A Brief History
On June 11, 1939, a picnic at which hot dogs were served helped re-establish the political closeness between the United States and Great Britain and introduced the traditionally American food to an international public.
With the threat of war and invasion looming, the British monarch, George VI of “The King’s Speech” fame and his wife, Queen Elizabeth, later known as the Queen Mother, or affectionately as Queen Mum, embarked on a tour to visit their dominion of Canada, the first time a reigning British monarch had visited the North American continent.
Upon hearing of the intended trip, American President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, extended an invitation to the royal couple to stop by at his private residence in Hyde Park, New York. His goal was to soften relations between the two countries which had often been tense since the Revolutionary War when the American colonies had declared independence from Great Britain. With Europe on the brink of war, FDR, not one to continue the American policy of isolationism, realized he needed to forge alliances with the leading European democracies. And so, wishing to dispel anti-British sentiment, he decided to entertain the King at a casual American-style picnic to ensure that the King would win the sympathy of the American people.
At the picnic hot dogs were served. The royal couple was a little bit perplexed, with the Queen whispering to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, “How do you eat this?” The question is somewhat funny if you consider that she came from the country that invented the sandwich after John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, had asked for a way to be able eat his meat at the card table without silverware. This, by the way, has been deemed Britain’s biggest contribution to gastronomy. The Queen, however, ended up deciding to eat her hot dog with a fork and knife (she probably didn’t want to soil her gloves), but the King ate his by hand and even had seconds!
The next day, the picnic made the front page of the New York Times, with the headline reading, “KING TRIES HOTDOG AND ASKS FOR MORE”. The simplicity of the event endeared the King and Queen to the American public who now saw them as regular people capable of casual dining rather than as evil colonial rulers. And sure enough, when Great Britain and its Dominions declared war on Germany in September of 1939, Roosevelt was able to convince Congress, and the American people, to support the British both diplomatically and financially, while maintaining American neutrality.
So, just how typically American are hot dogs? Well, just like George VI, hot dogs have their origins in Germany. They are derived from Frankfurters, also known as Wiener Wuerstchen, and were brought over to the United States by German immigrants. Initially eaten with mustard, potato salad or in soups in the Old World, in the New World, they become popular as vendor food and were placed in buns to allow for easier and less messy eating. Legend has it that one such vendor initially named them Dachshund Sandwiches after the long, German dogs they resemble, but that that name was too hard too pronounce, so it was shortened to Hot Dog.
At any rate, a variant of the hot dog should have been familiar to George VI, as he was ethnically German. His last name was originally Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, but his father, George V, changed it to Windsor during World War I to distance the family from their German roots. His wife, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, on the other hand, was descended from Scottish nobility, so she gets a pass.
At any rate, the picnic and the importance of the hot dog as a turning point in Anglo-American relations are so great that the film, “Hyde Park on Hudson,” starring Bill Murray as FDR, was made on the topic and released in 2013, almost 75 years after the actual event. Let no one ever underestimate and trivialize the hot dog as common stadium food ever again! It is one of the most diplomatically significant foods in culinary history, and nowadays hot dogs can be found just about anywhere.
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For more information, please see…
Kraig, Bruce. Hot Dog: A Global History (Edible). Reaktion Books, 2009.
Smith, Elwood and Adrienne Sylver. Hot Diggity Dog: The History of the Hot Dog. Dutton Books for Young Readers, 2010.