The Rise, Fall and Rise Again of Denmark’s Favorite Fast Food

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The Rise, Fall and Rise Again of Denmark’s Favorite Fast Food

In Copenhagen, there used to be a sausage wagon on every corner, but suddenly the hot dog fell out of fashion. However, a new generation of pølsemænd (sausage men) has put sausages back on the Copenhagen map. Read about the rise, fall and rise again of Denmark’s favorite fast food.

Street hotdogs were popular in Germany during World War I and soon caught on in Sweden and Norway. However, it wasn’t until 1920 that Denmark got its first hotdog vendors. For various reasons applications to city councils to sell hotdogs from street wagons after restaurants closed until 2:30 were rejected.

In 1917, a municipal authority in Aarhus wrote, “It would be sad to see people standing on the streets eating sausages”.

The Rise, Fall and Rise Again of Denmark’s Favorite Fast Food
It wasn’t until 1920 that Denmark got its first hotdog vendors. Photo: Visit Denmark

Related: Best Street Food in Copenhagen

Early history
But in 1921, Charles Svendsen, a Dane who had been running a successful hotdog business in Oslo (at that time Kristiania), was granted permission to open his hotdog vans at several locations around Copenhagen. The sausages with mustard on the side, costing around 25 Danish øre (cents) was at that time a luxury meal. If you were to splash it out with a roll, you had to add another 5 øre.

Soon, the hotdog became an important part of Danish culture with the quality of being able to gather the people. It’s all about coziness, humor and conversation between people across social classes. It is informal and a part of the Danish popular culture.

“Try a Danish hot dog – simply the best you can get”
I have been to several Christmas markets in Copenhagen, and I must admit, buying a red hotdog from one of the pølsevogn (sausage wagons) was one of the highlights of the day. I was tempted by the poster, claiming “Try a Danish hot dog – simply the best you can get”.

The Rise, Fall and Rise Again of Denmark’s Favorite Fast Food
The hotdog became an important part of Danish culture. Photo: Stryhns, Copenhagen

Related: Breakfast in Copenhagen

It’s a classic (almost romantic) sight in Copenhagen to see a hotdog vendor calmly pulling his van behind him on a busy city road. Hotdogs, and the people who sell them, are adored in Denmark, and for good reason. Although hot dogs are eaten less and less frequently, a local pølsevogn still holds a place of affection for most Danes. Be you vegetarian or carnivore, it would be a shame to pass through Copenhagen without trying a traditional Danish hot dog.

The first Danish hotdog vans were nothing like the ones we know today. They were small, wooden push carts with large wooden wheels, and only the fancier ones had a shelter for the vendor to stand under. A modern hotdog stand has wheels underneath and it is completely self-sufficient. This means that it doesn’t need fixed power and water supply and it can be charged up. It can have its own engine and the whole thing can be packed away in about 15 minutes.

The Rise, Fall and Rise Again of Denmark’s Favorite Fast Food
Pølsevogn at Nørrebro. Photo: Wikipedia

The decline of the Danish pølsevogn
Once there were around 800 pølsevogn in the Danish capital. Today, the number is closer to 75. The proliferation of the American fast food might be one of the reasons, but Big Mac isn’t entirely to blame.

Another reason might be that the mobile hotdog stands are being transformed into stationary stands, which give them the opportunity to expand their selection. The reason for the restructuring is that it’s difficult to survive merely on the sale of hotdogs.

The classic Danish hotdog was a boiled red sausage (red Vienna sausage). Traditionally vendors painted the sausages red to indicate that the meat was a day old. But the dyed sausages became popular. At one point, all hot dog sausages in Denmark were red regardless of meat quality.

The Rise, Fall and Rise Again of Denmark’s Favorite Fast Food
Lones pølser. Photo: Visity Copenhagen

On the wrong side of the gastronomic revolution
In later years, the hot dog found itself on the wrong side of the gastronomic revolution, although you can buy it with both ketchup, mustard, remoulade, raw onion, crispy fried onion, marinated cucumber salad and different dressings. As Copenhagen transformed from culinary backwater to serious food destination, with the world-beating likes of Noma preaching the virtues of local, seasonal and foraged produce, the hot dog, with its starchy, sugary buns and mystery meat, looked like pre-Enlightenment food, a relic from the 20th-century.

