How the Chili Dog Transcended America's Divisions

The national dish is really a fusion of immigrant fare. An Object Lesson

Kamenko Pajic / Reuters

Forget about commercial feedlots and GMOs. Forget high cholesterol, expanding waistlines, and the merits of plant-based diets. Forget The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Fast Food Nation. Forget the trends of locavorism and clean eating.

Instead, consider the chili dog: the mass-produced frank, rolling down a gleaming conveyor belt. Consider the pillowy consistency of a bun pulled from a package of so many identical buns. Consider the ladle of brown chili draped over the top. Consider the sprinkle of cheddar cheese or the stripe of mustard, both the same artificial yellow.

The chili dog’s story is actually many stories: not only one about American fast food and appetites, but also about American industrialization, immigration, and regionalism. And each component—the hot dog, the chili, even where we eat chili dogs—adds another twist.

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What is a hot dog? In his thoughtful and thorough book Hot Dog: A Global History, Bruce Kraig calls it a category of precooked sausage. Hot dogs can be skinless or stuffed into a casing. They are filled with emulsified red meats (beef, pork, veal). They are served in a bun. They are eaten out of hand.

Sausage has been a part of humans’ culinary repertoire for 15,000 years. Nobody knows who first thought to chop up one part of an animal, stuff that mixture into another part, and then cook it. But as long as humans have had access to fire and meat, they have been eating something that we could recognize, with only a bit of squinting, as a sausage. Ancient Rome and medieval Europe had sausages. They’re even mentioned in the Odyssey.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, British immigrants brought bangers to American shores, but the hot dog as it is known today is nearer to the German sausage. (The tradition of sausage-making is so established in Germany that Kraig cites a 1432 law regulating wurst.) While sausages as street food were common in American cities by the late 1700s, it was only after the Civil War that the sausage became, like so many other products of the age, machinated and industrialized. Meat moved from the butcher shop to the factory. And as it did, sausages homogenized. The hot dog was born.

This industrialization was possible for a few reasons. The growing American desire for meat and the ability to afford it, for one part. The construction and connection of railways, for another. New machinery had started to replace human butchers as well. By the 1870s, massive firms could swiftly slaughter, season, and process animals arriving by rail from the stockyards of the Midwest and turn them into hot dogs. Which was good, because the appetite for the encased meat product was growing. Americans wanted hot dogs, particularly the identical ones that came from name-brand companies such as Hormel or Armour.

Xenophobia played no small part in the demand for hot dogs. In the 1890s, America was experiencing its second wave of immigration, and many of the Eastern European arrivals were less than welcome. The handmade sausages hanging in an immigrant’s butcher shop were foreign and the man with the thick accent selling them suspicious.

But pleasingly uniform hot dogs sold from food carts seemed distinctly American, even if those carts were owned by immigrants. A decade later, as Upton Sinclair’s classic book The Jungle told horror stories about the labor conditions at meatpacking plants, some purveyors emphasized “pure” hot dogs as an alternative. Jewish-owned hot dog stands, with their kosher associations, made the all-beef hot dog number one in Chicago, even though many weren’t actually kosher. Nathan’s Famous on Coney Island dressed their countermen in clean white surgeon’s smocks to associate their brand with cleanliness.

By the early 20th century, the hot dog was fully American, and inextricably associated with another American pastime, baseball. Somehow, a mass-produced hot dog had become a symbol of American individualism. Never mind, of course, that both baseball and the Industrial Revolution have roots in Britain.

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Meanwhile, in Texas, another immigration story was unfolding, featuring a group of women known as the chili queens.

Like the first sausage, the origins of the first chili is unknown. But as Gustavo Arellano explains in his book Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, by the 1870s a chili-and-meat dish appeared in San Antonio. As tourists streamed into the city’s plazas, they gawked not only at the spicy meat concoction but who was selling it: women. The so-called “chili queens” played up the romantic exoticism of Old Mexico and decked out their booths with lanterns and musicians.

Arellano disputes an often-repeated story that the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition that whetted the nation’s appetite for chili. He notes that chili con carne appeared on Northern restaurant menus by the 1880s and was available to consumers in cans by the opening of the Exposition. Chili, it turns out, was a perfect product for canning: It was cheap, and the same railways that fed the stockyards of Chicago could transport chili and other canned goods by the case. So chili gained traction contemporaneously with the hot dog. It was another ethnic food, sanitized, homogenized, and made blandly American.

