The Short, Sad History of the Corn Dog


What’s the mustard hiding? Read on to find out.

When I was a little kid in Minnesota and went to the state fair, one of the main gastronomic attractions were corn dogs, and my brothers and I would beg to have one the minute we hit the fairgrounds on Snelling Avenue in St. Paul. Except they weren’t called corn dogs then: They were “pronto pups.” The pronto pup was introduced in 1947, and lays claim to being the first corn dog in the U.S. — along with about 20 others that demand the same honor.

Later, when I lived in Texas, I enjoyed “corny dogs,” as they were called, at the Texas State Fairgrounds in Dallas. Same treat, different name. The corny dog was introduced at the fair in 1938 (though some say 1942). The first drive-in to serve corn dogs, in 1946, was in Springfield, Missouri, and The New York Times remarked that there were corn-dog stands at the city’s beaches in 1947. You can still get a corn dog on the Coney Island boardwalk, but if the mayor and his real estate developers have their way, maybe not for long.

Corn dogs are really only wieners that have been thrust on a stick, dipped in a batter containing at least a little cornmeal (hence the name), and deep-fried to within an inch of their tubular lives. During the health-conscious final decades of the last century, corn dogs took a hit, since their greasiness, carbohydrate intensity, and shear hot-dogginess made them anathema to many diners. Yet they lived on at street fairs and Coney Island concessions — and in the supermarket freezer cases, though I don’t know anyone who’s ever bought them there. Eventually, “corn dog” became urban slang for a certain kind of louche sexual act, though no on can quite agree just what the act is.

The menu of the cart also includes funnel cakes, zeppole, and deep-fried Oreos.

Pronto pups for sale at the Minnesota State Fair.

I got mine at a late-fall street fair near Union Square on a blustery Saturday afternoon. The thing had already been cooked, but the guy picked it up and threw it into the laconically bubbling grease, which looked like it hadn’t been changed since the Dinkins administration, making the battered frank so sodden with grease that the coating began sloughing off. Which is why I had to artistically apply the mustard, as seen in the picture. Still, it made a tasty afternoon snack, even though the hot dog inside is of the most dodgy and inferior sort, so pale it’s hard to imagine it contained anything that a reasonable person would describe as meat. Look at it this way: It keeps the cornmeal crust from collapsing.

Eating corny dogs at the Texas State Fair.