Why do we care so much about hot dogs? Of the major American fast foods, the hot dog is the most degraded, a snappy cylinder of salt, preservatives, and “meat” that, if you don’t choke to death on one as a child, will surely kill you in the long run. Even its nicknames are derisive (or at least silly-sounding): tube steak, wiener, frankfurter. Honestly, who the hell wants to eat a dirty-water dog?
Uh, I do. And you. And pretty much everyone in America. More than 60 times a year. In 2015, according to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, we bought approximately 20 billion hot dogs, many of them at grocery stores but the majority at restaurants, ballparks, and street corners, topped with mustard and sauerkraut, wrapped in bacon, laden with chili or kimchi or churros or Froot Loops or cotton candy (or all of the above). Americans flat-out love hot dogs, and New Yorkers love them more than anyone except Angelenos.
For that, you can thank/blame Nathan Handwerker, the uneducated Jewish immigrant from Poland who exactly a century ago opened a hot dog stand on Coney Island and built it into what is now the 1,400-shop tube-steak empire known as Nathan’s Famous.
“He was always very confident,” Lloyd Handwerker, Nathan’s 59-year-old grandson, told me on a windy-sunny Monday at the Coney Island store, a block-dominating building that dwarfs the five-by-eight-foot stand Nathan set up on the same spot in 1916. Lloyd is a cinematographer, but he’s really in the family-business business: For over thirty years he’s traced the history of Nathan’s, an effort that resulted in a 2014 documentary, Famous Nathan, and has now occasioned a book of the same name (co-written with Gil Reavill), which arrives June 21 from Flatiron Books.
The story, as Lloyd and many others tell it, is classically American. It begins with the 1912 arrival of Nathan — one of thirteen siblings from small-town Poland — in America. Unschooled but street-smart, he worked jobs from the Lower East Side to Coney Island, and in 1916, with $300, he opened his stand on Surf Avenue, just across from the subway, where he sold hot dogs for a nickel — half what Feltman’s, the nearby institution that claimed to have invented hot dogs, was charging.
Worried that the public might think the low price meant he was serving (as Lloyd put it) “horse meat,” Nathan staged what would become a legendary stunt: He hired orderlies from a nearby hospital to put on stethoscopes and eat at his stand. If people noticed these “doctors” eating his hot dogs, they had to be safe, right?
“Nathan Handwerker knew the value of marketing and publicity from the get-go,” says Bruce Kraig, the author of Man Bites Dog, a history of the hot dog. The entrepreneur took advantage of the nascent world of celebrity, allowing the public to believe that Jimmy Durante and Eddie Cantor had provided the capital for the stand (a myth, Lloyd says), and on the day Prohibition was repealed, he offered free beer — the lines stretched to the boardwalk.
To be sure, Nathan’s was also a high-quality stand. Kraig describes Nathan as “a stickler with his french fries” — he’d inspect Long Island potato farms and was “a complete maniac for the way they were cooked.” And Lloyd calls him a “fanatic” who would send back whole truckloads of hot dogs (made in Williamsburg) if they were too fatty or too watery. Remember, we’re talking about hot dogs and french fries: wonderful food, even occasionally well-made food, but food for children.
“Let’s just say in terms of American culture, Nathan’s is a triumph of marketing, and as we know, everything in America is about marketing,” says Kraig. “If you don’t believe me, take a look at the Republican campaign.”
Which sounds awful! Who the hell wants to buy into marketing? Oh, right: We all do, even if we won’t admit it. Marketing is the hot dog of American culture: low-status but ruthlessly effective. It lets us imagine we truly are the people that marketers imagine us to be — in the case of Nathan’s today, boardwalk-strolling wiener-eaters partaking in a grand American cultural tradition and honoring a time, real or imagined, when five-cent franks were not only good eats but a pathway to prosperity.
For Lloyd Handwerker, it’s even more complex. His film and book are serious attempts to document the history (including the eventual sale of the family’s stake in 1987) and break down the myths (e.g., the July Fourth hot dog eating contest began in the early 1970s, not 1916) while upholding the overall legend, the one we all want to believe in and that may be mostly true.
As the wind sucked the heat from the sunny day and threatened constantly to blow Lloyd’s lunch into Surf Avenue, I looked around at Nathan’s customers. An Instagram-ready rockabilly pinup, very #nofilter, and her friend, dressed in Burberry pajamas and hoop earrings that grazed her shoulders. A quartet of professional-seeming brunettes in their thirties. Panhandlers weaving among the tables, rebuffed at every turn.
Lloyd tucked into his hot dog (with mustard and sauerkraut), noting that one he’d had a week ago was spicier — not that he eats them often.
“I eat meat rarely, and I probably eat seafood more than I eat meat,” Lloyd explained. “But I don’t abstain. I come down here, I’m eating a hot dog for my grandfather’s memory.”
Which was really why we were all there. In an age when nothing unifies us anymore, we have this memory in common, even if that memory’s based on a myth. At least, once in a while, we all feel drawn to the same salty place.
While Lloyd and I were talking, we were approached by a tour guide who’d recognized him from the documentary and who had in tow a married couple from Oklahoma. They were beyond psyched to be at Nathan’s.
“For $325 an hour, I’m sitting here having a hot dog,” said the husband, a lawyer forgoing his hourly rate for a well-earned vacation. “That’s how much I wanted to be here.”