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“Making Our Future” by former West Virginia state folklorist Emily Hilliard dives deep into the niches of Mountain State culture, from songs of the labor movement to the history of hot dogs. The book was released on Nov. 22, 2022.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Harold: There’s so much that we could cover. I would like to talk about something that’s near and dear to my heart — your chapter on hot dogs. Can you tell me about how the craze began?
Hilliard: It’s linked to industry and immigration, popularization of mass culture, urbanization and European migration. There were a lot of instances where Greek and maybe Italian immigrants were setting up hot dog stands in West Virginia. And mostly, that was in major urban centers in industrial areas. I think that’s why we see the hot dog really being popular in West Virginia in the southern coalfields, the northern coalfields and then industrial cities like the Ohio river towns of Huntington and Parkersburg. Hot dogs really seemed to boom in the 1910s and 1920s in West Virginia.
Harold: I love the line in the book from a Fairmont newspaper that calls Charleston “one of the greatest places on earth for hot dog eaters.”
Hilliard: That was amazing to find. I found several articles about hot dogs in Charleston. I found that there were at least four hot dog stands in Charleston in the early 1920s. Three of four of them were owned by Greek immigrants. And there was this amazing stat in one of the articles. It said 22,000 dogs a day are sold out of those four hot dog stands at one point. That is about one for every two residents in Charleston at the time.
Harold: I have this highlighted in my copy. “If all the hot dogs consumed in a year in Charleston were strung together, the string could extend to Huntington and back and still have enough left to run down to St. Albans on one side of the road and back on the other.”
Hilliard: And then I think it goes on to say, “Or it could go all the way to Morgantown.”
Harold: To return to your point: I found it interesting that it was so tied to industry. Because it’s cheap. It’s portable. This is the perfect thing for people who are doing shift work.
Hilliard: I talked to the descendants of A.J. Valos, who was a Greek immigrant born in 1894. He had actually worked as an indentured servant 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 that in 1939. And his relatives were saying they thought much of the success of his shop was because it was right across the street from the Mountain State Steel Foundry. And it was also close to a high school. So they got students from the school coming for a snack or for a meal. And then there were some other companies right nearby, so factory workers would grab hot dog before and after shifts.
Harold: Let’s talk about the hot dog stand war of 1922 in Fairmont.
Hilliard: This was also something I found through looking through historic newspapers. There was this flurry of activity in the Fairmont papers in 1922. City officials were upset with the clientele that these hot dog stands in Fairmont were attracting. Most of that seems like racist and classist resentment of the Greek and Italian immigrants who were running these hot dog stands and wagons, and also the clientele of high school students and workers. They equate them with dive bars and beer joints and attest that they are unsavory, and tried to shut down some of these joints.
Then there’s the counter response of someone writing in and saying “maybe the city officials could worry about more important things than just shutting down hot dog stands.” Then there’s another newsstand owner who writes in and he is incensed that people had been thinking his new stand was a hot dog stand. He writes into the paper to assert that is simply not true. “I don’t want to be affiliated with that kind of base business.”
Harold: First comes the hot dog and then comes the West Virginia hot dog. You get into the history a little bit, which seems a little murky. When did we start putting slaw on dogs?
Hilliard: The first mention of slaw that I could find was from a 1949 paper in Raleigh County, and it was about the jail. Incarcerated people in the jail liked slaw on their dogs because they could smuggle in a razor blade.
That was another instance where it’s like, is this a joke column? I think there was a little bit of humor to it. But it is kind of funny to think that is why people started putting slaw on hot dogs.
Stanton from the West Virginia Hot Dog Blog credits a Stopette advertisement in the paper from 1922 that says something like, “Everyone’s talking about the Stop-Ette’s new dog with slaw.” So it may have been popular in the state before that. We just don’t know. There were traditions of coleslaw and cabbage with German immigrants and Eastern European immigrants who were 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 that you won’t still enjoy it.
Harold: I love them even more. You’ve published a book and authors have to do a certain amount of self promotion — telling people about the book, letting them know they can pre-order it. You ran into a little bit of controversy on social media over hot dogs. Can you tell me what happened?
Hilliard: I posted a map that my friend Dan Davis from Kin Ship Goods made for the book. It’s of the hot dog joints that are included in the book — most of them, but not all of them. I think maybe people just didn’t read that’s what it was for. I wouldn’t say it wasn’t quite viral, but it had hundreds of retweets and responses. People were just so mad that their favorite hot dog joint was not 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 simply the hot dog joints, some of them, that are listed in the book. And it’s not exhaustive by any means, and neither is the book. But I would love to see your hot dog map.” Which I’m serious about. I would love to see a collection of people’s favorite hot dog joints in West Virginia, or the ones where they have memories. I think Dan is making some merch for it, which might inspire more controversy. But hopefully not.
Harold: Or hopefully so — because like you said, if we generate enough controversy, this will lead to the creation of rival hot dog maps and then we just have a whole other chapter in your next book.
Hilliard: Yeah, that would be fun.
Harold: I feel like the state of West Virginia owes you a profound debt of gratitude for the work and love that you’ve put into this book, whether we’re talking about your chapter on hot dogs or your chapter on the author Breece D’J Pancake, or the chapter on the teacher strike or the one on independent pro wrestling. What we’ve ended up with is a book that you could put in somebody’s hands and say, “This is why West Virginia is special. This is what makes us who we are.” And I’m just so glad that you’ve given that to us.
Hilliard: I really appreciate that. In a way, it’s a love letter back to the state in all its complexity.
This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council.
The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the WestVirginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts, and culture.