By the 1910s, the chili queens were being run out of the plazas and chased to progressively less visible corners of the city. They returned briefly in the 1930s, this time restricted by screened tents and the health department. By the end of World War II, the chili queens had disappeared entirely. Yet their signature dish, transformed into a gloppy canned product, had made its way to grocery store shelves across America.

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The chili that adorns today’s chili dog is much closer to the meat sauces of Greece and Macedonia—marking the appearance of yet another marginalized ethnic group in the story of the modern chili dog.

If you are from Detroit, or Cincinnati, or if you have eaten hot dogs at roadside stands in Pennsylvania or upstate New York, you have had something like a coney. Several coney islands, a type of restaurant, in Michigan claim to have invented the coney—a hot dog dressed in a meat sauce, striped with yellow mustard and punctuated with diced onions. There’s Todoroff’s in Jackson, circa 1914. The brothers Bill and Gust Keros at American and Lafayette Coney Islands in Detroit say they had one by the 1910s. Down in Ohio, Thomas Kiradjieff claimed to have invented the Cincinnati cheese-covered coney in 1922. In each case, the meat sauce is laced with Greek seasonings—cinnamon, oregano, even chocolate. This is not Texas-style chili, but in most parts of the country, it is probably what blankets a chili dog.

There are countless coney-style hot dog variations that dot the map, especially around the Great Lakes, New England, and Atlantic regions. (For a helpful map, check out Hawk Krall’s on the website Serious Eats.) Even more convoluted is the nomenclature of each of these coney-esque hot dogs: the Michigans of Plattsburgh, New York; the “New York system” of Rhode Island; the universally misspelled “Texas weiners” of New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

The name coney comes from Coney Island, though it’s thought that few Greek or Balkan immigrants had seen Brooklyn’s Coney Island. Instead, they took the distinctly American name for their Midwestern coney restaurants, possibly to seem less foreign. After all, the first recipes for coney sauce called for beef hearts. In order to make the offal and seasonings of their homelands less exotic, they draped the sauce over the familiar hot dog.

Out in Los Angeles, Art Elkind claims to have invented the chili dog in 1939. Entire generations of Southern Californians will name Pink’s as the formative chili dog. Regardless of who invented the chili dog, it was here to stay. By the time the fast food drive-ins and car culture of the 1950s and 1960s took hold, the chili dog was a menu fixture at local stands and highway Dairy Queens. A whole generation of Americans could eat chili dogs in their cars—carefully, and with lots of extra napkins.

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In West Virginia, chili dogs come topped with chopped coleslaw. They come chargrilled at Ted’s in Buffalo. At The Varsity in Atlanta, employees serve them up after barking what’ll ya have what’ll ya have. Chili dogs can be had at Tigers, Reds, or Astros games. Artisan versions are on offer in Portland and San Francisco. In the span of about a hundred years, America turned a German sausage into a hot dog and turned Mexican chili con carne and Greek saltsa kima into chili, and then repackaged the whole thing as a cheap, distinctly American dish.

In some places, the chili dog transcended socioeconomic or ethnic divisions, attracting Americans from across the population. The authors Maria Godoy and Ari Shapiro claim that coneys were the lunch of choice for harried Detroit autoworkers in the 1920s and 1930s, who had only 20 minutes for lunch. The same has been said for the aerospace workers that lined up at Art’s in L.A. Men could wolf down a few cheap dogs and get back to the line. Crammed into coney islands, or queued up at a hot dog cart, patrons were united not in race, language, or homeland, but in their desire for quick food.

The chili dog became a food laced with regional pride. It is one way that Americans identify themselves, a way to claim local citizenship. It’s ironic that a food descending directly from homogenization—a food that had to change itself to fit in—is now the same food regional fanatics hold up as uniquely local.

The next time you come across a coney island or a hot dog stand, order the chili dog. Notice the snap of the natural casing of the hot dog. Try to identify that hint of spice in the sauce. Look around at the regulars. And finally, consider the long and convoluted journey the chili dog took to get to your plate. From the ethnic enclaves of Germans and Greeks and Eastern Europeans, from the butcher shops of New York and the meatpacking plants of the Midwest, through industrialization and xenophobia and ingenuity, emerged something wholly new, messy, and distinctly American.

This article appears courtesy of Object Lessons.