A Brooklyn Memoir: Coney Island, Hot Dogs, and Judaism
An Ode to Summer
O, how shall summer’s honey breath hold out
Against the wreckful siege of battering days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong, but Time decays?
~William Shakespeare, “Sonnet 65”
I can still remember the sights, sounds, and smells of the summer weekends of my youth. The days usually began early to both get a decent parking spot as close to Brighton Beach as possible, by also to get a prime location on the beach itself – somewhere equidistant between the old wooden boardwalk and the shoreline (which meant dragging the beach chairs, food, towels, umbrellas, etc, half-way across the beach). Across the ocean blue you could see the Rockaways ahead in the distance, but when you gazed your attention to the right, the shapes of the Wonder Wheel and the Parachute Jump of Coney Island could be seen towering above the multitude of nearly undressed bodies worshiping the sun from their beach and lounge chairs. As a kid, the day was spent splashing in the waves as they tried to make landfall, or building castles in the sand. The day was interrupted, of course, to eat – usually sandwiches prepared at home with some type of fruit and maybe some chips on the side. Every now and then we would be lucky enough when our parents bought us knishes from one of the vendors walking around while screaming “get your red hot knishes here.” Then there were the occasional days when the routine was broken up with a trip to that magical and mystical place full of rides and games, connected by a road of wooden planks . . . . Coney Island.
Brief history of Coney Island: Coney Island is located in the Southwest portion of the Borough of Brooklyn, NY. There is no clear origin for the naming of the island. It was called Narrowich by the Native Americans that lived there, but a Dutch map from 1690 indicates the area as Conney Island. Some theories about the name include being named after: the Konoh tribe, which may have lived in the area, an early Dutch family (Conyn), or the most popular belief that it was named after the conyn rabbit, which used to inhabit the island. [Fast Fact: Coney Island remained an island until the 1950s, when the area was filled in by a landfill during the construction of the Belt Parkway.] When the first buildings began to be built on the Island, people tried to stop any construction and keep it all natural. However the first hotel (Coney Island Hotel) was built in 1829, and the area quickly became a vacation spot. William Engleman built the Brighton Beach resort in 1868 with rooms to accommodate 5000 people. In 1878 a railroad was built to bring bring people from other areas of Brooklyn and Manhattan to the area. This was two years after the first carousel ride opened in Coney Island. Then other rides and attractions began to populate the area followed by amusement parks, such as Sea Lion Park (1895), Steeplechase Park (1897), Luna Park (1903), Dreamland (1904), and Brighton Beach Park (1905) (which also built the boardwalk). In 1944 a fire destroyed much of Luna Park, which had become the largest in Coney Island, and the area went into a decline over the next twenty years, with the last remaining amusement park (Steeplechase Park) closing in 1964. Through the next few decades some rides did remain (e.g., cyclone roller coaster), and a world-class aquarium, but it has never attained the same level of success. However, over the last twenty years (or so), NYC has been doing a lot to revitalize the area, including trying to keep the area safer, trying to add new rides, building a ball park, and putting in a concert/performance venue.
I associate the tastes and smells of the summer of my youth with a few different foods. Knishes, Gabilla knishes in particular, which we could purchase on the corner of Brighton Beach Avenue and Coney Island Avenue (under the El). Hot dogs is another dish I associate with summer. Be it a barbecue at one of my parents friends house, over a fire while camping, or a trip to the original Nathan’s in Coney Island of Brooklyn, NY.
Nathans began as a small 5 cent hot dog stand in 1916 by a Jewish immigrant named Nathan Handwerker. [Fast Fact: the Nathan’s website states that he came from Poland, however, technically he came from an area called Galicia, which is on the Polish-Hungarian border.] He named the small cart “Nathans” in 1921, and eventually opened up a much larger food establishment on the same intersection he set up his stand, the corner of Surf and Stillwell Avenues. Although the menu has been enlarged, and changed over the years, Nathan’s has continued to sell hot dogs for its 100 years of existence. The Nathan’s name has been re-branded as “Nathan’s Famous” and although Mr. Handwerker passed away in 1974, I am sure he would be happily amazed that his business has been franchised to the four corners of the world.
Coming To America
“Home to a new and shiny place. Make our bed, and we’ll say our grace.”
