hot Dogs
Most of the recipes for Dirty Water Hot Dogs have nutmeg in them. This is insane, because hot dogs are flavored with coriander and nutmeg belongs in sweet food. No nutmeg. Most of the recipes for Dirty Water Hot Dogs also have garlic in them, which I found overwhelming even in pretty small quantities. No garlic.
Water (IDK, like 4 or 5 cups or so, enough to immerse your dogs fully)
Hot Dogs (Oscar Meyer is best but get your preferred brand. do not get “skinless” hot dogs, or tofu dogs as they will come apart during the long cooking time)
1 T apple cider vinegar (most recipes call for wine vinegar, but most recipes are wrong)
1 t cumin
1 t coriander
A hunk of onion, not chopped (however much you have left from the last recipe you cooked)
That’s it. I have made this recipe 48 times or so and I promise these are the only ingredients that improved the flavor. You can throw more stuff in if you want, but I think you’re just gilding the lily and wasting ingredients that would be better applied elsewhere at best, and more likely are actively conflicting with The Yum Factor.
Boil this on the stove for 10 minutes or more if using the stove method. If using your Instant Pot cook on low pressure for 2 minutes and then allow the pot to natural release (this step is important! Don’t skip it even though other recipes say to!)
Now you’ve got yourself some cooked hot dogs, now what do you do with them?? Most of you know already how to dress a dog, so we’ll skip all that, but what if you want to take things a little further?? What if you eat your dog and think “what this really needs is MOAR MEAT”?
I got your wiener covered, though you probably should take care of that yourself from here on in.
A brief history of Coney Dogs (it’s a bit of a long story):
The reason why Coney Island is called Coney Island is that “coney” means rabbits, and once upon a time, back in New Amsterdam days, a lot of rabbits lived there. Those days are long gone. During the early to mid-1800s the area was a getaway for the wealthy, and from the late 1800s through WWII the Coney Island boardwalk was a recreational paradise, the largest amusement area in the United States. In the early 1900s, Nathan Handwerker started selling his Nathan’s Famous hot dog from a stand open 365 days a year that is still in business today, missing only 6 months after Hurricane Sandy. After WWII, government interference, rising crime rates, and increased competition with attractions elsewhere caused the area to decline. It was taken over by developers including Fred Trump, and since the 60s has been the recipient (victim?) of one development scheme after another, a veritable who’s who of New York bigwigs from Guiliani to Bloomberg, none of whom have restored Coney Island to its former glory.
But Famous Nathan Handwerker would never have existed without Charles Feltman. Feltman was a German baker who, during the 1860s, sold pies to the fancy hotels that then existed on Coney Island (this was before it became an amusement park). He saved up enough to buy a small plot of land on the Island to build a restaurant, and wanted something easy for his patrons to eat as they walked around and saw the sights. He slapped a sausage on a bun and built an empire on that basis, an empire that grew to encompass 9 city blocks when Nathan Handwerker showed up to work there, setting a chain of events in motion that would end with Handwerker’s own empire when he simplified and streamlined the thing his boss had done in the first place – selling hot dogs.
But bizarrely, neither Handwerker or Feltman invented the Coney Dog. Coney Dogs were not even invented on Coney Island but were created by a wave of Greek and Macedonian immigrants fleeing economic depression after Greece went bankrupt in 1893. Most of these immigrants came through Ellis Island on their way to settle in the Midwest, spending some time in New York City before moving on, and one of them had the brilliant idea to name their concoction “Coney Dogs” to evoke the spirit of Coney Island. No one really knows who was the first to set up a Coney Dog shop in the Midwest, but most people look to these two stores in downtown Detroit, American Coney Island and Lafayette Coney Island, as the Gold Standard in coneydoggery. These neighboring restaurants were set up by two brothers named Gust and Bill Keros and are rivals to this very day.
Regardless of who invented them, naming this new dish after Coney Island was actually marketing, because in those days the meat packing industry was not exactly what you would call pristine. Hog anus may very well have found its way into hot dogs with dismaying frequency. But Nathan’s Famous set its standards very high, insisting on using higher quality meats than were industry standard at the time, and so “Coney Island Hot Dogs” became synonymous with safe and non-disgusting products. (Nathan’s even went so far as to give away free hot dogs to medical professionals to “prove” to the public how safe they were – the sight of doctors and nurses in uniform eating hot dogs at Nathan’s went a long way towards assuring the public that his hot dogs were MD-approved.)
