One beautiful hot dog | Photo by David Hammond

July 4, 2023, I’m on air with friend and WGN host Dane Neal. Knowing that Monica Eng and I had just published Made in Chicago, a book about Chicago original food, his first question was, “What should we be eating for the Fourth of July?”

A Chicago hot dog, of course! Nothing symbolizes this national holiday more than the Chicago hot dog, composed of foods brought from many lands.

The sausage itself is a gift of German immigrants, who had a traditional pork-beef sausage. This sausage evolved to become an all-beef wiener that could be enjoyed by the city’s Jewish population, many of whom in the late 19th century had found a home on Chicago’s Maxwell Street. Some believe Abe Drexler, who founded Fluky’s hot dogs on Maxwell Street, was the originator of the iconic Chicago hot dog.

According to Bruce Kraig, food historian and formerly a writer for Wednesday Journal: “Germans always ate sausages on bread. And the earliest bun evidence we have is from New York — from a special bun maker on Coney Island as early as the 1870s. The poppy seeds are from Jewish East Europeans, and they didn’t become popular [on the Chicago dog] until after World War II.” 

The mustard was another German contribution to the Chicago hot dog, though the German mustards were usually quite a bit stronger than the less aggressive bright yellow versions.

Sport peppers may have been carried up to Chicago by Mexican migrants coming north, or by African Americans who may have worked with Mexicans in Southern farms before heading to Chicago during the Great Migration, bringing with them a love of chili peppers.

Pickles were hugely popular in Eastern and Central Europe, and chopped onions could also be an Eastern European contribution. And according to Kraig the “slices of tomatoes come from … Jews, Greeks, and Italians, all living together near Maxwell Street. Somebody thought they should put tomatoes on the dogs as an added value. And, of course, they also look good against the bright green relish.”  

About that super strange blue-green, iridescent glow-in-the-dark relish, no one knows where the heck that came from. The celery salt is also a somewhat unexpected hot dog condiment, but it may have been added during the “celery craze” of the early 20th century when the North Side of Chicago was a center of celery production (I was surprised to learn that too!).

Like America itself, this all-American sandwich was created by many people from many lands. When we munch a classic Chicago hot dog on July 4th, we celebrate our country’s independence … and the interdependence of our people, from all over the world, who came here to make something good. 

You’ll have to wait a year to celebrate the next Independence Day with a hot dog, but every hot dog you eat any time of year is a celebration of our interdependence, and what you have with this simple food is America, in a bun.

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