~Neil Diamond, “Coming to America”
Mr. Handwerker first came to Brooklyn in 1912, with a host of other immigrants, many of whom were also Jewish. However, the first Jewish settlers came to this new land almost 300 years earlier, in 1621, with the arrival of Elias Legarde in James Town, VA. [Note that it is contended that many other Jews may have arrived in North America much earlier as moranos (“secret Jews” forced to convert to avoid persecution), and there may have been one or more moranos (only one proven – Luis de Torres, who converted days before the voyage) on Christopher Columbus’s first voyage). [Fast Fact: There has been an ongoing discussion that Columbus, himself, was a converted Jew.] The first Jewish immigrants to come to New York City (called New Amsterdam back in the day), arrived in 1654 from Brazil. By the time the Declaration of Independence was signed, the Jewish population may have been almost 2500 people; within the next century the population grew ten-fold and there were an estimated 200,000 Jews living in the United States in 1870. Because of oppression, poverty, and the prospects of a new life in America, over two million Jews left Eastern Europe along with Nathan Handwerker between 1880 and the early 1920s, bringing with them their culture, their culinary traditions, and their religious beliefs (along with what little luggage they managed to carry with them). By 1927 there were over 4.2 million Jews residing in the United States (and over 6.7 million living here today).
Many of the Jewish immigrants over the years have travelled to the United States through the megalopolis of New York City, passing by the towering image of Statue of Liberty, casting a shadow upon their entering ships of hope and prosperity. Although many left New York for other areas to settle, a large majority stayed in the thriving metropolis. Of the over one million Jews living in the United States in 1899, approximately 400,000 lived in New York State (and most within the vicinity the city itself). Even today, New York still maintains the largest Jewish population of all 50 states (1.7 million people). [Fast Fact: In case you were wondering, New Jersey grew from 25,000 Jewish residents to over 500,000 during that same time span.] As to Brooklyn, there are currently over 550,000 Jewish residents, which is almost a quarter of the residents living within that borough.
As noted above, the first big wave of Jewish immigrants came to America in 1654. However, it did not take long for them to create a place of prayer, and they established the first Jewish congregation in the United States, Congregation Shearith Israel, on the Island of Manhattan. It would remain the only Jewish congregation in New York City for almost 175 years (1825). However, due to anti-Semitism, it was not until 1730, that they were given permission to build a synagogue (which was originally located on South William Street (then known as Mill Street)). It was not until 1848 that the first Jewish Congregation, K.K. Beth Elohim, was established across the river in Brooklyn (in a private home on Marcy Avenue), and established their first synagogue in 1860 (on South First Street). These were the first few of many. As the number of Jewish immigrants moved to New York, so has the number of places of worship. As of 2010 there were more than 1000 Jewish synagogue in New York City (70% permanent and 30% temporary).
Hot Diggity Dog
“A hot dog at the ball park is better than steak at the Ritz.”
Nathan Handwerker may be credited with expanding the love of hot dogs, but he did not originate the idea of placing processed meats into a tubular shape. Sausages may be one of the oldest dishes made with processed meat. Homer had even mentioned sausages back in the 9th century in the Odyssey “As when a man besides a great fire has filled a sausage with fat and blood and turns it this way and that and is very eager to get it quickly roasted. . .” The first person to have discovered the modern sausage is credited to Gaius, the cook of Nero in 64 AD. However, a disputed origin to the “modern” hot dog (the meat) has been traced to a man named Johann Goerghehrner, who sold what were called dachshund or “little-dogs” out of his butcher shop in Coburg, Germany in the late 17th century. He later brought the idea to nearby Frankfurt (Gemany), where it continued to gain notoriety as a delicious dish. However, Frankfurt, Germany claims that the idea of the frankfurter was actually created in that city over one-hundred years earlier, in 1487. Vienna also claims rights to the origin of the hot dog, stating that the idea was born in Vienna, Austria; they cite that this dish is called a wiener because the root of the word is “Wein” – which is also the name of the city.
