The American snack for a British king
How FDR introduced King George VI to hot dogs and created a media spectacle
If you’re new here: Snack Stack explores the history and cultural significance of snacks. Wednesday snacks are free for everyone; paid subscribers get additional snacks on Monday and Friday. Check out the list of past snacks here or travel by map.
All the King’s Hot Dogs
It was the middle of May 1939 and the British were coming. The question was what to feed them.
King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother) would be traveling to the United States the following month to meet with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, attempt to build American support for the looming war, and do some looking-around, including a trip to the Jersey Shore. There would be a state dinner at the White House, featuring clam cocktails, calves’ head soup, broiled filet of flounder with mushroom and wine sauce, sweet potato puffs, and maple and almond ice cream—a menu intended to showcase American ingredients and dishes, with “not a French word on the list.”
But the state dinner was the easy part. The White House understood how to do formality; there are rules for prim and proper occasions. (The State Department had already worked out, for example, that first lady Eleanor Roosevelt should greet the royals with a handshake rather than a curtsey.) The problem was the other, less formal meal that would take place when the group headed to the Roosevelt estate in Hyde Park, New York. The President’s mother wanted to host a garden party. Eleanor Roosevelt, though, hoped to break the mold of stuffy, tradition-driven diplomacy. She wanted a picnic with hot dogs.
Each twist and turn in the dispute was duly noted by reporters, over the course of multiple weeks. Who would win in the battle of personalities and dueling visions of American hospitality? Shortly before the group headed to Hyde Park, the news broke that a decision had finally been made: the picnic was on.
The media turned into anticipation mode, with one Associated Press writer observing, with a clear subtext of celebrating the rough-around-the-edges Americanness of the planned event, “There is one thing George may do at Hyde Park that no British monarch did before. He may bite into a hot dog and squirt mustard down his shirt front.”
* * *
The sight of world leaders sampling regular-person food is common enough now, in these days of endless photo ops. In the USA, presidential hopefuls routinely eat all manner of deep-fried-things-on-sticks at the Iowa State Fair and hold campaign events in diners and deliver beer to fire stations, and we’ve discussed here before, politicians in Australia and Canada have spoken on the floor of their parliaments about specific nationally-beloved snacks (Chiko Rolls and Hawkins Cheezies, respectively).
For public figures, especially in the political realm, food is an easy way to signal I’m just like you, but it’s also fair to say that they usually genuinely like the foods they eat, even if it often serves as a prop for the cameras. Even famous, formal people are not immune to the charms of informal foods. They’re comforting. They’re less fussy than, say, broiled filet of flounder with mushroom and wine sauce. And they’re tasty—hence their popularity (eat that ice cream, President Biden!).
When leaders from different countries share a meal, though, cultural diplomacy enters the mix, adding a new layer. There’s the question of who’s familiar with the foods at all—it may be something entirely new for one of the leaders—and what signals are being sent to the residents of each nation. When Donald Trump hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago in 2017, many observers compared his dish selection unfavorably with President Obama’s dinner a year earlier. Obama’s menu, Eater noted, “presented locally sourced American food alongside classic or adapted Chinese techniques, ingredients, and wines”; Trump’s showed considerably less thought, “like a bad wedding dinner from the 1990s.”
But if a state dinner demonstrates a national leader’s personal vision of what’s fancy and good—and, by extension, illustrates some of the current cultural trends and values of their country, putting them on display for the world to see—the other side of food diplomacy, the informal meal, is a statement of what symbolizes laid-back comfort.
In the formal language of diplomacy, perhaps, the presentation of a hot dog may say: “On behalf of the United States of America, may we offer you this tubular delight of meat, meat byproducts, curing agents and spices?” But what it really says is: “How ya doin’? Wanna beer?”
Such is the democratic charm of the hot dog.
Barry counts several examples. There was the time that Nikita Khrushchev ate his first hot dog in 1959, during tour of a packing plant in Des Moines (“at least one account says his first bite had to wait until security agents waved a Geiger counter over the dog”). There was the 1999 meal of kosher hot dogs shared by President Bill Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. There was the Obama administration’s 2009 invitation to Iranian government officials to come on over for hot dogs on the Fourth of July. And a year later, in 2010, the trend continued: President Obama took French President Nicolas Sarkozy to Ben’s Chili Bowl, and British Prime Minister David Cameron and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg got hot dogs from a cart outside Penn Station.
But that picnic in 1939? That’s where it all started.
* * *
It’s not entirely clear why Eleanor Roosevelts was so keen to serve hot dogs to the King and Queen. Most likely, the driving force was a straightforward personal preference: the first lady had a general fondness for picnics, believing that “such social occasions made it possible to get to know one another on a human level.” It’s also clear, though, that the matter of cultural diplomacy was on the mind of President Roosevelt and his administration. As Richard Pells writes in his book Not Like Us: How Europeans Have Loved, Hated, And Transformed American Culture Since World War II, in those prewar years, France, Britain, and Germany were all hard at work spreading their own cultural messaging, through literature, movies, radio, and other media. “By the middle of the 1930s,” Pells says, “the Roosevelt administration concluded that America’s security depended on its ability to speak to and win the support of people in other countries.” Whether or not the move was intentional, the tradition-breaking picnic most certainly worked toward this broader end.
The event was held on June 11, 1939. The next day, the headline at the top of The New York Times front page read, “KING DEPARTS FOR CANADA; ATTENDS ROOSEVELT CHURCH; EATS HOT DOGS AT PICNIC.”
A bit lower on the page—but still above the fold—the meal got its own story, this time with a more detailed headline:
The King wore a brown sport coat; the Queen wore a challis print and accessorized her outfit with a gardenia, the only accent in her “informal attire.” And though the one hundred fifty people attending the picnic had been given strict instructions not to shake the hands of the royals or the Roosevelts, the King and Queen broke this protocol themselves, offering their hands to dozens of guests. They also declined fine china for their food, insisting on using paper plates like everyone else at the picnic.