Greek and Macedonian immigrants like the Keros Brothers settled across Indiana and Michigan, and began serving hot dogs topped with a meat sauce reminiscent of saltsa kima, a spicy pasta sauce similar to what we would call bolognese, but with seasonings like cinnamon and mint added alongside the familiar ones like chili powder and cumin. This meat sauce has come to be called “Cincinnati Chili”, and in parts of the Midwest, it’s their preferred spaghetti sauce. My research indicates that the final product is pretty similar to a sloppy joe in terms of flavor. Some of them are drier, other versions are saucier, and there’s a different seasoning combination, but overall, not unlike a Sloppy Joe. Purists may quibble, and that’s why the Internet invented comments sections.
Leftover Meat Coney Dogs
Cooked hot dogs
Leftover Sloppy Joe meat (or loose meat, or BBQ, or whatever you want to call it) OR leftover Cincinnati Chili
Optional but good – chopped white onion, shredded cheddar
Optional – a SMALL amount of cumin, cinnamon and oregano. Since salsta kima has different seasonings than sloppy joes, if you want the real Cincinnati Chili flavor and you’re using Sloppy Joe meat, you may want to reheat your meat and stir in a small amount of cumin, cinnamon, and oregano. I did not do this because I feared the repercussions from My Harshest Critic, aka my husband, who actually has to eat the stuff I brew up.
So simple it barely even needs its own section! Reheat your leftover meat while the hot dogs are cooking in your dirty water brine. Once both are heated through, slap a wiener on a bun and top it with hot meat sauce, cheese and onion and any other options that appeal.
It was good. Personally I prefer just straight hot dogs but it was a lot showier, and felt more of an occasion to make them. I had to use all my wiles to keep people from eating up all the sloppy joes in advance, though. You might be better off planning for the Coney Dog Experience and cooking up a batch of meat fresh, rather than relying on leftovers which may, in fact, not be leftover at all.
But maybe these leftover meat coney dogs just ain’t your thing. That’s ok, we have a different style of Coney Dogs to fall back on, only don’t do that for reals, as it would be messy.
The city of Detroit is one of those very old American cities that for some reason just never gets the love of New York or New Orleans, even though it’s older than either. The Detroit area has been settled for over 10,000 years by the Mound Builders, the Iroquois, the French, the English, and eventually General Motors which is why it’s called Motown, even though Motown has become synonymous with music more than it has cars, bringing us great songs like this one, which I assume is about a woman singing to a delicious hot dog.
And this one which I assume is from the hot dog’s point of view.
Detroit has fallen on hard times of late, which is probably not a huge surprise given that they awarded keys to the city to Elmo, Ben Carson, and Saddam Hussein. I mean, they should have gone with Grover, he was the obvious choice because at least he has some experience working as a waiter, and also because Elmo sucks.
But regardless of their reverence for children’s educational programming, half the adults in Detroit are functionally illiterate. 1 They’re not great at math either, since the city of Detroit pays out more to issue parking tickets than it collects in revenue from them. 70% of all murders in Detroit go unsolved and in 2013 the city stopped issuing death certificates because it ran out of paper. They had to rely on a concert by Kid Rock to save the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Despite this, Detroit remains a city of optimism, and Coney Dogs that are actually chili dogs for the most part.
I am told that the folks from Detroit prefer their Coney Dogs with beanless, standard chili con carne instead of the sweeter Coney-style sauce. And if you travel to Detroit, you can buy one with Detroit Community Scrip, because the people who run Detroit thought they were doing such a good job of municipal management they should get into the money business too. That’s the kind of optimism I’m talking about! Detroit Community Scrip comes in increments of 3, which when you think about it, makes no sense whatsoever.
Detroit-Style Coney Dogs
Sandwich construction – When I made Detroit-style Coneys I used a can of Nalley’s Big Chunk Chili Con Carne instead of the leftover sloppy joe sauce, and did everything else the same as I did with the Coney Dogs.
