With booming business emerging daily and award-winning restaurants filling the downtown cityscape, Birmingham, Alabama, is a well-loved Southern city. But, take a journey back about 150 years ago, and life looked a bit different.
From its founding in 1871 through the 1960s, Birmingham was a leading industrial city. Iron and steel production and the railway industry built the city from dust to distinction, attracting a multitude of people with jobs in factories and mines. By 1880, African Americans made up 80 percent of Birmingham’s industrial force, while others were immigrants who came to the area in search of prosperity. The jobs, however, were extremely dangerous and pay was low, which meant these workers were far from prosperous.
One of the immigrant populations who arrived in the Magic City during the first half of the 20th century was the Greeks. Most of the earliest Greeks worked in factories and mines, but, in order to escape the wretched industrial conditions, many gravitated toward other professions such as the food industry. Everyone had to eat, and at that time, cooking and managing a small restaurant required little formal education or spoken English, making the culinary business a viable option for employment. To make a living, they turned to selling regional favorites, like smoked barbecue and Southern meat-and-threes, but perhaps the most distinct contribution revolved around the humblest of foods: the heroic hot dog.
Hot dogs were cheap and easy to make, and thanks to their portability, were favorites among industrial workers who could scarf one down between shifts. At one time, hot dog carts, stands, and shops filled every corner of the city’s downtown, selling what became known as the signature Birmingham hot dog: a weenie topped with ground beef and an addictive rust-colored seasoned sauce over a white bread bun. And while these franks were the star of the show, hot dog shops also sold another sandwich: the hot beef.
Many of Birmingham’s early industrial workers couldn’t afford medical or dental care. The tale goes, hot beef was an adaptation of the hot dog that forewent the frank, making it an option for customers who lacked healthy teeth. It was a simple sandwich (much like today’s Sloppy Joe ) filled with the ground beef and special sauce that traditionally topped a Birmingham hot dog. Outsiders sometimes confuse it with the cheesesteak from Philadelphia or the Italian beef that originated in Chicago, but locals know that nothing compares to the sandwich found in the Magic City.
Today, it is lesser known and ordered. But walk into one of the city’s longstanding hot dog shops like Gus’s Hot Dogs or Sam’s Super Samwiches and you’ll find the hot beef sitting pretty among the famous franks. Woven through the city’s strong history, the simple sandwich reminds us of those hardworking pioneers who helped make Birmingham what it is today.