The Museum at Eldridge Street on the Lower East Side is opening a new exhibition on May 12 called Steve Marcus: Top Dog of Kosher Pop Art. The show takes viewers on a journey into the cartoon world of kosher folk art through a series of new artworks inspired by one of the many great Jewish contributions to American culture: the hot dog.
Marcus (@smarcusart) is an artist and long-term Lower East Side resident. His passion for the perfect hot dog reminded me that as a kid on Saturday night, I’d always have a great deli hot dog with mustard and kraut (never ketchup). I interviewed Marcus about his long-term love of kosher dogs and culture.
How did kosher hot dogs enter your creative and cultural life?
This particular series of works was inspired by my 6-year-old nephew, Nate “Nati” Gottlieb, who in the summer of 2021 came to visit me at my off-the grid-cabin on 30 acres in the middle of nowhere to celebrate my birthday weekend with a camping trip. I bought hot dogs knowing we both love hot dogs, and looked forward to making a campfire and cooking them for us deep in the mountains. He drew me a birthday card that pictured us roasting hot dogs on a stick over a campfire, and upon seeing his drawing, I quickly made a fire and put hot dogs on sticks as he depicted in his crayon drawing. He proceeded to roast a hot dog on a stick over the open flame for the first time, and as he was doing this, he looked over to me while sitting on a rock and said, “Uncle Steve, this is one of my dreams coming true.” It was then and there that I decided to make a series of art based on hot dogs that people of all ages could relish.
What makes a kosher dog so much better than all others?
Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts. When one claims something is “better,” they are making a comparative statement based on their personal preference, which is their opinion. But the fact is, the majority of Americans (over 60%) prefer an all-beef hot dog, and the all-beef hot dog’s origin is the kosher hot dog.
Your exhibition is billed as folk art from Lower East Side Jewish culture. What have you included?
Folk art is an expression of one’s traditional culture and is rooted in the traditions that come from that community. [It] expresses the cultural identity by conveying its shared communal values and aesthetics. At the start of my career, way back in 1989 before there was internet, I was an illustrator and cartoonist and produced artwork for publications such as Paper Magazine, the op-ed section of The New York Times, High Times magazine, MTV and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. My art is heavily influenced by cartoons and underground comics and I’ve maintained that style in my current work that proudly expresses my roots and culture. Besides my drawings, I also enjoy wood carving and making objects, which I began doing while spending time with Zuni friends at Zuni Pueblo in New Mexico in 2009. Included in this exhibition are hand-drawn works of art and a wood carved object. Come on a journey into my cartoon world of kosher folk art that links my quirky sense of humor with my passion for my own roots and culture. Like it or not, no one can accuse me of cultural appropriation.
You say that hot dogs are a Jewish contribution to NYC. What about wieners, frankfurters, red hots—aren’t these German-Polish contributions as well?
The origin of the hot dog is a hot and mysterious debate that is as contested as the existence of UFOs, the meaning behind crop circles or why hot dogs come in packages of 10 but hot dog buns come in eight per package. There are numerous fabled stories about how the hot dog got its name and who invented its bun. As with all things so ubiquitous and loved, many people want to claim the hot dog’s beginning but food historians agree that the Weiner was named after Wien (aka Vienna, Austria), and the Frankfurter hailing from Frankfurt, Germany, hence the “frank” in Frankfurter. The North American hot dog, similar to America’s melting pot, is a unique variety whose ancestor was without question the widespread common European sausage. The American all-beef hot dog’s humble beginning came about to serve the Lower East Side Jewish community—the most densely populated community in the world at the time—by creating a kosher variety to accommodate the community’s kosher dietary laws. Today in America, over 7 billion hot dogs, or 818 hot dogs per second, are consumed during peak grilling season, from Memorial Day to Labor Day, according to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council. And regardless of the origin of the hot dog and who invented it, I look forward to a day when whether your preference is a kosher, all-beef, pork or meatless hot dog, that we can all sit down and eat hot dogs together in peace.