As iconic foods go, hot dogs are as American as apple pie. And as word associations go, "kosher" and "hot dog" is as natural a pairing as "hot dog" and "mustard." But relative to the US population, kosher-observant Jews make up only a tiny fraction of food consumers when it comes to the kosher hot dog, making this popular hot dog a common choice at summer barbecues, sporting events, and in the grocery store aisle, even among those who don't actually keep kosher. Learning all about the kosher hot dog begins with the traditional pork hot dog we are all so familiar with.
A Brief History of the (Treife) Hot Dog
The exact origins of the American hot dog are unclear, but according to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, food historians generally agree that it evolved from the German frankfurter sausage, which is made of beef and pork. Accounts vary, but the popular sausage—dubbed a "dachshund" after the little German hound that shares its shape—may have developed as early as the late 1400s. By the 1800s, when German and Eastern European immigrants began arriving in America en masse, the "little dog" sausage was a part of their culinary repertoire and was one of the may things they brought with them.
Major cities with large immigrant populations were prime places for Americans to gain exposure to novel foods, or to enjoy familiar ones from a far-away homeland. New York City's Lower East Side, for example, was home to both a high concentration of immigrants and a bustling commercial center. Food carts offering filling, inexpensive, easy-to-transport foods were popular with the working class, making a small sausage on a bun quite appealing.
The Birth of the Kosher Hot Dog
A large population of Jewish immigrants lived and worked on the Lower East Side, and, whether they partook or not, got plenty of exposure to the diverse food culture that surrounded them. Many Jews held fast to the kashrut laws they'd practiced in the Old World, as evidenced by the kosher butchers, restaurants, and grocers that thrived in the neighborhood. But others experimented with new foods as they acclimated to America. Some flouted the kosher laws deliberately in an attempt to embrace a "modern" American lifestyle, while others attempted to adapt and integrate American foods into kosher cookery.
Because the Jewish Dietary Laws include such specific, stringent requirements for the slaughter and consumption of meat, kosher butchers have always been an integral part of Jewish communities. Enterprising butchers used their expertise and ingredients to create a kosher beef version of the non-kosher pork-based hot dog recipe.
Commercially Produced Kosher Hot Dogs
The name of the first kosher hot dog-maker may be lost to history, but we do know that the Hebrew National Kosher Sausage Factory, established in 1905, was turning them out on the Lower East Side. When Romanian butcher Isadore Pinckowitz bought the company in 1928, he started selling Hebrew National hot dogs to New York delis, popular among Jews and non-Jews alike. By the 1940s, Hebrew National was positioning itself in suburban supermarkets, and in the 1960s with ads asserting "We answer to a higher authority," Hebrew National captured a large, loyal base of consumers convinced that, at least in the case of hot dogs, kosher was better.
The Kosher Hot Dog's Popularity
One reason Hebrew National brand appealed to a non-kosher audience was due to the original name of the hot dog. The name "dachshunds" or "little dogs" didn't always have a positive connotation in America. Rumors even circulated that hot dogs sometimes contained dog meat or unsavory animal parts. Savvy non-Jewish consumers knew that Jews were forbidden to eat dogs, horses, and other animals many feared could make their way into sausages. Thus, choosing a kosher hot dog was seen as a guarantee that the ingredients were cleaner, safer, or more wholesome (even though the kashrut of food isn't dependent upon these attributes).
Today, Hebrew National kosher hot dogs are not only available at the grocery stores and Jewish delis but are also a menu item at MLB ballparks and other sporting venues, evidence of their expanding popularity.
Kosher Hot Dogs: Better, or Just Different?
The perception that kosher food is purer or healthier than regular food is inaccurate, particularly when looking at hot dogs—kosher or not—which are highly-processed meats, and not exactly good for us. As for whether kosher hot dogs are "better" than regular hot dogs, that's largely a question of personal taste. For consumers who don't keep kosher, those who choose kosher hot dogs often cite a preference for the garlicky spice blend typical of kosher beef franks over the smokier flavor of pork hot dogs. And for Muslim consumers who may have trouble tracking down hot dogs with Halal certification, a kosher label indicates that the hot dogs are pork-free, humanely-slaughtered, and blood-free, and therefore permissible.
Incidentally, Hebrew National's kosher status has been a controversial issue over the years. A number of Orthodox Jews challenge the hot dog's kosher validity due to the fact that the food is not glatt kosher and question the facility's ability to inspect properly. But whether Hebrew National hot dogs are legitimately kosher does not seem to affect sales considering the majority of the company's consumers don't keep kosher and aren't Jewish.