When we think of Hot Dogs things like street carts, the smell of fried sausage, colorful bottles with ketchup, mustard and relish come to mind. For Americans it might also conjure childhood images of bustling baseball parks and fairgrounds.
An Image that most likely never come to mind though, is the one of a glorious beech tree.
Growing in a wide range of temperate environments, from the Mediterranean to Southern Sweden and through most of eastern North America, it is a highly cherished tree both for its bizarre ornamental beauty and its tough, versatile timber.[I] Resembling giant, infinitely tall, elephant legs whose thin and sensitive grey skin scars easily, the beech tree forms light and airy forests. Its dense yet flexible wood is used for everything from fine furniture (eg the world famous bent wood Thonet chairs), stairways, parquet flooring, cutting boards and children’s toys to pallets, boxes and even barrels. Also in the paper industry it is a prized commodity and furthermore forms the basis of a flourishing textile fiber industry.
But what does this all have to do with your Hot Dog?
As you might have guesses by the name “Wiener” or “Frankfurter” is the typical Hot Dog sausage an Austrian / German innovation from the early 19thcentury.
Its inventor is thought to be the young German butcher Johann Georg Lahner (1772-1845) who, after his journeyman years of service in Frankfurt, moved to Vienna where he managed to open his own butchers’ shop.[ii] It was there, where he made the first so called “Frankfurter sausage”, an homage to the recipes German roots.
Contrary to the original recipe though, consisted the sausage of mostly pork with only a little beef added. This was remarkable for two reasons: The first was that at those times pork meat was much more expensive than beef and therefore a luxury food. The second one was the very mixture of the two kinds of meat itself. Something that was absolutely forbidden in Frankfurt. There was even a strict separation between butchers working with beef and those working with pork.[iii]
Generally though did its innovation arise out of a rich European sausage making history going back to at least the middle ages.[iv]
Back then people of course didn’t have a fridge to preserve their perishables. Instead they often smoked them in their ovens, using firewood from trees growing plentiful around them, i.e. the beech tree. This food preservation process did not only keep nasty bacteria at bay but also had a further positive side effect: It gave the sausages a fantastic taste.
Soon people began to smoke their freshly made sausages exclusively with beech wood, making its hearty aroma the signature flavor. Best described as a slightly milky note, a hint of rolled oats and a strong savory, smoky aroma it is the premier sausage flavor till today.
Also the “Wiener” luxury sausage with the forbidden meat mixture was no exception. Soon after its inception, it had taken Europe by storm. Immigrants would also soon introduce it to the United States.
There, some nifty businessman (who exactly is still a subject of considerable debate) combined it with a roll and various condiments and sold it en masse from push carts and stands. Before long this delicious combination also got its world-renowned name (whose origin is yet again ambiguous)[v] and became a street food and event staple, be it baseball games or world fairs.
Today being offered in a broad range of flavors many US Hot Dog sausages are now smoked with Hickory or Maple wood. Tasting of course also fantastic and keeping very much in line with the tradition of using locally prevalent wood types for smoking, it is still the beech wood flavor that is the original.
So the next time when you think about a Hot Dog, give a moments thought to the majestic beech tree.
Discover more about the wild tastes of wood in my book “The Flavor of Wood”.
Follow me on Instagram at @flavorofwood & @artur_cisar_erlach or by searching for the hashtag #flavorofwood.
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[iii]https://www.tichyseinblick.de/feuilleton/buecher/es-geht-um-die-wurst-eine-deutsche-kulturgeschichte // http://wir-lieben-wurst.de/ein-frankfurter-wien-die-geschichte-der-wienerwurst/