The setting was Coney Island in the early 1900s. The characters were inventive, shrewd, cutthroat, and aggressive. The story was meaty and juicy, with glitzy and glamorous celebrities influencing the plot. No, this is not a pitch for an HBO prestige drama or Oscar-nominated biopic. Rather, it was the real-life scene of the (hot) dog fight that took place between Charles Feltman and Nathan Handwerker, two names that might not immediately resonate, but whose influence in the world of hot dogs is legendary.
Whether you top it with a meat chili as is done in New York’s North Country—Clinton, Essex, Franklin, Hamilton, St. Lawrence, Jefferson, and Lewis Counties—or smother it in nuclear reactive green relish, yellow mustard, chopped onions, and a dill pickle spear as you might find in Chicago, there’s something satisfying about the simple pleasure of eating a hot dog. Of course, not all franks are created equally: There are countless variations, from all-beef kosher, to cased, uncased, cured, and uncured. Take pea and soy protein and extrude it into a casing, and you have a sausage. Put that same creation on a bun, and voila, it becomes a hot dog—albeit not the one that ignited the fiery encounter between Feltman and Handwerker on Coney Island’s boardwalk.
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Like so many foods that are embedded in American cuisine, the hot dog came to the States along with the arrival of immigrants—specifically, groups of German immigrants that arrived in two great influxes from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s. The first hot dogs to gain popularity were sold by pushcart vendors and usually eaten with a knife and fork. As they cooked, the natural casings (typically derived from animal intestines) shrank, causing the dogs to burst out of their skins and create an audible snap when they were bitten into.
While Manhattan was chowing down on their pushcart hot dogs, something unique was happening on Coney Island. It was 1867, and according to The Coney Island History Project (CIHP), Feltman could be seen strolling the beaches of Coney Island with a pie cart. His business morphed from sweet to savory when he became a purveyor of hot dogs and had an aha moment. He wondered: Is there a way to eliminate the need for plates and cutlery while giving customers a singular experience that could take them across the boardwalk with one free hand? By nestling the frank in a bun, he realized he could create an entirely new market and revolutionize the hot-dog-eating experience. He hired a wheelwright—someone who constructed pushcarts—to develop one for his creation, which resulted in a portable charcoal burner for grilling the dogs, along with a tin-lined chest to keep the buns steamy and fresh. He called his product “Coney Island red hots”, and they became as ubiquitous as the sand on the beach below his feet.
With the advent of a subway line that connected Manhattan and Brooklyn, Coney Island saw an influx of patrons, and Feltman’s reputation and business grew. His pushcart gave way to a brick-and-mortar establishment, and by the 1920s, Feltman oversaw what was billed as the nation’s largest restaurant, serving five million customers a year. CIHP described his holdings on Coney Island as covering a full city block (in the spot that now houses Luna Park), which consisted of nine restaurants as well as a carousel, roller coaster, ballroom, outdoor movie theater, beer garden, hotel, bathhouse, pavilion, and of course, a Tyrolean village.
Given his contribution, you might think that every July 4th we’d be paying homage to Feltman for making our hot dogs so convenient and complete. Then why is his not the name you readily associate with America’s favorite barbecued sausage? Enter Handwerker, a simple grill man and bun slicer at one of Feltman’s restaurants. Spurred on by two co-workers, struggling artists Jimmy Durante and Eddie Cantor, Handwerker decided he wanted to make the leap from worker to owner. He saved his $11-per-week paycheck until he had a whopping $300—enough to open his own hot dog stand. Handwerker then used a recipe developed by his nineteen-year-old bride, Ida, that was based on one her grandmother had handed down to her. (Ida’s recipe, which incorporates a variety of spices and garlic, is still used to this day and remains a closely guarded secret.) In appreciation for her contribution, you’d assume he named his stand “Ida’s,” right? Instead, he named it after himself, and the empire known as Nathan’s was born.
Setting up his business just a few blocks from Feltman, Handwerker charged just a nickel for his hot dog, undercutting Feltman’s price by 50 percent. People were leery of a product that cost so little, so Handwerker, the sharp businessman he was, let doctors and nurses from a nearby hospital enjoy his hot dogs free of charge if they wore their medical uniforms. To drive the message home, he also dressed his workers in white lab coats, all to illustrate the pristine quality of his franks. And to advertise, Handwerker’s cronies, Durante and Cantor, spread the word. Soon, celebrities such as Grace Kelly, Lucille Ball, and Jackie Gleason were photographed eating the eponymous dog, and in 1925, vaudeville star Sophie Tucker sang a little ditty about Nathan’s. His friends seized the moment and encouraged Handwerker to rebrand, urging him to capitalize on his newfound fame. Yes, that’s how “Nathan’s Famous” came to be.
Handwerker continued to dominate the scene, gaining world attention at the restaurant’s annual Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest (still going strong many decades later), with franchises around the globe, and by selling packaged franks at supermarkets. However, there’s no need to feel bad for Feltman. At its height, his empire served 40,000 hot dogs a day, cementing his legacy as the creator of the first and original Coney Island hot dog. And, nearly 150 years after Feltman changed the hot dog-eating world forever, a pair of Brooklyn brothers resurrected Feltman’s “boardwalk sensation” as an homage to their brother who died on 9/11. Now, Feltman’s hot dogs are sold in supermarkets around the country, occupying the very same refrigerator cases as Nathan’s Famous. So, maybe the next time you host a family barbecue, try grilling franks from both these legends—and let us know who reigns supreme in your own backyard “dog” fight.