New book explores history of West Virginia hot dogs

Former West Virginia folklorist Emily Hilliard’s “Making Our Future” delves deep into the niches of Mountain State culture, from labor movement songs to the history of hot dogs. The book was released on November 22, 2022.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Harold: There is so much we could cover. I want to talk about something that’s very close to my heart – your chapter on hot dogs. Can you tell me how the madness began?

hilliard: It is associated with industry and immigration, popularization of mass culture, urbanization and European migration. There have been many instances of Greek and perhaps Italian immigrants setting up hot dog stands in West Virginia. And mostly that was in big urban centers in industrial areas. I think that’s why hot dogs in West Virginia are really popular in the southern coalfields, the northern coalfields, and then industrial cities like the Ohio river towns of Huntington and Parkersburg. Hot dogs seemed to really boom in West Virginia in the 1910s and 1920s.

Harold: I love the line in a Fairmont newspaper book that describes Charleston as “one of the greatest places in the world for hot dog eaters.”

hilliard: That was amazing to find. I found several articles about hot dogs in Charleston. I found out that there were at least four hot dog stands in Charleston in the early 1920’s. Three out of four of them were owned by Greek immigrants. And there was this amazing statistic in one of the articles. At times, 22,000 dogs are sold out per day at these four hot dog stands. That’s roughly one for every second Charleston resident at this time.

Harold: I highlighted this in my copy. “If all the hot dogs eaten in Charleston in a year were lined up, the chain could stretch all the way to Huntington and back and still have enough left over to walk down one side of the street to St. Albans and back down the other.”

hilliard: And then, I think, it goes on to say, “Or it could go as far as Morgantown.”

Harold: Coming back to your point, I found it interesting that it was so closely related to the industry. Because it’s cheap. It’s wearable. This is the perfect thing for people who work shifts.

hilliard: I spoke to the descendants of AJ Valos, a Greek immigrant born in 1894. He had actually worked as a hired hand in the hot dog industry in New York and then moved to Parkersburg and opened the Broadway Sandwich Shop, which is still open. He opened it in 1939. And his relatives said they felt his store’s success was due in large part to its location directly across from the Mountain State Steel Foundry. And it was near a high school too. So they got students from school to come over for a snack or a meal. And then there were a few other companies nearby, so factory workers would fetch hot dogs before and after shifts.

Harold: Let’s talk about the 1922 Fairmont Hot Dog Stand War.

Emily Hilliard

The book was published by the University of North Carolina Press on November 22, 2022.

hilliard: I also found that out while browsing through historical newspapers. In the Fairmont newspapers in 1922 there was this brisk activity. City officials were upset with the clientele that these Fairmont hot dog stands drew. Most of this seems to be racist and classist resentment against the Greek and Italian immigrants who ran these hot-dog stands and carts, and also against the high-school and blue-collar clientele. They equate them with pubs and beer halls and testify that they are unsavory and tried to close some of these establishments.

Then there’s the counter-response of someone writing and saying, “Maybe city officials could take care of more important things than just closing hot dog stands.” Then another kiosk owner chimes in, outraged that people thought his new stand was a hot dog stand. He writes in the newspaper to claim that this is simply not true. “I don’t want to be associated with that kind of basic business.”

Harold: First comes the hot dog and then the West Virginia hot dog. You get a little into the story, which seems a bit dark. When did we start putting coleslaw on dogs?

hilliard: The first mention of coleslaw I could find was in a 1949 Raleigh County newspaper, and it was about the prison. Incarcerated people in prison liked coleslaw on their dogs because they could smuggle in a razor blade.

This was another case where it’s like this, is this a joke column? I think there was a bit of humor there. But it’s kind of funny to think that’s why people started putting coleslaw on hot dogs.

Stanton of the West Virginia Hot Dog Blog mentions a Stopette ad in the newspaper from 1922, which said something like “Everybody’s talking about the new Stop-Ette coleslaw dog.” So it may have been popular in the state before. We just don’t know. There were traditions of coleslaw and cabbage with German immigrants and Eastern European immigrants living in West Virginia at the time.

Harold: I don’t think I’ll ever look at a hot dog the same way again.

hilliard: Well, hopefully that doesn’t mean you won’t like it anyway.

Harold: I love her even more. You’ve published a book and the authors have to do some self-promotion – tell people about the book and let them know they can pre-order it. You’ve stumbled across a little controversy about hot dogs on social media. can you tell me what happened

hilliard: I posted a card my friend Dan Davis at Kin Ship Goods made for the book. It’s the hot dog joints that are included in the book – most, but not all. I think maybe people just didn’t read what it was for. I wouldn’t say it wasn’t entirely viral, but it had hundreds of retweets and replies. People were just so angry that their favorite hot dog joint wasn’t on this map. And I ended up issuing the disclaimer and saying, “This is not a value statement of the best hot dog joints.” It’s just the hot dog places, some of which are listed in the book. And it’s by no means exhaustive, and neither is the book. But I’d like to see your hot dog menu.” Which I mean seriously. I would love to see a collection of West Virginia people’s favorite hot dog places or ones they have memories of. I think Dan is making some merch for it, which might cause more controversy. But hopefully not.

Harold: Or hopefully – because as you said if we generate enough controversy it will lead to the creation of competing hot dog maps and then we just have a whole different chapter in your next book.

hilliard: Yes, that would be fun.

Harold: I feel like the state of West Virginia owes you a huge debt of gratitude for the work and love you put into this book, whether it’s your chapter on hot dogs or your chapter on author Breece D acts. J Pancake, or the chapter on the teachers strike, or the chapter on independent pro wrestling. The result is a book you could put in your hand and say, “That’s why West Virginia is so special.” That’s what makes us who we are.” And I’m just so glad you gave us that.

hilliard: I really appreciate that. In a way it is a declaration of love to the state in all its complexity.

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This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the West Virginia Humanities Council’s Folklife program.

The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part by Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies support for the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories about Appalachian folk life, art, and culture.

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