Even with such tone-setting, some members of the Roosevelts’ staff were nervous about serving hot dogs to actual monarchs. The tables were set up on a porch, and you can imagine the staff in their uniforms, peeking through the windows or lingering in a doorway, trying to steal a view of the moment George and Elizabeth dug in. Years later, President Roosevelt’s son would recall that the King asked his father how to eat the hot dog, so the president offered a tutorial: hold it like this and then “you just stuff it into your mouth like this until it's all gone.” The King complied. Elizabeth, for her part, stuck with a fork and knife.
The King loved it and went back for seconds. He also skipped the orange and lime soda that most guests were drinking and headed straight for the beer, prompting others to follow suit. (If a royal gives you permission to day-drink, take it.)
* * *
The news out of Europe was getting bleak—the Nazis were clearly on the rise, as you can see in the headlines above, from the day of the picnic. But you’ll note what got the most attention, the largest typefaces, and the big, splashy image.
The hot dog headlines were everywhere the next day: The Tennessean, The Spokane Chronicle, The Battle Creek (Michigan) Enquirer, The Asbury Park (New Jersey) Press, The Miami Herald, The Fresno Bee, The Grand Island (Nebraska) Daily Independent, dozens more.
That media saturation wasn’t surprising—it was breaking news about a big-deal visit by the King and Queen of England. What’s more jarring is the way the story took over the headlines from the bigger, more urgent news—though it’s not hard to see parallels to the headline priorities and trending topics today—and the picnic’s longevity as an item of interest. Discussion of the hot dogs persisted for years, in op-eds and hot takes that feel oddly familiar, early versions of the now-common churn of The Discourse.
Over the next few days, The Arizona Republic spent a few column-inches idly musing about what the king might have called the hot dogs: A sausage biscuit? A Coney Island? You can imagine modern-day TikTok videos musing on this, replete with knowingly bad accents. The Minneapolis Tribune reported the gossip that “Notwithstanding the ‘success’ of the ‘hot dogs’ at the Roosevelts’ ‘royal picnic’ at Hyde Park, the President’s mother, elderly and socially-correct Mrs. James Roosevelt, confides to her cronies she still feels the ‘beer’ and ‘hot dog’ menu was, er, ‘inelegant.’” You can imagine the tweets if this played out today, #TeamEleanor trending.
A month after King George went back for seconds, The New York Times ran a piece titled “The Hot Dog: A Success Story.” Writer Meyer Berger opened his essay:
It was front-page stuff a few weeks ago when King George VI attacked a hot dog at the Little White House picnic at Hyde Park. Wires burned with plain and fancy descriptions of the event and wireless, radio, and cable carried the word around the world.
A certain amount of snobbishness and deplorable condescension went into much of this reporting, and you were apt to get the impression that His Majesty had conferred an honor on something low-born; something with no background to speak of. The general journalistic attitude seemed to be that the hot dog should have wriggled with delight at the experience.
Again: Sounds familiar, no? The mainstream, elitist, out-of-touch media is at it again, folks.
Another month on, in August, 1939, the brands got in on the hot dog meme, as the National Retail Meat Dealers Association passed a resolution at its annual convention “asking King George VI to confer the title of ‘Sir Hot Dog’ upon the frankfurter,” the kick-off of the organization’s campaign to gather five million signatures (!!) on a petition for the king.
It kept going—not just for months but decades.
By my count, the royal hot dogs have been mentioned on at least fifteen separate occasions in The New York Times alone, most recently in 2010. When King George died, in 1952, the hot dogs were included in the obituary the next day; they were also discussed in the 1974 obituary for Nathan Handwerker, founder of Nathan’s Famous, who supplied the hot dogs, and the 1998 obituary for Betsey Cushing Whitney, FDR’s daughter-in-law. When the Roosevelts’ Hyde Park residence went on the market in 1963, hot dogs were in the subhead. When Princess Margaret visited the USA in 1965, one New York Times columnist lamented that, “esthetically speaking, the visit was always impossible,” because the hot dog picnic decades earlier had been so groundbreaking, so full of “brio,” that if she’d tried the same, it would have been perceived as “middle camp.” And when Prince Charles and Princess Diana did their own American tour, in 1985, Maureen Dowd offered context for their trip to a mall in suburban Virginia: it was just a continuation of the “royal slumming” trend set by King George and Queen Elizabeth.
* * *
In 1989, in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the picnic, a celebration was held at the Roosevelts’ Hyde Park house, which is now a historic site operated by the National Park Service. A few guests from the original picnic were in attendance, Her Majesty’s Royal Marines Band played, the British Ambassador to the U.S. spoke, and the Queen Mother—who had been there in 1939—sent a message calling her trip “an idyllic experience.”
Dr. William R. Emerson, director of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library also spoke, and unveiled a document that had never been displayed in public before: handwritten notes from the conversations between the King and the President in 1939, which were less about food than the matter of what would happen if and when the USA got involved in the troubles brewing in Europe, including the possibility of American-led naval patrols in the Atlantic.
“The Kings visit had a weighty significance, in that it aligned American interests with the British on the eve of the war,” Emerson said, “but the event has entered American legend as the royal hot-dog picnic.”
If you enjoyed this, please share it on your social media platforms of choice, and consider a paid subscription to support this newsletter and enable me to keep writing it—I have a blast doing these posts but it’s also real work and paid subscriptions are what makes it worth my time.
When you pay, you get three posts like this every week, all for a mere $5 per month, which is less than you spend on actual snacks. If you’re already a paid subscriber, thank you so much!