This Major Summit Turned Ellis Island Into Hot Dog Heaven for a Day
Mamaroneck-based Walter’s Hot Dogs was one of five major American hot dog brands — all founded by immigrants — to offer tastes of what they do best in the spirit of National Hot Dog Month.
photos courtesy of Andrew Dominick
As summer kicked off, five major American hot dog companies relaxed their competitive beefs with each other to form the first-ever Hot Dog Summit. The vendors fried, boiled, and grilled their tubular meats outside the Ellis Island Immigrant Museum situated between the welcoming torch of Lady Liberty and the shimmering Manhattan skyline. Vienna Beef dolloped electric green relish, while other vendors such as Mamaroneck-based Walter’s squeezed out spicy mustard squiggles on top. All dogs were enveloped by soft, tailor-made buns.
Not a lick of ketchup was in sight.
The smell of sizzling meat and the sight of bright-colored umbrellas beckoned strollers who disembarked from the Ellis Island Ferry to grab the free samples and compare the merits of each brand: Walter’s, Vienna Beef, Nathan’s, Hebrew National, and Sabrett.
“The taste itself alone is fantastic,” said museum volunteer Marlene Ray, as she chatted with the Walter’s cooks, who sliced beef-veal-pork dogs in half lengthwise, crisping the skin on the flat-top grill. “Yet the mustard is the highlight of it all.” The mustard is a proprietary Walter’s creation as well.
Normally competitors, each company combined efforts to explain how the hot dog immigrated to the United States from more than five other European countries.
“It’s to honor all the immigrants who came through here and started companies. Our great-grandfather came through Ellis Island,” said Christine Sand, part of the fourth generation of family who run Walter’s.
For the month of July, all five hot dogs were sold at the concessions inside the museum, said Chris Warrington, a third-generation family member of Walter’s. “All of these companies were founded by immigrants who came here through Ellis Island,” Warrington said.
Starting with a roadside stand in Mamaroneck in 1919, Walter’s is one of the country’s oldest hot dog manufacturers. Vincenzo Vicario was around 30 years old at the time, having emigrated from Italy to the United States with his mother in 1897 when he was 7.
It is thought, according to Sand, that his last name was Vicario, but names were often changed when immigrants registered at Ellis Island, spelled phonetically to ease the translation difficulty. They called him Walter.
Less than nine years after that first roadside stand, he set up his copper-roofed Chinese pagoda on Palmer Avenue in 1928. Today it’s a nationally registered historical landmark. Voted No. 1 in the country by Gourmet magazine in 2001, Walter’s hot dogs have earned praise and high rankings from media outlets such as The New York Times and Westchester Magazine.
The idea for this hot dog summit came to Robert Uffer, a Rockland County resident for 25 years, on a snowy day when he stopped by Walter’s for a dog. Uffer is the general manager of Evelyn Hill Inc., the concessionaire at the Statue of Liberty since 1931 and Ellis Island since 2009. “The company I work for is third-generation. I wanted to hear stories of how these food companies started when they came to America and their recipes.”
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Inside the museum near the concessions stands the History of the Hot Dog exhibit developed by Evelyn Hill Inc. The exhibit details how the founders grew their businesses until hot dogs became as immersed in American culture (especially at summer barbecues) as a water dog at a New York City street cart. In 2016, shoppers spent nearly $2.6 billion on hot dogs at U.S. supermarkets.
One of the world’s earliest processed foods, possibly first mentioned by Greeks in the 15th century, it has since been called a sausage, kielbasa, frankfurter (Frankfurt, Germany), and wiener (Vienna or Wien, Austria). The Chicago World’s Fair, Coney Island, and St. Louis all claim to have first placed the meat into a bun designed specifically to fit its tubular shape.
But the origin of the hot dog’s name is pretty clear: The German frankfurter was sometimes called a Dachshund sausage after the long, slim, small German dog breed.
Then again, that origin is contested too. But we like it.
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