From European roots to American sensation: This Ellis Island exhibit untangles the history of the hotdog


Few foods mean summer more than the hot dog, the subject of a fascinating temporary exhibit at the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration in New York Harbor.

This little bit of heaven on a bun also apparently is close to many Southlanders’ hearts. Americans spent about $2.5 billion on hot dogs in supermarkets last year, and Los Angeles was among the top three cities in consumption. (New York and Philadelphia also were in that trifecta.)

The exhibit, which explores the history of this popular food, runs through the end of July — national hot dog month —and may be extended into August.

The dog traces its roots to ancient Rome, where an enterprising fellow saw a too-hot empty pig’s intestine puff up and got the idea to stuff it with meats.

Sausages became popular, including in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, whose name gave rise to the word frankfurter.

In some places, they are called frankfurters; in others, they are wieners (short for wienerwurst, or Vienna sausage). In the U.S. however, they are hot dogs.

Exactly when and where this food caught on in the United States is debatable, though virtually all early producers were from Europe. That includes Charles Feltman, a German immigrant who sold hot dogs on Coney Island in Brooklyn in the 1860s, and Antoine Ludwig Feuchtwanger, a Bavarian immigrant who sold hot sausages in St. Louis in the 1880s.

The logo of the History of the Hot Dog Exhibit at Ellis Island includes five dog leaders.

Evelyn Hill Inc.

The logo of the History of the Hot Dog Exhibit at Ellis Island includes five dog leaders.

The logo of the History of the Hot Dog Exhibit at Ellis Island includes five dog leaders. (Evelyn Hill Inc.)

The exhibition traces the history of five hot dog brands sold today, all founded by immigrants to the U.S. Three —Sabrett, Nathan’s and Hebrew National — have roots in New York City; one, Walter’s, hails from Mamaroneck, N.Y., north of the city; and the fifth, Vienna Beef, is a Chicago company whose hot dogs are also served at Shake Shack restaurants.

A Sabrett hot dog stand in New York City in the 1930s. Its website says that it's the "frankfurter N

Sabrett / Evelyn Hill Inc.

A Sabrett hot dog stand in New York City in the 1930s. Its website says that it’s the “frankfurter New Yorkers relish.”

A Sabrett hot dog stand in New York City in the 1930s. Its website says that it’s the “frankfurter New Yorkers relish.” (Sabrett / Evelyn Hill Inc.)

To make the experience complete, during the run of the exhibit the cafe at the museum — run by Evelyn Hill, the concessionaire on Ellis Island and Liberty Island, home of the Statue of Liberty, whose brainchild the exhibit is — is offering a special hot dog sampler.

For $9.95, visitors can get a mini hot dog made by each company in the show plus potato chips, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, since hot dogs normally are not sold here.

Info: Ellis Island

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