The Rise, Fall and Rise Again of Denmark’s Favorite Fast Food
Johns Hit Dog Deli. Photo: Visit Copenhagen

Another thing that makes the hotdog stands disappear from the streets is the fact that the authorities won’t grant stalls the stands. A hotdog man in Aarhus lost his licence to keep his hotdog stand in the street because of city renewal. He had applied to be given a new place in Aarhus C, but was rejected by Aarhus municipality. As a result, he packed the hotdog stand away for the last time in 2002. And so, there are no mobile hotdog stands left in East Jutland.

The Rise, Fall and Rise Again of Denmark’s Favorite Fast Food
Hotdogs, and the people who sell them, are adored in Denmark. Photo: Asko

Tolerant sausage vendors
Nevertheless, almost everyone eats hotdogs and, therefore, the hotdog vendors of Denmark have a reputation for being not only kind, but also very tolerant people. For those looking for the full Danish experience today, order your hot dog with a Cocio (a Danish chocolate milk drink). Or double down on the meat with a bacon-wrapped sausage (ristet hotdog i svøb).

The Rise, Fall and Rise Again of Denmark’s Favorite Fast Food, read on….

A group of sausage-happy Danes are now updating hotdogs for the post-Noma era, while trying to hold onto its unique place in Danish society. The humble hot dog isn’t merely the food of childhood treats and late-night drunken snacking, a kind of culinary embodiment of Danish hygge. History shows, it also helped destroy the Copenhagen restaurant mafia and increase workers’ rights.

The Rise, Fall and Rise Again of Denmark’s Favorite Fast Food
The classic Danish hotdog was a boiled red sausage (red Vienna sausage). Photo: Asko servering

Post-war sausage vendors
in 1940s Denmark, in order to work as self-employed, applicants had to prove to the council that they was disabled or otherwise unable to work in a normal job. This changed the hotdog landscape in Copenhagen, and many other parts of Denmark, dramatically. Now that it was no longer just a job, hotdog vendors started putting more care into their business and into the hotdogs themselves. Selling hotdogs in Denmark became a very personal thing.

The Rise, Fall and Rise Again of Denmark’s Favorite Fast Food
In later years, the hot dog found itself on the wrong side of the gastronomic revolution. Photo: Visit Denmark

Introduced in Denmark in the 1970s, a French hot dog is a hollowed baguette, filled with a mayo-based French dressing and stuffed with a ristet wienerpølse. Lining the baguette evenly with sauce is the secret to making the perfect French hot dog. In fact, seasoned eaters know a trick or two to prevent the sauce from pooling at the bottom.

The Rise, Fall and Rise Again of Denmark’s Favorite Fast Food
. Selling hotdogs in Denmark became a very personal thing. Photo: Wikipedia

The comeback of the Danish hotdog
In 2012, Ole Trolsoe, food editor at the largest Danish business daily Børsen and with a soft spot for the old pølsevogn, established a Hot Dog Championship. His ambition was to save the mobile Danish sausage-stands, that was the only and the original vendors of Danish street-food.

These championships are now history. However, the breed of gourmet dogs that triumphed at these championships contributed to a new dawn for the Danish sausage tradition. Located in the gritty Meatpacking district, the affordable, fuss-free John’s Hotdog Deli is a dining institution. According to Condé Nast Traveler, “here, you won’t find fancy new Nordic plates; quite the opposite, in fact. This is a low-key hotdog joint where you can do what true fans of the delicacy love to do: build your own».

If Copenhagen’s sausage vendors move with the time, their future is as bright as rød pølse.

The Rise, Fall and Rise Again of Denmark’s Favorite Fast Food, written by Tor Kjolberg

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