Dog's dinner

Food - Bee Wilson discovers that New York's favourite snack doesn't bear too much scrutiny

Not long ago, there was a TV and radio advert that was very silly yet somehow striking, even daring, in the light of American public opinion after 11 September. It's for Budweiser beer. The ad salutes the all-American hero. These heroes are not the firefighters, nor the ordinary yet extraordinary people who fought the terrorists on the fourth plane, nor the soldiers sent to Afghanistan, nor anyone associated, however tangentially, with Rudy Giuliani. Instead, Budweiser salutes "Mr Foot-long-hot-dog-inventor", warbling with magnificent mock pomposity that "we thought eight inches was the limit . . . but somehow he dared to dream . . .", etc, etc.

In fact, it seems that there were not one, but three (or possibly four) great American heroes who created the modern hot dog, the original short variety, and the question of who really invented this iconic sandwich has long troubled historians. In the 1860s, Charles Feltman of Feltman's stall in Coney Island, Brooklyn, started selling charcoal-cooked frankfurters stuffed into a long soft white roll, and many allege that he was the heroic inventor. But there is a rival claim for Harry Magely Stevens, who was the director of catering at the New York City polo grounds, though this is not generally taken so seriously. Whatever, most agree that the hot dog was originally a quintessentially New York thing, and still is. Surly stall-keepers selling enormous red "franks", with mustard, sauerkraut, fried onions and huge pretzels, are as much a part of New York as the steam that rises from the sidewalk.

The hot dog is one of those foods that look much better as a cartoon than in the flesh. It draws so neatly, with its colourful, symmetrical stripes: pale yellow for the bun, dark yellow for the mustard, red for the ketchup and pink for the sausage, perhaps with a frill of green lettuce for those who like rococo touches (though lettuce should never be put in a real hot dog). The hot dog was born to be advertised, and is also a staple of the fantasy of American children's books, such as in Richard Scarry, where hot-dog cars compete on the roads. The hot dog's cartoonish qualities are not irrelevant, given that it was a cartoonist who first established "hot dog" as the name for this smoked-sausage sandwich. Around the turn of the 20th century, Tad Dorgan, a New York sports cartoonist, made fun of this frankfurter snack by drawing a dachshund sandwiched between two slices of bread. Dorgan - hero number two - in effect invented the hot dog: after his cartoon, "hot dog" became the appellation of choice, not just in Coney Island, but on street corners throughout New York.

The trouble was that customers started taking the pun seriously, and began asking whether their all-American snack was made from canine meat. This literal-mindedness became such a problem that, in 1913, the Coney Island Chamber of Commerce banned the use of the term "hot dog" from all advertisements and signs. But this didn't prevent the success of the hot dog spreading from New York to baseball stadiums and other pleasure parks across America.

Nathan Handwerker was the man who made this happen. Handwerker is the third great American hero of the hot dog. Molly O'Neill tells his story in The New York Cookbook (Workman, 1992). Handwerker (a great American name) worked at Feltman's hot-dog stall until 1916, "when he left to found his own stand with a $300 stake". Feltman had been selling his hot dogs for ten cents each. Handwerker saw an opportunity to edge his former boss out of the market, and slashed his own prices to five cents per dog. "The marketing move backfired when the cheap dog raised questions of quality." How was Handwerker to restore public confidence in his product? His next move made him a legend. As O'Neill describes it: "He offered free hot dogs to the interns at nearby Coney Island Hospital, on the condition that they come to the stand in their white lab coats. Soon Nathan's was being pointed out as 'the stand where the doctors eat'. The nickel frank was home and free." Handwerker's hot dogs grew in fame throughout the land with the slogan "The Real Wiener". Handwerker also sold roast-beef sandwiches and hamburgers, again for only five cents each. Unsettlingly, his French fries cost twice as much.

What the story of Hand-werker's nickel hot dog and the Coney Island dog-meat panic shows is that the meat content of a hot dog doesn't bear too much scrutiny. The all-American wholesome image of the hot dog is founded on a kind of naive faith, a kind of "hear no evil, taste no evil".

But the greatest American hero of all actually preferred his hot dogs without the dog. Elvis liked to wander the rooms of Graceland eating empty hot-dog rolls. He called this his "hot-dog roll snack". Recipe: take a packet of hot-dog rolls. Open. Eat, while watching TV.