August 2, 2018

Got Beef? Part 2!

What better way to observe #ThrowbackThursday than a birthday celebration for Vienna Beef, which turned 125 (!) years old yesterday. I’ve been on a bit of a run lately with these posts about Chicago food, so this’ll fit right in. Vienna Beef really is a Chicago institution. You don’t HAVE to use a Vienna beef frank to make a Chicago hot dog (in case you forgot… mustardrelishtomatosalepicklepepperspoppyseedbun), but it’s not quite an authentic dog without it. What’s so special and interesting about the Vienna Beef hot dog?

Like so many other of Chicago’s food specialties, the story of Vienna Beef is in many ways the story of Chicago. It was founded in 1893 by two immigrants from, wait for it, Vienna,* and according to their website, they got their start by selling beef frankfurters to visitors of the Columbian Exposition World’s Fair. After they made enough money to open their first stand, the hot dog’s popularity took off. Their proximity to the Chicago Stockyards, which from the late 19th century up through World War II produced at times over ⅘ of the meat for the entire country, meant that cheap beef was plentiful, and soon, the company had taken over Chicago’s hot dog market. When the popularity of the Chicago dog took off during the Great Depression—”it’s a hot dog with a salad on top!”—a series of shrewd marketing campaigns during the 40s and 50s made sure that the Chicago dog would be forever associated with Vienna beef, which still dominates the Chicago meat industry. The Stockyards may be gone, and some around here may even be beginning to find it acceptable to put ketchup (alternatively known as the Devil’s sauce) on their hot dogs, but it’s just another way that the culture that makes Chicago such a cool place lives on through its food.

*Ever wondered why you call a hot dog a wiener? Turns out that Wiener is a German word, pronounced vee-nahr, for something “of Vienna,” which is how the German-speaking countries of Europe referred to a Frankfurter Wurstel, the type of Viennese sausage that eventually evolved into the American hot dog.