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The Evolution of the Chicago-Style Hot Dog


The back of this postcard reads "Chicago's most famous hot dog." Postcard published by Sunburst Souvenirs, Evanston, IL. 

The Chicago-style hot dog is a perfect example of how many different ethnic and historical influences can come together to create something uniquely Chicago.  

The Chicago-style hot dog consists of an all-beef wiener on a steamed poppy-seed bun topped with what is known as the “Magnificent Seven”: mustard, relish, chopped onions, two tomato wedges, a pickle spear, two sport peppers, and a sprinkling of celery salt. The frankfurter aficionados behind the Hot Dog Chicago Style website (www.hotdogchicagostyle.com) state that adding these toppings in the order listed here is crucial to ensuring that you can taste all the ingredients in every bite.

The Chicago dog was not invented by a single person but rather evolved during the 1920s through the 1950s, according to Bruce Kraig, author of Hot Dog: A Global History (as told to WBEZ in 2017). According to Hot Dog Chicago Style, an early forerunner of the Chicago-style hot dog was the affordable “Depression Dog” sold by Chicago street vendors during the Great Depression of the 1930s: an all-beef frank topped with mustard, onions, sport peppers, and maybe relish served on a plain bun or wrapped in French fries. According to the Chicago Tribune, one Depression Dog typically sold for a nickel.

One of the earliest places where the Chicago-style hot dog was sold was the Maxwell Street Market, located near Halsted Street and Roosevelt Road. The neighborhood surrounding this area was home to German, Jewish, Greek, Italian, and other European immigrants, who all contributed to the evolution of the Chicago-style hot dog. 

The Maxwell Street Market became famous for serving Chicago-Style hot dogs. Postcard published by Curt Teich, Chicago.

The sausage, the bun, the mustard, and the pickle all stem from German cuisine. Jewish influence and the fact that the Chicago stockyards produced 80% of the country’s beef made the all-beef wiener a Chicago staple. Sport peppers came from Mexico and likely made their way to Chicago via the railroad as early as the 1870s. This ingredient became popular with Chicagoans after tamales were sold at the Columbian Exposition in 1893. Pickle relish came from England and was first known to appear on hot dogs in Chicago at a Cubs vs. Sox baseball game in 1928.

Greek and Italian immigrants were probably the first to add tomato slices to the dog, and poppy seeds were likely added to the buns after Jewish Eastern Europeans immigrated to Chicago after World War II. Finally, celery was widely touted as a health food during this time, and the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago was once a major celery-growing area. Many describe the Chicago-style hot dog as being “dragged through the garden” due to this abundance of veggie toppings.

Finally, there is the notable absence of ketchup on the Chicago-style dog. According to Hot Dog Chicago Style, most true hot dog lovers (not just Chicagoans) eschew ketchup, believing that it overpowers the taste of the hot dog. Meanwhile, Kraig believes that the winning combination of toppings on the Chicago dog simply makes ketchup unnecessary, and adding the condiment would only upset its delicate balance of flavors and textures. Some local hot dog vendors may offer ketchup to those who wish to partake, but many refuse to put it on the hot dogs themselves.

It took many years and many different cultures to create the Chicago-style hot dog, an inexpensive yet nourishing dish that came out of the hard times of the Great Depression. Today it continues to serve as a delicious testament to the resilience and uniqueness of Chicago. 

Written by Emily Ruzich

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