An authentic Chicago hot dog traditionally features a poppy seed bun filled with an all-beef dog and then topped with yellow mustard, green sweet pickle relish, chopped white onion, a tomato slice, a dill pickle spear, pickled sport peppers and celery salt.
So, where exactly does this delicious hot dog come from?
Germans provided the USA's first large group of immigrants, and German immigrants have been a part of the US since the revolution. Germans populated the farmland of the Midwest and filled the burgeoning industrial cities.
Cultural identity is inextricably linked to food. The Germans of Chicago were no different from any immigrants that came after. They brought a taste of home along with them in the form of frankfurter sausages, the skinny mixture of pork, beef, and spices from Vienna.
German immigrants dominated Chicago's meat industry thanks to their sausage skills and a vast pool of cheap labour. The frankfurters were the perfect industrial food item. A leader in the industrialisation of food, Chicago was the meatpacking capital of the world, butchering livestock from all over the Midwest. Eventually, mass-produced frankfurters became common, but one key element of the Chicago dog had yet to be adopted.
In the subsequent wave of immigration from Germany - this time Jewish - the all-beef hot dog would be introduced. Jewish immigrants quickly learned that selling hot dogs was a great way to earn a living in America due to its craze for little sausages. The hot dog cart became the soul of immigrant communities - the job had low entry barriers and allowed thousands of foreign entrepreneurs to support their families.
As the meatpacking industry struggled with poor health conditions, the Jewish kosher tradition was also known for making purer and safer food. Jewish immigrants became Chicago's new hot dog kings when they came up with a safer, tastier, spicier all-beef version of the frankfurter. So, Jews became masters of the Chicago hot-dog business thanks to the creation of the all-beef hot dog.
Another key Chicago hot dog ingredient is the poppy-seed bun. You can instantly spot an authentic Chicago hot dog by the presence of poppy seeds on the bun. Sam Rosen, a Polish immigrant, is responsible for this crucial detail. Rosen was 16 when he arrived in New York City and opened a bakery, eventually venturing westward to Chicago. In addition to being a leading rye bread supplier to both Germans and Poles, he designed a new type of bun covered with poppy seeds. While the all-beef hot dog laid the foundation for the Chicago Dog, Rosen's poppy seed bun would eventually prove just as essential for the creation of the iconic food.
After being a fan-favourite for years, the Chicago hot dog became more of a necessity with the arrival of the Great Depression in 1929. During the Great Depression, hot dogs were the food of working people. While other industries crashed, hot dog vendors became even bigger mainstays in communities throughout Chicago due to the low price of the meat. There was only one problem: even a humble hot dog was sometimes too expensive for such lean times.
Former factory workers often consumed four or five of these to keep themselves full. Things had to be stretched even more to make it both filling and affordable. So hot dog vendors began piling dogs high with the vegetables sold from the other food vendors all around them - a nickel could get you a hot dog with all these condiments and vegetables on it that made it something approaching a full and nutritious meal.
There were many different hot dog variations on being ’dragged through the garden’, but it became apparent that the sacred combo of sport peppers, yellow mustard, pickle, relish, onion, tomato, and celery salt was the best of the bunch. The Chicago dog was born.
So far, we have described the historical reasons behind some of the ingredients that make up the Chicago hot dog. As we have already seen, there is another essential ingredient for a typical Chicago hot dog: yellow mustard.
Hot dogs in Chicago are never served with ketchup. That is an inviolable rule. Plain, sharp, smooth mustard is essential. Not Dijon, not something grainy, just yellow mustard.
Ketchup is disdained by those who believe that doing things correctly comes from doing simple things right - ketchup is too sweet and would disrupt the harmonious balance of other flavours. On the other hand, yellow mustard, a little sweet, a little spicy and just a little bit tangy, was made for sausages - the distillation of the entire Chicago dog into one ingredient.
We should not think that the popularity of these hot dogs is restricted only to the city of Chicago. Soldiers returning home from World War II began to take the Chicago tradition beyond the Chicago city limits. They began to take it to the outskirts of Cook County - the most populous county in the U.S. state of Illinois - and the suburbs as they left city life behind to start families. Due to the increasing popularity of hot dog stands in suburban communities, the Chicago dog quickly gained fame outside of Chicago and even across the country.