This is a book about one of the most humble of all American foods and a symbol of American culture. In song, story and popular media, the hot dog is celebrated as not just fun food, but a representation of how Americans think about themselves. Consider this, the world’s greatest of all immigrant nations as a historical hot dog. Lots of ethnicities are mixed together, seasoned and stuffed into a sleek, streamlined casing and then given a joke name, “hot dog.” Dress the dog in toppings that reflect the country’s various regions and we have an American icon.
The hot dog story is told by showing the places in which these unassuming sausages are sold and by the people who sell them. “Americanness” is not just eating any kind of hot dog, certainly not the characterless home microwaved types. To fully savor a hot dog gustatorially and culturally, it has to be eaten in its native settings, at stands, ballparks, from street carts, in the good open air of North America. That is what we show.
Two main themes run through the book. One is American ideologies and what hot dogs tell us about them. The second is the world of imagination. Each is connected to the other and one of the best ways to explain these twins is by looking at hot doggeries in their natural settings.
Under the first category come our assumptions – our standard mythologies – about economics, individualism and social mobility. It is about how and where we live and, especially, how Americans think about their places in the world. For instance, hot dogs are the great democratic food. Go to a hot dog stand or cart in New York, Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans, Oakland, or Los Angeles, among other cities, and sooner or later a cross section of local society will appear – rich and poor, laborer and executive, high and low. It’s the same at ball games where people of all social standing rub elbows while stuffing the same kinds of hot dog in their mouths between cheers or jeers. Whether carried out in real life or not, social equality is a main American idea that runs though all of our history: it’s what makes us suspicious of social pretension and what could be less pretentious than a hot dog?
Hot dogs belong to the realm of entrepreneurs and small-scale markets. Hot dog stands are mostly owned by petty entrepreneurs who want to make a decent living. For new immigrants, this was and is a way to rise in the world, to “make it in America, the land of opportunity.” Many do, some don’t. Here is the American story, told from the very beginning: you, the individual, can make it by pluck and luck. Hot dog places are all about this. They’re also about the neighborhoods in which the proprietors set them. The decor reflects their social and physical environments: a stand in a predominantly Mexican community will look very different from a “white bread” suburban one. An upscale hot dog stand such as the great Hot Doug’s with its mixture of standard Chicago hot dogs and exotic sausages could never exist in the deeply ethnic Southside Chicago neighborhoods.
In a way, related to decor and vendors’ expectations, hot dogs are a paradox. They are an industrially made food that is then turned into something individual, just like the decor of a stand or cart. Americans revere the idea of individualism and, at the same time, community. Going into a stand or standing on a street and eating from a cart gives strength to all of these feelings that rise from the experience. Think of it like a hot dog itself, meaty, juicy and complex and yet simple because packaged so neatly. Americans love simplicity in their culture and there is nothing more basic than snacking on the little hot dog-only it’s not.
The second motif is that of the imagination. It is a kind of twilight zone, “a middle ground between light and shadow,” where hopes, dreams, culture, are expressed by vernacular design and décor. If ever there were an “outsider art,” the hot dog stand is it.
There’s a reason why hot dog places have particular kinds of design. The stands may be simple boxes, or descendants of them, or carts and wagons. Some may be cookie cutter designed strip mall restaurants. But almost all are vividly colored, filled with bric-a-brac, and with plenty of hand-made vernacular art in their signage and logos.
To find out why, go to a hot dog stand and watch the diners. Upon getting their hot dog and fries an otherworldly expression settles on the diners’ faces. For the moments that they’re in the dining area and eating that delectable dog, each one is out of the mundane world and in another. Whether dining alone or with others, the effect is always the same. Hot dog iconography reflects this fanciful world. Stands can look like hot dogs, images of happy hot dogs begging to be eaten, dancing hot dogs, flying hot dogs, well-dressed hot dogs and even real dogs as hot dogs grace eating places. Hot dogs are fun in this carnival world. Think Little Oscar and Munchkins, all imaginary, all American themes, and all in tacit opposition to the corporate business realm.
More than only fun, hot dogs consumed in public represent a world as remembered or as we would like it to be. Who does not remember that hot dog bought at the neighborhood stand, or maybe even at Nathan’s in Coney Island? Who doesn’t look forward to going to a ball game with family or friends, or maybe a picnic, in anticipation of a perfect world and all featuring America’s great culinary creation?