Although the European origins are interesting, the American origin of hot dogs are clouded in myth. One romantic version of its origin places its beginnings in the famed Polo Grounds of the since removed New York Giants baseball team. To provide the cheering fans with a warm treat to eat early in the season when it was cold, Harry Stevens had his vendors buy the dachshund sausages, heat them up, and put them on long rolls. The vendors would yell out “Red Hots, get your Red Hots Here” or “Get your Red Hot Dachshunds here.” When cartoonist Thomas A. Dorgan heard them calling it at the ball park, he said to himself that dachshunds are dogs, so why not call them “hot dogs” and put them into a cartoon. Another diamond-related legend places its origin in St. Louis in the late 1800s, when bar owner and owner of the St. Louis Cardinals began selling sausages on (or with) bread at ball games, which became a standard food at ball parks by the 1890s. From St. Louis, is also the claim that a street peddler named Antonoine Feuchtwanger had first began serving the modern version of the hot dog ; he used to give away gloves with his sausages so people would not burn their hands, but it cut into his profits, so his wife suggested placing the sausage in bread, and the idea stuck.
Although these stories stuck for many years, it was disproved years later – the term hot dog had already been used for a few years before this supposed epiphany. The creator of the hot dog (a sausage on a long roll) hails New York, and the honor has been bestowed to a Brooklyn (either Park Slope or Coney Island) to pie peddler named Charles Feltman, who sold warm sausages on rolls in the late 1860s/ early 1870s on the corner of 6th Avenue and 10th street. However, some claim that making and selling sausage on buns was being done, but Feltman is the most well known of these early vendors (having reportedly sold almost 3,700 sausages in milk rolls in 1871). [Fast Fact: Charles Feltman had owned a large portion of land in Coney Island by the time be passed away in 1910, this land became known as Feltman Astro Park, and became Astroland Park in 1962.]
Although Thomas Dorgan did not create the term, he did help popularize the term “hot dog” through the publication of his cartoons in newspapers during in the early 1900s. [Fast Fact: Another term that Dorgan helped popularize is the Yiddish term kibitzer (along with malarkey and hard-boiled).] Another interesting fact, is that in 1913 the Coney Island Chamber of Commerce
Now, when we get down to looking at the etymology of the term, it takes a somewhat unappetizing and somewhat distasteful twist. In the 1800s butchers were accused of using dog and horse meat (there was a big dog-sandwich scandal in the 1840s in New Jersey). In fact, a parody song became very popular in Yale University in the mid-1870s that related to this practice, which you may have heard parts of before:
Oh where, oh where is my little dog gone?
Oh where, oh where can he be?
Bologna sausage is very good.
And many of them I see;
Oh where, oh where is my little dog gone?
I guess they make ’em of he.
On a related note, in 1913 the Coney Island Chamber of Commerce banned the use of the term “hot dog” to describe this food item for fear that the many visitors and immigrants to the area would believe that they were made with actual dog meat.
When I have mentioned the writing of this article with others, they have almost all asked the same question – was Nathan Handwerker’s hot dogs kosher? I have not found any evidence or mention that they were. However, in 1905 Theodore Krainin, a Jewish butcher from Russia started up his own kosher business called the Hebrew National Kosher Sausage Factory (Lower East Side, NYC). During their first inspection by the city, it was commented that they had “higher standards than the requires,” and a legend was born. After struggling during the depression era, they became a brand leader in the 1940s, and have remained at the top ever since and is the largest kosher brand in the U.S.
Since I am discussing the history of hot dogs, and many articles on this subject add it, I shall mention it as well since the event also took place in the tri-state area. President Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt held a picnic in Hyde Park, New York for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, which included hot dogs on the menu. The King enjoyed his hot dog so much, he asked for seconds.
The hot dog has had a long and interesting history, and has become a staple for almost any picnic or Barbeque in which a grill is fired up. The hot dog has also inspired one of the largest food eating challenges in the world.
“Either you love hot dogs . . . . or you’re wrong!”
One of the Coney Island traditions on Independence Day has become the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest. Nathan’s has been holding this contest since 1972, and became an officially sanctioned competitive eating event beginning in 1997. Except for a very few exceptions over the years, the event is held at the original Nathans location in Coney Island on July 4th. A legend had originally begun that the contest had its roots from a competition between four immigrant men back in 1917 to prove who is the most patriotic, but the perpetrator of the rumor had admitted its falsity.
