The Cultural History of the Chicago-Style Hot Dog
Author: Cindy Wang
Program of Study: Political Science PhD Student
This podcast is about the cultural history of the Chicago-style hot dog. In this podcast, we will explore the origin of the Chicago-style hot dog and how the history of immigration in 19th century Chicago has made the original Chicago hot dog develop into the “dragged through the garden” dog today. Additionally, this podcast reveals that the expansion of UIC has made Maxwell Street in Western Chicago lose its unique cultural identity shared among immigrant communities. Lastly, this podcast recommends a list of hot dog places in Chicago.
(transcript was provided by the student and is unedited)
Welcome to the ELI’s Finding Chicago Global Perspectives Podcast Series for AEPP 2022. I’m your host, Cindy Wang, and I’m currently enrolled in the University of Chicago’s Social Sciences Division. Today we will be exploring the topic of the cultural history behind the Chicago-style hot dog, one of the most popular street foods in the city of Chicago.
When I first arrived in Chicago, it was September 2020, right in the middle of the pandemic, and at that time, the vaccinations were still not yet available to the public. But as someone who is adventurous and loves to try new things, I refused to confine myself to my apartment. Instead, I rented a Divvy bike and rode all the way from Hyde Park to Lakeview along the Chicago Lake Front Trail. When I got there after about an hour, I was exhausted and desperate for some really good food. But the City’s dining restrictions had eliminated most of my options. Just while I was randomly searching on Yelp, I came across one fast food chain store called “Devil Dawgs.” I was immediately attracted by its menu: Chicago polish, Southern slaw dawg, the Chi-talian (which is a compound word for “Italian” and “Chi Town,” one of the nicknames for Chicago). A hot dog was just perfect for two simple reasons. First, it was a full meal that I could grab in one hand so I could eat easily outside the restaurant. The second reason was that it was such an iconic food for Chicago, which I must try at some point as I began my life here in the Windy City. So, I went for the most classic and famous one—Chicago-style hot dog—and ate it in a parking lot in the wind. Very common outdoor activity for foodies during the pandemic. So, this is my first encounter with a Chicago-style hot dog. And it is meaningful to me because eating a hot dog in the wind is kind of what a screenshot of my first two years in Chicago during the pandemic would look like.
A Chicago-style hot dog typically includes a steamed poppy seed bun with a juicy beef sausage topped with yellow mustard, chopped white onions, bright green relish, tomatoes, and a pickle spear. However, initially, a Chicago hot dog does not have such a variety of toppings. Often considered the godfather of the Chicago-style hot dog today, according to the website of Vienna Beef, the original Chicago hot dog was first introduced to Chicago by two Jewish immigrants from Austria-Hungary when selling hot dogs on the street at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. And the Vienna Beef hot dog only includes a frankfurter, mustard, and pickle. However, as more immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe filled the working-class neighborhoods, a Chicago hot dog has gradually developed into a more and more fulfilling and nutritious meal by having additional toppings made from vegetables and has thus been referred to as being “dragged through the garden.”
Interestingly, all the added ingredients to the toppings reflect a history of immigration in 19th-century Chicago. According to Bruce Kraig, a historian who is the author of two books on the history of hot dogs, the mustard and pickle are German and Jewish, the all-beef frankfurter was introduced by the Jewish from Germany, and the poppy-seed bun was created by a Polish from Germany, the bright green relish is Italian and Greek, the tomatoes and the onions are also Italian and Greek, and the hot green sport peppers are from the American South. So, every added ingredient to the iconic Chicago-style hot dog today represents a unique history of immigration and relocation to the city of Chicago. And its signature combination of toppings just shows the ideal of cosmopolitanism.
Since its first debut at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, the changing flavor of a Chicago-style hot dog had become the center of a growing cultural identity shared among different immigrants residing in Chicago’s neighborhoods. By the 1920s, Maxwell Street on the West Side had emerged as the center of Chicago’s immigrant community, filled with Jewish, Italian, Greek, and Polish vendors and paddlers. And hot dog stands had developed into cultural centers of shared traditions and gathering places where people chatted with their neighbors. In other words, selling and eating Chicago-style hot dogs had become a way for Chicagoans to bond.
In contrast to the 1920s, Maxwell Street is now deserted, and the mixed immigrant community of western Chicago is less present due to the expansion of UIC, the University of Illinois Chicago. According to the website of Jim’s Original, one of the most iconic hot dog stands in Chicago for over 80 years, UIC has forced it to relocate first in 2001 and then in 2005 a block North and a block East. And in September this year, UIC again forced this famous hot dog stand to stop opening 24 hours, a tradition that it has kept for over 65 years.
Today, in this area, Chicago is losing its unique gathering places for Chicagoans to bond with one another. Instead of seeing a vibrant immigrant community along Maxwell Street, the area is now occupied by big national chains like Starbucks, Chick-fil-A, and Subway. Since hot dogs are such an essential element of the cultural identity of Chicagoans, it is crucial for the city to preserve hot dog stands in its historical locations and preserve the cultural traditions shared by the immigrant communities in Chicago.
That said, Chicago is the “mecca” of hot dogs. Other than “Devil Dawgs” and Jim’s Original, my personal favorite place in Chicago for a juicy, greasy, delicious classic Chicago-style hot dog is Portillo’s in River North. And if you are as adventurous as I am, Chicago’s Doghouse in Lincoln Park is a one-of-a-kind place for a real wild boar dog or a real rattlesnake and rabbit dog. What is a rattlesnake and rabbit dog? So, they make sausages from a real rattlesnake after it eats a rabbit. Sounds crazy, right? But definitely worth trying!
Thank you for listening to this podcast on the cultural history behind the Chicago-style hot dog. Our podcast has proved that hot dogs are more than just a sausage in a bun. There is a unique history of immigration behind today’s classic “dragged through the garden” hot dog. And if you explore the historical hot dog stands throughout the city, you will learn the history and development of different neighborhoods in Chicago today.
- “Vienna Beef Company History: 125 Years of Flavor.” Vienna Beef, 20 July 2022, https://www.viennabeef.com/chicagos-hot-dog/history-of-the-chicago-hot-dog/.
- “Welcome – Jim’s Original.” Welcome – Jim’s Original, http://jimsoriginal.com/.
- Kraig, Bruce. Hot Dog: A Global History. Reaktion Books. 2013.