During the lead-up to America’s 1976 Bicentennial Celebration, symbols of Americana, including depictions of “Uncle Sam” were everywhere. This was especially true for the advertising world which capitalized on marketing leading up to this historic anniversary. Hebrew National Hotdogs used patriotic imagery to promote their famous hotdogs–with an ironic twist. In this spot, debuting in 1975, a very goofy-looking grinning Uncle Sam is shown holding a hot dog on a bun, a symbol of 4th of July barbecues, and wholesome family gatherings. Both images of Uncle Sam and the hot dog are instantly recognizable to the viewer.
The voice-over runs down the list of government standards that hot dogs sold in the US must meet and what the government will allow hot dog manufacturers to use. Uncle Sam loses his smile as the narrator mentions that the government says they can use items like fillers and then states emphatically “We don’t” Finally, to Uncle Sam’s surprise, the voiceover says that isn’t good enough for Hebrew National Hot Dogs, as they are Kosher and “answer to a higher authority”, and Uncle Sam looks up to the clouds, suggesting that God, the “higher authority” oversees Hebrew National Hot Dog manufacturing. The advertising slogan was first used in print and radio in 1965 but the TV campaign made it a catchphrase. This commercial ran through the 1970s and beyond with variations, all with the suggestion that Hebrew National products were superior because God, rather than the USDA was in charge.
Controversy over what’s in a hot dog and how it’s made has always been a topic of concern to the consumer. The original Hebrew National Kosher Sausage Company was founded in 1905 for a very particular consumer. Jewish Immigrants who followed dietary laws could not eat pork–they could only partake of food from animals with a cloven hoof that ate grass. Pork, like shellfish, are forbidden food for those who keep Kosher. Additionally, (although not to put too fine a point on it) Kosher meat is slaughtered differently and must be overseen by a Rabbi in order to meet clean standards. The word “Kosher” means “Fit” so if something is marked as Kosher it is considered fit for Jewish people who follow the law to consume.
During the early 20th century, Jewish people were not the only ones concerned with food purity. Upton Sinclair’s bestselling book “The Jungle” was written to stir sympathy for immigrants working inhumane hours and in dangerous conditions in meat packing plants. The overall concern ended up being not as the author intended. People were alarmed– not so much for the workers, but for what in the world was going into the meat products sold to the public.
The founder of Hebrew National Kosher Sausage Company, Theodore Krainin, a Russian Immigrant, was a man of savvy business sense. He marketed his tasty hot dogs to Jewish and non-Jewish customers alike, with the purity of ingredients and strict overseeing the processing being the selling point. The right product at the right time gave Hebrew National All Beef Sausages a household name.
Krainin was applauded for his commitment to selling only the best Kosher hot dogs. During the following decades, the company fell on the hard times and after ownership by several shareholders, Hebrew National Hot Dogs were sold to food giant ConAgra Foods in 1993. Commercials still appeared on TV citing that the hot dog brand still answered to a “higher authority” and the packages bore the Triangle K symbol, meaning “Kashrut” or Kosher. The manufacturing plant did a brief stint in Indiana before moving to the ConAgra plant in Michigan.
The question was if Hebrew National Hot Dogs were Kosher enough for those who followed strict Jewish dietary laws. In 2012 a Class Action Lawsuit claimed that Hebrew National Dogs were not processed entirely pure and clean, citing blemishes on the product due to unclean slaughtering environments. Jewish organizations and scholars weighed in on the matter, and several interesting points were raised. Who is the proper “higher authority” on earth to give the hot dogs certification as Kosher? Who is going to inspect the plants of places that make Kosher foods? Whose endorsement is good enough?
The suit generated some newsworthy publicity yet in the end it did not do much harm to ConAgra foods or the brand. Conservative Jewish people who kept strict dietary practices would never eat a hot dog on a bun as buns can contain dairy products, so eating meat and dairy together is forbidden. Also, if one purchases a hot dog from a deli or stand, who is to supervise that the hot dog was not prepared in the same pot or on a grill with non-kosher food?
My family had no such dilemma as although on my father’s side we have Jewish ancestors, my father adopted my Irish mother’s Catholic faith so we had no dilemma of Keeping Kosher. Still, we always had Hebrew National Hot Dogs in the house. Although we had lots of pork in the form of Knockwurst, Kielbasa, and other sausage products, my mother insisted on Hebrew National as she felt they were “better”. My mom, a housewife, watched lots of television, and perhaps those “higher authority” commercials influenced her choice.
So much for around the house, Of course, at places like Coney Island or Yankee Stadium, Nathan’s (Hebrew National’s big competitor) was the choice at hand, and I did like them, but they tasted different than what we had at home.
When I worked at the Lexington Hotel on 48th Street, a Sabrett “dirty water” dog was my daily lunch, consumed quickly as my feet pounded down Lexington Avenue from Grand Central Station. My stomach grumbled and my mouth watered as soon as I spied the Yellow and Blue Sabrett Umbrella and “my guy” knew my preference for a “just plain” dog and a Coke. I ordered my dog plain as I could not go to work as a waitress reeking of onions or suffering indigestion. A cheap and filling lunch, perfect to be eaten on the run. I now live in Florida, where the local Publix supermarkets have a wide selection of Kosher and delectable deli products to appeal to all of us New York transplants. So naturally, when I do find myself craving a hot dog, I find myself, like my mom, choosing Hebrew National, although I miss my days in New York where I would be unconsciously drawn to that Yellow and Blue Sabrett umbrella.