Few foods are more American than the chili dog, but if you take a close look at its history, you’ll find an even more American story than you’d suspect. Today, Christina Olson of the Atlantic took a deep dive into the chili dog’s origins, and in so doing revealed the multicultural—and xenophobic—beginnings to one of our country’s favorite foods. (Because nothing’s more American than that.)
The core of the chili dog, the hot dog itself, made it to U.S. soil vial British immigrants in the 1600s and 1700s, but our current version of the hot dog bears a bit more resemblance to the German version. After its arrival, it became another part of the American industrial machine: “While sausages as street food were common in American cities by the late 1700s,” Olson explains, “it was only after the Civil War that the sausage became, like so many other products of the age, machinated and industrialized. Meat moved from the butcher shop to the factory. And as it did, sausages homogenized. The hot dog was born.”
But the hot dog grew in popularity partially because of xenophobia in the 1890s. Olson writes that Eastern European immigrants trying to sell handmade sausages were considered too foreign, and instead, the more “distinctly American” hot dog gave a sense of familiarity (even though these carts were sometimes owned by immigrants).
And now, for the sauce. The complete story of chili remains shrouded in mystery, but Gustavo Arellano, author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, believes that it arrived to San Antonio in 1870s. It was sold by women who ended up with the nickname “chili queens,” and they “played up the romantic exoticism of Old Mexico and decked their booths with lanterns and musicians.” While the chili queens disappeared by the end of World War II, Arellano found that chile con carne found its way to restaurant menus by the 1880s, and pretty soon it was stuffed into cans. As Olson writes, “So chili gained traction contemporaneously with the hot dog. It was another ethnic food, sanitized, homogenized, and made blandly American.”
If you break down the seasonings you find in chili dog chili, you’ll find that it closely aligns with sauces in Greece in Macedonia. But if you look at the origins of the coney dog, there’s no mention of its Balkan roots: “The name coney comes from Coney Island, though it’s thought that few Greek or Balkan immigrants had seen Brooklyn’s Coney Island.” Olson explains. “Instead, they took the distinctly American name for their Midwestern coney restaurants, possibly to seem less foreign. After all, the first recipes for coney sauce called for beef hearts. In order to make the offal and seasonings of their homelands less exotic, they draped the sauce over the familiar hot dog.”
Of course, now there are distinct regional differences wherever you go, from West Virginia’s coleslaw-topped version to Buffalo’s chargrilled dog. Olson points out, “In the span of about a hundred years, America turned a German sausage into a hot dog and turned Mexican chili con carne and Greek saltsa kima into chili, and then repackaged the whole thing as a cheap, distinctly American dish.”
The chili dog is now better known for its unifying power—Detroit autoworkers and aerospace workers alike have lined up for cheap dogs at one time or another. Olson writes, “patrons were united not in race, language, or homeland, but in their desire for quick food.”