On the corner of Surf and Stillwell Avenues in Coney Island, New York, stands the original Nathan’s Famous hot dog restaurant. Ever since it was established in 1916, devouring hot dogs at this particular location has become something of an American tradition. Sure they offer onion rings, seafood, and chicken strips, but this beloved fast food chain is also where the art of the dirty water all-beef hot dog has been perfected. Consult any Coney Island local and you’ll be told that if your dog isn’t served in a Nathan’s wrapper then it’s just not as good.
Moreover, Nathan’s has so finely captured the American spirit of mass consumption and competition by hosting its famous International Hot Dog Eating Contest every July 4th that now parents say to their kids, “Finish your hot dog so you can be like our great American folk hero, Joey Chestnut.” (OK, doubtful.) In reality though, the contest makes for awesome entertainment–televised on ESPN!–and advertises Nathan’s Famous hot dogs better than any blog post can. So, what do hot dogs have to do with heritage.
CNN and News 12 The Bronx recently picked up a story about a 140-year-old hot dog unearthed at Coney Island during the demolition of Feltman’s Kitchen, the restaurant where the first hot dog was made. The “discovered” frankfurter was preserved in a block of ice, still wrapped in its bun and with the original Feltman’s receipt. For days the frozen artifact sat on the sidewalk with a sign reading, “1st Hot Dog.” One can imagine the overwhelming sense of pride and satisfaction Coney Islanders must have felt upon seeing their own history pulled up from beneath the pavement. “These things are irreplaceable, they’re priceless,” one man said. “It’s great that they found it and it will be here for generations to see and learn.” Another said, “Coney Island holds a lot of history of Brooklyn and New York, and for them to find a hot dog [here] is just something to add onto it.”
Alas, Coney Islanders enjoyed their ancient hot dog for only a few days before it was finally revealed to be a hoax, perpetrated by the Coney Island History Project. A spokesperson for the CIHP said the hot dog hoax was “a publicity stunt in the grand tradition of Coney Island ballyhoo.” Publicity for what exactly? A summer exhibition by the History Project of real artifacts uncovered at the Feltman’s site.
The History Project’s chosen method of advertising the exhibition should not be seen as an abuse of Coney Islander’s loyalty, an insult to their intelligence, or a mockery of their hot dog fancy. Rather, the publicity stunt was a very clever way to bring attention to an exhibit that might otherwise garner very little interest among locals. One woman who was interviewed admitted that the 140-year-old hot dog made her curious and that she would “probably go see it.” The “1st Hot Dog” stunt clearly turned people on to activities of their local history group, and for a small, not-for-profit organization like the CIHP, these types of schemes can bring more exposure, both local and widespread, than can any single visit to a local school or community center.
I think the History Project was keen to take advantage of a strong, prominent cultural symbol of Coney Island’s identity. I think they appropriately honored the local history insofar as the publicity stunt allowed Coney Islanders to feel gratified by their hot dog heritage. As the History Project spokesperson said, “People want to believe these types of things are true.” This story exemplifies how having an invested interest in one’s local heritage is as important as one’s interest in the wider heritage landscape. Or, even further, it might be seen that all local heritages form the whole of our cultural heritage landscape.
Think about what makes you proud to live (or come from) where you do. Is there any connection to historical events, famous former or current residents, an interesting icon or symbol of place, etc.?