Sandwich analysis – Meh. Everyone else liked them; indeed, The Harshest Critic said they were much better than the original Coney Dogs I made with leftover Sloppy Joes, but for me it was just meh.
I will admit something – even though I love chili, and love hot dogs, I am not a fan of chili dogs. The dog interrupts my chili, the chili prevents me from enjoying the dog, and in the Detroit-Style Coney, there weren’t even any beans to cheer me up with their intrepid beaniness.
So I decided to try it one more time, only this time with be-beaned chili.
For my chili, I started off using the famed Ordinary Times Basic Ground Beef Chili recipe, and it was great! Aside from readers of this humble DIY news mag, most of us associate chili with Texas, and since I still have yet to find an authentic Texas sandwich for this project I decided to use this not-exactly-a-sandwich-type-thing called chili, to talk a little about the Lone Star State. Chili is the state dish of Texas, and you can’t have chili without chili powder.
Chili powder is a bit like curry powder – originally cooks brewed up their own seasoning blends and they varied by individual. Chili powder was not some standardized thing you could just go to the store and buy, you had to make it yourself by smooshing up various peppers and other spices till you got a mixture that pleased your tastebuds. While the first canned chili was sold during the 1870s, and a chili recipe appeared in a cookbook in 1880, chili’s popularity skyrocketed when Texas state prisons started serving chili to prisoners as a way to use spices to disguise the taste of rotten or subpar meat, which probably included hog anuses. This subterfuge yielded a product so delish rumor has it men actually committed crimes to get back into prison after being set free, just for another taste of chili.
In 1894 an enterprising gent named William Gebhardt ground up some chili peppers, oregano, cumin, and black pepper through an old hammer mill and once he’d perfected the recipe, started selling it. Housewives from coast to coast were suddenly able to make chili using Gebhardt’s seasoning blend and chili became synonymous with American cuisine.
Sandwich construction – I feel like a hog anus typing out the same directions again and again, so just do exactly the same program you did with the Coney and Detroit-Style Dogs, just using hot beaned chili. Just to change it up, I demand you put Colby Jack cheese on this one instead of cheddar.
Sandwich analysis – It was way better than the Detroit-Style Coney Dog but I think that was mostly because the Ordinary Times chili I made was so much better than Nalley’s. We all liked this. Even me. It was the first time I ever actually enjoyed a chili dog. I have made both the chili and the chili dog several times over the past 2 months, and we ended up creating an even better variation.
Drum roll, please…
The even more amazing Carlos SpicyWeener
Sandwich construction – Do exactly what you just did with your chili dog only use a jalapeno sausage and top it with red onion, pickled jalapenos, and shredded pepperjack cheese. These were so good I made them repeatedly, and I even managed to take a picture of it, though I forgot to do it AFTER I put the jalapenos on, but I make up for it by including the appetizing shadow of the top of my head:
But why Carlos?
Whether you like it or not, Family Guy is a part of the fabric of America. I don’t like it, seriously, at all, but my husband unfortunately for me does and he christened my improved variation of the chili dog, Carlos SpicyWeener. In case you forgot, or blocked the memory from your mind deliberately, the joke is on Anthony Weiner who used the code name “Carlos Danger” when trolling for 22 year olds online even though his wife was already so far out of his league he should have been on his knees thanking God for her rather than swiping right on Hillary Clinton’s email server. Like Family Guy, Anthony Weiner is a piece of American history I’d prefer to leave in the past, but there’s an archaic law somewhere on the books that states pop culture references to famous dudes named Weiner must be included in hot dog articles.
Oh look, it’s the end of the article. But wait – where is the Chicago Dog? The Sonoran? Kansas City Style? And why, pray tell, do none of these dogs have cole slaw on top of them? Stay tuned, dear readers, for another exciting installment of my American Sandwich Project, coming eventually to an Ordinary Times near you.
In the meantime, enjoy Led Zeppelin while you stuff your face and try not to think about hog anuses.
- I’m sure I don’t need to tell you this, but cut up hot dogs into niblets (not round chunks) when giving them to children under 6-ish or so. Hot dogs are perfectly sized to lodge in a small-sized windpipe and are one of the main causes of choking in kids. Yes, it’s rare, but it’s easy enough to prevent even the unlikely chance of it happening.