One unlikely food tells a rich tale about the Mountain State.

The first time we heard about a West Virginia hot dog, we were paging through Ronni Lundy’s 2016 Victuals—a lovely ode to Appalachia, told through the tales and recipes of its foodway, written by one of the region’s most premier storytellers—when we were struck by an image of three chili- and slaw-covered buns.

By this point, we had already become captivated by the West Virginia pepperoni roll, with trips to the eastern edge of the Mountain State leading us to gas stations, country stores, and supermarket bakeries in search of the unexpectedly local snack. “What was it doing here?,” we wondered, in a land so deeply associated (especially to outsiders like us) with cast-iron cornbread and heirloom beans.

But it was a question that would quickly shift its focus when we read Lundy’s line about another culinary delicacy found throughout this region, often at its drive-in restaurants, ice cream stands, and lunch counters: “The aficionados know that what you really come for,” she wrote, “begins with chili on a hot dog bun.”

And what we discovered next was not just our hands on our very first West Virginia hot dog, but a rich and riveting history about the Almost Heaven from which it came. 

That alluring hot dog photo from Victuals by Ronni Lundy, originally taken by Johnny Autry. 

Dear reader, we will forewarn you: this is not a story about cast iron, even if it is set in a place in which the cookware is so closely connected and carried on so culturally to this day. It is, in fact, a shaggy dog about hot dogs. About West Virginia hot dogs, to be exact. But what, after all, for the uninitiated, is a West Virginia hot dog anyways?

Breaking the fourth wall again, let us be clear: we are not the folks to tell you. We are admittedly but lowly neophytes when it comes to the love and lore of this hyper-regional delight. Actually, in our neck of the woods, some 300 miles away on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay, we would refer to ourselves as “chicken neckers,” part of our own colloquial canon, best defined in William Warner’s 1977 iconic Beautiful Swimmers as a synonym for “outsiders and rank amateurs, since there is a widespread belief among dilettante crabbers that chicken necks are the best crab bait,” compared to the local waterman’s prized eel.

Exhibit A of our amateur hour: the first time we had a “West Virginia hot dog,” we sacrilegiously attempted to make our own. We stumbled upon a country market in Grant County where the deli counter sold house-made chili sauce and creamy coleslaw. We threw a pack of hot dogs and a bag of buns into our basket, and that afternoon, we turned on a gas camp grill, roasted the wienies in a skillet, heated the sauce in a pot, slathered it and the slaw on either side of a toasted bun, topped it with a sprinkle of diced onion, and, at the very end, a zigzag of bright-yellow ballpark mustard.

Admittedly, it was damn good. But we would soon learn the wrongs of our ways upon venturing deeper into West Virginia, into the thick of Hot Dog Country.

Homemade hot dogs near Dolly Sods.

So we’ll hand it over to the experts from here, who insist that this is not a chili dog. Nor is it a Coney Island dog, like those sold in New York or Detroit (though it might be a close relative—more on that later). Nor it is a slaw dog of the deeper South, either.

A true West Virginia hot dog is a heavenly creation that begins with a wiener on a soft steamed bun—add mustard, a chili-like sauce and top it off with coleslaw and chopped onions and you have a symphony of taste that quite possibly is the reason that many transplanted West Virginians can never really be happy living anywhere else,” writes the West Virginia Hot Dog Blog, founded in 2006 by Charleston native Stanton Means, who has become the de facto authority on all things of his website’s namesake. “Different parts of West Virginia have variations on the theme, but the common elements are sweet, creamy coleslaw and chili. Anything else is just not a true West Virginia hot dog!”

Our education began in earnest this summer, when we found ourselves seated at Ritzy Lunch in Clarksburg, located in the northcentral heart of the state, about an hour in either direction from the Maryland, Pennsylvania, or Ohio lines. We were meeting our friends Mike Costello and Amy Dawson from nearby Lost Creek Farm, who suggested that if we were seeking a real-deal West Virginia hot dog, we should look no further than this circa-1933 diner on West Pike Street, just a few doors over from the old downtown theater.

Ritzy Lunch on Pike Street in Clarksburg.

Here, hot dogs are the first thing on the menu, and they are served with a whizz of mustard that is hidden beneath a stratum of finely ground, mildly spicy chili, then a scattering of diced yellow onion, before being capped off with a well-chopped, bright-purple slather of slightly sweet slaw.

“We’re on the Slaw Line,” says Costello, referring to the Mason-Dixon of the hot dog’s main regional variation—to slaw or not to slaw. Harrison County, where we now sit, is the uppermost reach of this invisible boundary, and anywhere north of it, you won’t find a speck of cabbage for miles and miles, a veritable No Slaw Zone. So much so that the late proprietor of Yann’s Hot Dog Stand in Fairmont was famously known for kicking customers who asked about it out of his shop, with the Seinfeldian reputation noted in his obituary. And even here, in Clarksburg, some places don’t just serve the shredded dressing when you order a dog “with everything,” as is implied in towns farther south. You might have to explicitly ask for it. And trust us: you should.

Still, there are other riffs on standard toppings, such as whether the slaw is a house-made recipe or store-bought iteration. In some parts of the state, particularly further west, the chili might be referred to as simply “sauce,” which is fitting, given its thinner, lighter, bean-less consistency, especially when compared to the meatier stuff of Super Bowl crockpots. Some are spicy. Some are smokey. Some have more or less cumin or pepper or tomato.

End of service at Flying Dogs in Jane Lew.

