Hot Diggity Dog

Producer Colin McNulty takes to the streets of Chicago with author Bruce Kraig to explore the history of an iconic American meat: the hot dog.

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ED: If you’re just joining us, this is BackStory. And today we’re exploring America’s love affair with meat throughout our history.

PETER: We wanted to end the show today by savoring one man’s passion for meat. Chicago based author and food historian Bruce Craig has written several books on the most iconicly American of meat morsels; the hot dog. The hot dog arrived on American shores in the middle of the 19th century, brought over by German and Eastern European immigrants as the sausage. They slowly morphed into hot dogs over the following decades with different US cities crafting their own regional versions.

ED: Radio producer, Kyle McNulty, recently accompany Craig to a few famous Chicago spots. Craig now specializes in the Chicago Vienna style hot dog, locally manufactured and loaded of the toppings. But he says it was Frankfurter style dogs at a legendary New York stand that first sparked his passion.

BRUCE CRAIG: And I remember it, I can feel it, on my body now, the warm sun, standing at that counter as a little kid asking for a hot dog, and the guy reaching down and giving me a Nathan’s hot dog. Which is nothing like a Chicago hot dog. But it was– I can– and I can taste it still. That’s the power of hot dogs in American culture.

COLIN: So, we’re going around the corner off Roosevelt Road.

BRUCE CRAIG: Jim’s original dates to 1939, but it’s actually an older stand dating from the 20s. The thing about Jim’s is that they have griddle onions, which are completely fabulous. One polish.

MALE SPEAKER: Everything?

BRUCE CRAIG: No. No relish. Now, you see, they’ve given you packets of ketchup. But, you do not put it on your–

COLIN: So, what you do with it?

BRUCE CRAIG: For your fries.

COLIN: Oh, right.

BRUCE CRAIG: The reason we’re here is because– on Maxwell Street, which is the home of all beef sausages. German immigration began really heavily after 1848, 1850s people who are with sausage culture. And they arose sausages as street food after the Civil War, after 1865.

COLIN: We’re going over the north branch of the Chicago River, and we’re coming up to the Vienna beef factory. It’s where they make all of the Vienna beef sausages. This dates to the 1950s when they moved from their original Maxwell Street location. So, we’re looking at a historic artifact.

So, sausages– think about it. They’re precooked. All these hot dogs are precooked in the factory. They’re pre-portioned. They’re already in their casing, already cut. So if you’re a vendor– a street vendor, you know what it costs, what your food costs are, and what you can charge for it. And here it is. So, here we are in the store, and the nice salami’s hanging up. And here’s a case–


TOM PIERCE: My name’s Tom Pierce. I’m the director of marketing at Vienna Beef. I’ve been here since making 1986. From time immemorial, nobody knew what went into the butchers grinder.

BRUCE CRAIG: So there’s a standard joke in America that if a German butcher set up shop, all the dogs and cats disappear.

TOM PEIRCE: Well, I think that if the general concept of sausage is chopped meat mixed into a batter and stuffed into a casing, that’s a broad description of the raw materials. You could use all kinds of things to make that batter. So, in some cases, maybe you don’t want to know what’s in there. At Vienna, we use two ingredients, fresh domestic bull meat, which is very, very high in protein– Bruce, you know that. We use brisket trimmings, which are very sweet and they carry the flavor. We protect our recipe incredibly.

BRUCE CRAIG: What is it?

TOM PEIRCE: It’s a little bit of this an a little bit of that.


BRUCE CRAIG: Well, we’re going to Murphy’s. And, it’s a classic hot dog stand. The guy who owns it, Bill Murphy, is a fanatic about a classic Chicago hot dog. Voila.

BILL MURPHY: Hey, Bruce.


BILL MURPHY: My name is Bill Murphy. I’m the owner of Murphy’s Red Hots at 1211 Belmont, in Chicago, Illinois. Bruce is like one of those generals that sits up on a chair and watches all the guys down below doing the dirty work. You know, so–

BRUCE CRAIG: And you’re in the trenches.

BILL MURPHY: I’m in the trenches, just turning them out, man. You know, that’s what we do.

BRUCE CRAIG: The thing about hot dog strands is, it’s America’s democratic food. If you go to a dog stand, you’ll see people from every walk of life. It crosses every age group, every economic level that we have. And, this is the beauty of the Chicago hot dog stand. These are artists. OK, so she’s putting mustard on the side, green relish on top, chopped, fresh onions, tomato slices on the side, pickle spears. You have to have peppers.

COLIN: Yeah, OK.


COLIN: Thank you.

BRUCE CRAIG: Think about a hot dog stand owner, or a hot dog in some part of the country which has its own version of a hot dog, like a coney in Detroit. These industrial products are individualized, and they’re naturalized into a local food culture. And it’s an art. Aren’t these good?

COLIN: Yeah, they’re great.

BRUCE CRAIG: So, this gets us up to why you don’t put ketchup on a hot dog. So, the culinary theory is this, if you think about the flavors in a hot dog, it is sweet, sour, spicy, it’s soft but snappy, the pickle and the little hot [INAUDIBLE] pepper are crunchy. If you think about it, it makes a whole, it makes a culinary whole. Suppose you put ketchup on that, it destroys everything, because all it is sweet, vinegary goop.

COLIN: Makes you angry.

BRUCE CRAIG: It enrages me. We tell people that if they put ketchup on a dog, they lose their passport. They can’t come to Chicago.


ED: That’s author Bruce Craig with Chicago-based producer, Colin McNulty.


BRIAN: That’s going to do it for us today. But you can also find us online. Visit us at While you’re there, help us shape our upcoming episodes. We’re working on shows about the history of women in politics and a history of American tourism. Leave a comment or question on site, or send an email to the back We’re also on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter @BackStoryRadio. Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.


ED: This episode of BackStory was produced by Nina Earnest, Andrew Parsons, Kelly Jones, Emily Gadek, Bruce Wallace, and Brigid McCarthy. Jamal Milner is our technical director. Special thanks this week to Andrew Smith, Char Miller, Sandra Oliver, Andrew Eisenberg, Matthew Gibson, and to Fritz Wilt at Wild T Bison Farm in Haynesville, Virginia who supplied the buffalo tongue.

PETER: BackStory is produced at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Major support is provided by the Shiocan Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. Additional funding is provided by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, and humanities, and the environment. And by History Channel, history made every day.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Brian Balogh is professor of History at the University of Virginia and the Dorothy Compton professor at the Miller Center of Public Affairs. Peter Onuf is professor of History Emeritus at UVA and senior research fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is professor of the Humanities and president Emeritus at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.


ED: BackStory is distributed by PRX on the Public Radio Exchange.