Here's Why Chicago-Style Hot Dogs Are Always Served On Poppy Seed Buns

There may not be a more iconically extravagant American foodstuff than the Chicago-style hot dog. Though hot dogs are eaten regularly across America, it's the Chicago hot dog that so often captures the imagination for its unique willingness to throw everything but the kitchen sink at one dish. Chicago dogs start with an all-beef hot dog, of course, but then you add an entire dill pickle spear, sliced tomatoes, chopped white onions, sport peppers, relish, mustard, and celery salt. (Don't ask for yours with ketchup because they might actually run you out of town.) The bun here is just as important as the toppings because Chicago dogs are always served the same type of bread: A steamed poppy seed bun.

But why are poppy seed buns so crucial to a Chicago dog? Simply put, it's just how they've always done it. There are a bunch of theories as to why, ranging from taste to texture to ethnic tradition. It's impossible to say which of them (if any) is correct.

Taste and texture are viable theories

We know this culinary work of art was first created in 1929 by Abe Drexler as a means of providing affordable meals to customers during the Great Depression. But we don't know exactly how or why the poppy seed bun became part of the dish. Poppy seed buns – Rosen's, for the genuinely authentic version – predate the Chicago dog by nearly two decades, but why were they added to the recipe?

The first theory is taste. The bun brings a flavor that none of the other ingredients bring. Stephanie Powell of Alpha Baking Co. told the Chicago Tribune, "Poppy seeds add a distinct nutty, earthy flavor to the bun itself." 

There's something to the theory that a flavor like that could balance all the veggies, meat, and condiments the dish already possesses. But can you really taste the poppy seeds over all the other ingredients in what is an unquestionably noisy sandwich?

Texture is another possibility. Poppy seeds certainly have a texture unlike anything else on a Chicago hot dog, and that small, slight crunch brings a unique element to the table (even if they do have a tendency to get stuck in one's teeth).

They might be there because of a connection to Jewish cuisine

It's also possible poppy seed buns are traditional on a Chicago dog because poppy seed bread is part of a longstanding tradition. Poppy seed bagels have long been a part of Jewish cuisine, and during the early 20th century in Chicago, many food purveyors or their suppliers were Jewish. It makes sense that poppy seed buns like those from Rosen's would've generally found their way into hot dog preparation, making it unsurprising if the same happened with the Chicago dog. Way more foods are Jewish in origin than you think, and maybe the Chicago dog is another example.

Whatever the case, poppy seed buns are now an inextricable part of the recipe. It's impossible to say which of these various theories about the importance of the poppy seed bun is correct. Heck, maybe it's all of them — or none of them. Perhaps they're just there because they look pretty.