When King George VI of Great Britain visited American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1939, war was looming in Europe. But for one brief moment, all that mattered was hot dogs.
The king and his wife, Queen Elizabeth (mother of the current queen), had traveled across the Atlantic for an official state visit, with an itinerary that included a trip to the Roosevelt family estate in Hyde Park, New York, where First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt had planned a picnic lunch. It was an intentionally informal affair that swapped the White House dining room and champagne toasts for a countryside porch and casual conversation—including instructions on how, exactly, to eat the meal’s centerpiece.
“The king looked at the hot dog and said, ‘What should I do?’” the Roosevelts’ son James recounted years later. “My father said, ‘Put it in your mouth and keep chewing until you finish it.’”
This wasn’t the first time the Roosevelts had hosted such a meal for world leaders—they had served hot dogs when Crown Princess Louise of Sweden visited Hyde Park in 1938. But the picnic with British royalty turned into a media frenzy. Newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic reported every detail: the paper plates, the royals ditching their usual protocol and shaking hands with guests, Eleanor Roosevelt’s casual attire of “an old rose and white cotton sport suit,” the fact that King George asked for seconds and washed it all down with beer.
The menu also included Boston brown bread and strawberry shortcake, but it was the hot dogs that made headlines. In the years that followed, they became the central feature of the collective memory of the event, mentioned in obituaries when King George VI died in 1952 and in news coverage when the Hyde Park residence went on the market in 1968.
But the event had a larger legacy. It kickstarted an enduring tactic of American international relations: hot-dog diplomacy.
As the Roosevelts seemingly understood, the central and overlapping selling points of a hot dog—beyond being tasty—are convenience, informality, and adaptability. They’re simple, handheld foods that you can eat by themselves or gussy up in an infinite number of ways. The National Hot Dog and Sausage Council counts 18 regional variations, though surely there are more, each representing distinct cultural identities and traditions. But at their core, each hot dog is still merely and magnificently the same thing, and maybe the closest the United States has to a national dish.
That broader symbolism has grown over the years, but it was already a work in progress when the Roosevelts held their picnic in 1939.
“So often when we try to define a national food culture in the U.S., it’s really difficult to do so,” says Smithsonian food historian Dr. Ashley Rose Young. “In the modern context, people often cite things like McDonald’s or international fast food cultures. But if you go back to the 1800s or even through 1950, when you would ask someone to define American culture, they would go through regional cultures, and the hot dog was a regional food that was gaining popularity outside of the Northeast.”
The key to the hot dog’s spread was baseball. In the early 1900s, as the sport gained a reputation as the national pastime, media outlets extolled it as “a place where immigrants can learn America,” embodying ideals about the rule of law and meritocracy, says Dr. Seth Tannenbaum, assistant professor of sport studies at Manhattanville College. After stadium vendors in the Northeast started selling hot dogs, sometime around 1901, the food gained a similar reputation as what Tannenbaum calls “a supposedly democratic food within the supposedly democratic atmosphere of the baseball stadium.”
One vendor at the Polo Grounds in New York, Harry Stevens, is often credited with being the first to sell hot dogs at a ballpark. Tannenbaum’s research has shown that this is incorrect—other people were selling them before this—but Stevens did help solidify the conceptual relationship between food and pastime, thanks to an interview with The New York Times in 1924. “If I were poetic, I would say that one touch of the frankfurter made the whole world kin,” Stevens said. “At the counters in the rear of the Polo Grounds, you would find a prominent banker eating a frankfurter and drinking a glass of beer, and beside him would be a truck driver doing precisely the same thing.”
The same ideals underpinned the picnic at Hyde Park. It was a chance for both American and British leaders to relax but also, critically, to show off their common touch. It let the king and queen participate in a “more egalitarian kind of culture than they had in Europe, because of how the hierarchy worked and how royalty was treated,” Young says.
Immediately after the Roosevelts’ sausage feast, hot dogs became a fad food in the United States: retailers sold an additional 1 million pounds in the following months, and “society belles” ate them at parties in London.
Their elevation to a staple of diplomacy was equally swift. Fifteen days after hosting King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, the Roosevelts had the crown prince and crown princess of Norway over for the same meal. Two days later, the American embassy in France “served the delicacy without the bun” to diplomats and “French society in Paris.” And in 1943, during World War II, the U.S. embassy in Moscow held a Fourth of July party featuring “hot dogs with buns and mustard; punch with vodka.”