And when it comes to the wiener—typically a standard six-inch versus a jumbo or foot-long, making it easy to eat at least two in one sitting, though you’ll probably want a third—they’re flexible. Pork or beef. Boiled, griddled, or grilled. Because it’s less about the protein and largely about the delicate dance between the ingredients. Between factory-made and from-scratch. Between resourcefulness and creativity.

But buns should be steamed—“soft, not toasted,” writes Lundy. And absolutely no ketchup.

“That’s the fun of it,” says Costello, “but they all serve the same utilitarian purpose, as they always have.”

Here’s what he means:

Though no one knows who made the original West Virginia hot dog, the food’s origins have as nuanced a past as America itself, intertwined with the immigration, industrialization, and urbanization of the turn of the 20th century—an edible witness.  

According to former state folklorist Emily Hilliard, the first known reference appeared in an 1897 Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, which referenced a “wiener-wurst vendor” at the local fair. By the 1910s, Greek immigrants—some arriving by way of New York City—were the driving force behind the growing number of hot dog stands and carts setting up shop across the state, largely located in industrial hubs, from the southern and northern coalfield cities to the factory towns along the Ohio River. But there were Italian entrepreneurs, too, like the founders of Ritzy’s, who hail from Calabria, Italy.

King Tut Drive-Inn in Beckley, courtesy of WVU’s West Virginia and Regional History Center.

No one knows exactly, but at this time, on the eve of the Great Depression, they were reportedly consumed by the thousands—each day—providing a fast, filling, affordable meal for laborers between or during shifts, much like the handheld pepperoni roll, which arrived in northcentral counties with Italian miners. A 1920 Charleston Daily Mail claimed that if all the hot dogs consumed that year had been strung together, they would extend more than 100 miles, to Huntington and back, and maybe then some.

Slaw did not become an accoutrement until later, when Sissonville’s Stopette Drive-In advertised their brand-new “hot dog with slaw” in 1922, possibly thanks to the influence of the region’s German and Eastern European communities. And the frankfurters themselves might have even been a byproduct of the meatpacking boom in burgeoning metropolises around the Rust Belt.

But despite their popularity, hot dogs were also a vessel for racist and classist resentments in rapidly developing and demographically diversifying region, notably in towns like Fairmont. Also in 1922, the town’s largely immigrant coal miners went on strike over unfair working conditions, and a flurry of newspaper articles, in which city officials attacked immigrant-run hot dog stands as suddenly “dangerous” and “unsightly,” seemed to send a clear message to the proprietors and blue-collar clientele. In fact, establishments like the Greek-run Sanitary Hot Dog in Clarksburg named their businesses as such to combat the hostility.

“The hot dog is not only a beloved West Virginia tradition, but also a cultural mirror,” wrote Hilliard in her recent book, Making Our Future: Visionary Folklore and Everyday Culture in Appalachia, “revealing issues of race, gender, class, labor, the built environment, and how the triviality barrier impacts the historical record and cultural preservation.”

Sanitary Meats butcher shop in Charleston, courtesy of WVU’s West Virginia and Regional History Center.

Indeed, the hot dogs are small, but mighty, and despite attempts to drag their deliciousness, they only evolved into a phenomenon, becoming commonplace—and quintessential—throughout the state. And these days, even as old shops now close, like the beloved Skeenies in Charleston, other stalwarts remain, like King Tut in Beckley or Stewart’s in Huntington, and new ones continue to open. For now, these joints remain relatively ubiquitous, particularly in the central and western regions, with an estimated 350 and counting. Prices have increased from a mere ten cents in the 1950s, but they’re still a steal, ranging between one and three bucks today.

During our last visit, our Lost Creek friends sent us on a local crawl to indulge in as many dogs as our waistbands could manage. At Flying Dogs in Jane Lew, an ironic poster of costumed Daschunds hung on the wall as we ordered a pair to go, which, with a well-seasoned sauce and slather of white slaw, were then consumed quickly on our tailgate, as West Virginia hot dogs are best eaten immediately. And on a nearby backroad, Poling’s Dairy King was the only dining establishment for miles, appearing out of nowhere with an old hand-painted sign that hawked “fast food,” and any sort of cabbage-y condiment was not on offer this afternoon. And further up the road still, at Toni’s, local teenagers forwent the peppery chili entirely, instead opting for ice cream before hopping into a car together and speeding off into the hot summer evening.

Poling’s Dairy King in Harrison County.

In her book—a requisite resource for anyone interested in this corner of Appalachia—Hilliard delves into the changing face of West Virginia. Clarksburg’s population is now half the size that it was in the middle of the last century, and many storefronts of its grand buildings have long since shuttered downtown, with the local churches and the Italian bakeries, with their fresh-out-of-the-oven pepperoni rolls, being the biggest draw on Sundays.

Some of her most compelling context references the ways in which exploitation of the state’s natural resources have altered the local landscape and its communities. And she connects these changes to the importance of mom-and-pop businesses, like these old-school eateries, which can serve as a tether to another time, to an enduring identity.

We’ll think about that every time we eat one. Which will hopefully be again soon. 

In other words, these spaces have stories to tell, ones still inextricably interwoven into the fabric of this dynamic place.

“While a hot dog can’t restore what West Virginia has lost,” says Hilliard, “it can offer sustenance—nutritional and communal.”

We’ll think about that every time we eat one. Which hopefully will happen again soon.

September 01, 2023 — Dennis Powell