Welcome back to Eating the Silents, the cooking series in which I attempt to recreate the dishes and meals consumed on the silent screen. This time, we’re going to be preparing the hot dog that Clara Bow ordered for Antonio Moreno in IT.
One of many “shop girl” films released during the silent era, IT told the story of a young lady who falls for her handsome boss and wins a date with him, her choice. She takes him out for a night of working class amusements that start with a nice, fresh hot dog. (The film is available on DVD, by the way. You can read my review here.)
What did a 1920s hot dog taste like? That’s the question we will be exploring today. This was not a difficult assignment because I am a noted lover and consumer of frankfurters.
This leads to a more specific question: What kind of dog did Clara buy for Tony? Did I purchase an entire book on the history of the hot dog in American cuisine to help me answer this question? Of course I did!
Please note that I will be sharing the brands that I used in this experiment but all food items were purchased at full retail price by me and this post is not sponsored.
The hot dog has its roots in German-speaking immigrants trying to make a living by selling the foods they enjoyed. In the nineteenth century (never mind the exact date) Anton Feutchwanger (or was it Charles Feltman? Or Ignatz Frischmann?) took to offering sausages made of finely ground meat in buns to hungry customers. Mustard, sauerkraut, chili, pickles, cheese and other toppings followed but the basic formula has remained: sausage + bun.
What kind of meat?
The first hot dogs served on the streets were likely a mixture of beef, veal and pork but all-beef hot dogs quickly rose to prominence. In the early twentieth century, Jewish immigrants (including Nathan Handwerker of Nathan’s, still one of the top hot dog brands in the United States) embraced hot dog vending as a good business to help them get on their feet in their new country. Nathan’s hot dogs are NOT kosher (some even have cheese mixed with the beef) but they contain no pork.
(Keeping kosher is a complicated topic and far beyond the scope of this article. Around the time of America’s hot dog frenzy, some Reform adherents felt that abstaining from pork was sufficient and consumed such non-kosher food items as shellfish while other Jewish Americans preferred to hold to a stricter diet. This difference led to a rather controversial banquet.)
Chicken and turkey frankfurters are a reasonably modern innovation. We can be fairly certain that the hot dogs in IT were either all-beef or a mixture of beef, pork and veal.
Casings and prep?
The hot dog that Antonio Moreno consumes would have almost certainly been in a casing. (That is, the cleaned intestine or synthetic tube into which the meat mixture is stuffed.) This gives hot dogs a snap and also explains why he has such difficulty with his first bite. Most hot dogs sold today in the United States are skinless– sans casing– thanks to the development of the automated hot dog peeling machine after the Second World War. Skinless hot dogs were available in the late 1920s but were not yet ubiquitous.
I wanted to replicate the experience in IT as much as possible, so casings were an absolute must. My initial thought was to go with the Nathan’s brand as the company was founded in 1916, certainly period correct.
Nathan’s does offer a natural casing but no store in my area carries it. However, I was able to purchase Caspers Famous Hot Dogs, which have natural sheep casings and are a mixture of beef and pork. This makes them a bit more in the European style and Caspers is a Bay Area business, so this dog blended several influences. I like that. (Caspers was founded in the early 1930s but I won’t tell if you don’t.)
IT doesn’t go into great detail about its location but it does try to evoke New York, so I decided to go with a kind of modified New York style. I offered mustard, sauerkraut and grilled onions as toppings and pan-grilled the dogs in a manner that I hope the original Nathan’s would approve of. (Sorry for not using your dogs, Nathan!)
My cabbage-based condiment choices were as follows:
Hengstenberg Bavarian Sauerkraut
Hengstenberg Red Cabbage With Apples (great as some guests couldn’t take the sauer in the sauerkraut)
Trader Joe’s Raw Sauerkraut with Persian Cucumbers (my favorite)
Kruegermann Berlin Style Sauerkraut
(I’m kind of obsessed with sauerkraut, in case you haven’t noticed.)
Mustard choices included Löwensenf Extra Hot Mustard and good old classic French’s Yellow Mustard.
What kind of bun?
German milk rolls were the original hot dog vehicle but typical American frankfurters are served on a soft, white bread product. The dog enjoyed by Bow and Moreno seems to be served on a larger, sturdier bun. Fortunately, I happen to be located near a rather good German bakery, so I purchased a bag of appropriately bun-like rolls.
And it was time to serve at last!
I hope you will forgive me, dear readers, but there’s really no way to shoot such a preparation without it looking somewhat vulgar. My topping were the Bavarian kraut, hot mustard and grilled onions.
Were the dogs delicious? Of course they were! Everybody wolfed down the tasty sausages and condiments. Those 1920s kids were onto something! (The ideal hot dog is spiced but not spicy-hot, fine-textured and a bit briney in flavor.)
Of course, the date scene in IT was meant to illustrate the class divide between Bow and Moreno. He eats at the Ritz, she downs hot dogs but they’re still in love.
Like so many things that are thought of as 100% American, the humble hot dog is an immigrant success story. While not the powerhouse they once were, hot dogs continue to evolve to meet the changing American palette. There are gourmet hot dogs using Kobe Wagyu beef, low-fat turkey dogs, vegan hot dogs and farm-raised, single-source franks.
While they have evolved enormously, the fact remains that there’s nothing quite like the snap of an old-school hot dog. Diet permitting, I hope you’re able to enjoy one of these babies soon.
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