Good Dog! A Summer Taste Test

Published July 23, 2004, issue of July 23, 2004.
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There’s no way to know this for sure, but I would suggest that kosher frankfurters first entered the wider American consciousness in the 1970s, thanks to, of all things, a TV commercial. In this commercial — for those of you who threw out your televisions in the 1960s — a man dressed as Uncle Sam stands holding a hot dog in front of him, while a stentorian-voiced narrator recites some of the additives (nonmeat fillers, etc.) that the American government allows to be put in frankfurters.

“We don’t,” intones the narrator after each item, as Uncle Sam’s smile grows increasingly forced. Cue the heavenly choir; Uncle Sam gazes upward, to where the sun is breaking through the clouds. Proclaims the narrator (the term Omniscient Narrator would not be inappropriate here): ‘We can’t. We’re Hebrew National, and we answer to a Higher Authority.”

This prodigious bit of marketing jiujitsu took the kosher laws, which never had mattered to more than a very small segment of the population, and made them a selling point for the population at large. We even might look to this as the moment when many Americans first began to view kosher food — not always correctly — as healthy food, such that today the majority of kosher buyers are not even Jewish.

Of course, kosher frankfurters had been around for a long time before Uncle Sam ever held up one to the camera. The first recorded appearance of a frankfurter of any kind on American shores was in 1867, in the Brooklyn, N.Y., seaside community of Coney Island. A German immigrant named Charles Feltman, who earned his trade selling pies from a wagon that he pushed along the beach, found that many of his customers were asking for hot sandwiches, as had begun to be sold in the restaurants along the boardwalk. Fearing a drop-off in business, Feltman hired a mechanic (the annals of food history know him only as Donovan) to construct a charcoal stove on the back of his wagon. Thus equipped, Feltman began plying hot sausages to the local beachgoers; he wrapped the sausages in a bun, in the German fashion, and called his creation, “Frankfurter sandwiches,” after his hometown. Feltman’s gambit proved so successful that within the decade he had opened his own restaurant on the boardwalk, the eponymous Feltman’s, which by the turn of the century had grown into a vast food complex, turning

out frankfurters from seven grills, delivered to patrons by as many as 1,200 waiters.

However, eventually Feltman’s ingenuity would spawn the seeds of his own undoing. In 1915, a former employee of Feltman’s, Nathan Handwerker, set up a stand across the street from the restaurant and began selling competing hot dogs. (The term “hot dog” had been coined nine years earlier, after the Chicago cartoonist T.A. “Tad” Dorgan drew a cartoon showing a dachshund inside a frankfurter bun.) Like Feltman before him, Handwerker named his hot-dog stand after himself, calling it — need I even say this? — Nathan’s Famous. At Nathan’s hot dogs cost only a nickel, half of the price that was being charged across the street. But they differed from those of Feltman’s in at least one more significant respect: Nathan’s frankfurters, like all Jewish sausages before them, were made from beef rather than pork.

Still, while the hot dogs sold at Nathan’s emerged from an identifiable Jewish tradition, they were not strictly kosher (indeed, Handwerker eventually added clams and oysters to his menu). Kashrut-observing Jews had to rely instead on the all-beef frankfurters made by their local kosher butchers, or by kosher companies such as Hebrew National, founded in 1905 by the Romanian immigrant Isadore Pinkowitz. Today, of course, few kosher butchers still make their own frankfurters, and instead stock the franks made by any of several national brands, of which Hebrew National (now owned by the Omaha multinational ConAgra Foods, maker of La Choy, Butterball and Swiss Miss, not to mention various herbicides and pesticides) is still the best known. In recent years a bit more variety has appeared in the kosher refrigerator case, as some producers have begun marketing frankfurters made from meat other than beef, including chicken, turkey and even buffalo. (The first buffalo hot dogs to be sold in New York City, in the late 1990s, were manufactured by Pinkowitz’s great-grandson.)

For kosher hot-dog lovers there are, it seems, more choices than ever. And so, as another season of hot-dog grilling commences in backyards and on rooftops across the land, I thought it might be enlightening to conduct a blind taste test of several leading brands of kosher franks.

How to decide which to include? Simple: I chose all those that could be purchased at any of several markets in Manhattan. (I don’t buy my franks on the Internet, and I don’t imagine you do, either.) The result was a relatively broad mix, which included not only all-beef frankfurters, but also ones made from chicken and buffalo. The tasting panel included several friends and family members, all of whom, I am pleased to report, have recovered from their evening’s exertions.

The results follow, listed in order of preference. Happy grilling, everyone.


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