Jason Schechter won the first contest in 1972 with a total of 14 hot dogs in 3 ½ minutes. When Takeru Kobayashi entered the contest in 2001, he smashed the then record of 25 ½ dogs, when he devoured 50 in 12 minutes. Joey Chestnut became a household name in 2007 when he broke the 60 mark, while consuming 66 hot dogs in 12 minutes, and he currently holds the record of 69 in 10 minutes in 2013. [Update: Joey Chestnut won this year (2016) while consuming 70 hot dogs, but note, he ate 73 1/2 hot dogs last month during the qualifying event to set a world’s record.]
Not All Dogs are the Same
“Noblest of all dogs is the hot dog; it feeds the hand that eats it”
[Lawrence J. Peter]
To some, a hot dog is eaten on a bun made of white bread with mustard, or mustard and sour kraut as a garnish. Some additional popular garnish for the hot dog includes ketchup, relish, sautéed onions, and raw onions. However, there are several unique regional ways of garnishing a hot dog that are worth mentioning, including a few (the first three) that I had served at a barbeque last summer:
- Coney Island Hot Dog (or Coney Dog) – These are hot dogs covered in a savory meat. This variation actually has a Greek origin in the Midwest (Indiana and Michigan), and each area (even different cities within Michigan) have their own differences.
- New York System Weiners – This variation heralds from Rhode Island. The weiner itself is usually made with veal or pork, on a steamed bun, and topped with celery salt, mustard, onions and a seasoned meat sauce.
- Chicago Style Dogs – This actually comes from the place it is named after, Chicago, Illinois. These dogs are served on poppy seed buns, yellow mustard, chopped white onions, sweet pickle relish, dill pickle spear, tomato slices, sport peppers, and celery salt.
- Chili Dogs – These are hot dogs topped with chili (and sometimes cheese). Although they are sometimes called Texas Chili dogs, the place of origination is Altoona, PA (in 1918 by Peter “George” Koufougeorgas, and originally called Texas Hot Weiners).
These are only a few of the many regional variations out there and I did not include some of the local (New Jersey) variations like Rippers (deep fried from Clifton, NJ) or the New Jersey Italian Dogs (round pita-like bread, topped with mustard, onions, peppers, and fried potatoes). Interestingly, after living for over five years in Jersey, I have never had one of these. For me personally, I have two favorites (1) simply with mustard and either potato salad or close slaw, or (2) topped with Russian dressing, a thin slice of pickle, and two slices of fresh-steamed pastrami.
Hot Dog Grilling Tips
“I grill, therefore I am.”
For this month’s special edition article, I am veering from my usual MO by closing with a recipe. However, I will provide some grilling tips, which you may or may not know.
- Grill hot dogs on a medium heat (low does not provide for a firm crust, and too hot will burn/shrivel them).
- The hot dogs are done when they are plump and the ends just begin to split.
- Not all hot dogs are made the same. Different brands taste different from each other, also the percentage of fat in the hot dog will make the taste different.
- Continuously turn/roll the hot dogs so that they receive grill marks on all sides (and you may need to turn them again). When I worked on a grill at a deli years ago, I was continuously turning the dogs all day.
- When I have time, I like to cut a horizontal slit through lengthwise through the hot dog – this way the middle/center of the hot dog gets cooked before the outside burns.
- When possible, serve hot dogs directly from grill to bun (this allows the juices to drip onto the bun instead of a dish/plate. Those George Forman grills do allow all of the juice and fats to drip off during the cooking process, but that is where the taste is.
- Grilling is not the only cooking option. You can try deep-frying, pan frying, oven roasting, baking, flat grilling, and boiling. Speaking of boiling, one option is beer-boiled hot dogs, which are boiled in beer (I prefer using dark ale) with a half cup of brown sugar [note: also served at a past Men’s club event].
- I prefer grilling hot dogs over coals as opposed to propane/gas for a richer taste (when possible). Note that controlling the temperature is a lot more difficult.
- Make sure that all of the condiments are ready for use by your guests when the hot dogs are ready.
- The person who is hosting the party has control of the grill and is the Grill Master. One may only take over grilling responsibilities by the express permission of the host. Guests may not criticize the grilling skill of the host during the party (unless the food is inedible).
Everyone, have a great summer and July 4th!
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