Forget Thanksgiving. The most gluttonous day of the year is Super Bowl Sunday, where bowl after bowl and paper plate after paper plate is filled with finger-food bacchanalia that would make even the mad genius responsible for the TGI Friday’s appetizer selection blush (and certainly the ancient Romans). And so, all week leading up to game day, we’ll be offering up our own menu of scientific investigations, origin stories and majestic feats of snacking that not even the biggest sporting event of the year can top. Read all of the stories here.
What could be more festive than pigs in a blanket? Apparently, nothing.
When I Googled them (the way I do research for all my stories), the first three results indicated that “it’s just not a party without pigs in a blanket.” Whether you’re tailgating a football game or, uh, watching a football game at home, these bite-size porky snacks are a must. I myself like to whip up a tray of them and then eat the whole tray alone while watching Below Deck. We all party in different ways.
Pigs in a blanket are sliced up hot dogs rolled into either homemade pastry dough or (if you’re disgusting, like I am) premade crescent rolls out of the tube. Once baked, it’s an inviting little bite, the ends of the hot dogs poking lasciviously out of the golden brown pastry dough as if to beckon you in. The hot dog is savory, the pastry is buttery and flaky, and the whole thing is a pretty good time. Plus, the hot dogs are chopped, so you can comfortably remain ignorant about just how many hot dogs you’re eating in one sitting if that’s important to you. On every level — aesthetic, nutritional, ideological — it’s identifiably, pleasantly American. But where does the dish actually come from?
In 1957, marketing device and fictional character Betty Crocker released Betty Crocker’s Cooking for Boys and Girls, in which pigs in a blanket appear in writing for the first time. Betty presents them as a fun, easy thing to let your kids make while you pop a few Valium and wonder where the hell your husband is (I’m paraphrasing). In keeping with the science- and convenience-forward mores of American home cooking at the time, even this progenitor of modern pig-in-blanket technology calls for premade Bisquick biscuits. It also refers to hot dogs exclusively as “wieners,” which is hilarious, because penis. Also notable is the fact that Betty classifies pigs in a blanket as a “lunch or supper” recipe. We Americans may be a pretty slovenly bunch, but at least we know now that we kind of can’t have pigs in a blanket as our entire lunch, even if we do it anyway.
Pigs in a blanket may have made their literary debut in this cookbook, but they had probably existed for some time, albeit without the cutesy name. As for how long they’d already existed, or who invented them, the trail quickly gets fuzzy. Cookbook author Gertrude Strohm’s The Universal Cookery Book: Practical Recipes for Household Use includes a recipe for “little pigs in blankets,” but it’s a different and markedly more insane dish than the one we eat at Super Bowl parties today: large oysters wrapped in streaky bacon and fried, a “nice relish for lunch or tea.” (What was going on with American lunches?)
The trail picks up again with kolaches, a Czech immigrant dish that remains popular in Texas where many of those immigrants settled in the 19th century. Kolaches are pastries made with yeasted dough into whose center the enterprising baker may stuff the filling of his choosing, commonly sausage. Actually, kolaches’ filling is meant to be sweet, but these immigrants must have noticed the sheer amount of pork their new neighbors were putting away and adjusted accordingly. In fact, what we now know as kolaches may be closer to a different Czech dish called the klobasnek, featuring meat wrapped in a more buttery and savory dough than that which now encases most kolache fillings. Either way, relatively newfangled though it might be, a sausage kolache looks an awful lot like a pig in a blanket.
It’s hard to follow the dish to a more conclusive origin point than that, likely because “meat wrapped in pastry to make it more portable” is a food that just about every meat-eating culture has. After all, the history of building human civilization is a history of backbreaking labor. The people doing that labor needed quick, cheap blasts of protein to get the job done, lest they die of exhaustion. Sausage was the ideal protein across cultures, being an ancient preparation that made animal trimmings taste great, look inoffensive and last for a long time.
Pigs in a blanket are pierogies are empanadas are pastelitos de carne are lop cheung bao. Maybe their origin story is less a question of place, and more a question of circumstance. The circumstance is the sheer amount of heavy lifting the average working man had to do in those days, and the place was everywhere — hence the dueling origin stories of the food that would eventually evolve into the pigs in a blanket we know and love. But a couple legends persist that are worth recounting, even if they’re apocryphal as so many popular food origin stories are.
One legend claims that British field workers began filling pastry dough with meat to keep themselves full during the work day as early as the 1600s. This is probably true, but it does feel like a stretch to refer to any meat encased in any pastry as “pigs in a blanket.” We can compromise and call that dish the great-grandfather of our tailgate classic.
Another legend claims that actually this British version is not these field workers’ original creation. Instead, it came to them from somewhere in Asia via the Silk Road. The Asian version called for fish rather than sausage to be encased in pastry dough, and the Anglo-Saxons replaced the fish with red meat in keeping with the local diet. This, too, is certainly possible considering just how much was passed from culture to culture on the Silk Road (including, most likely, the Bubonic Plague). But is that fish pastry really a pig in a blanket, or just the great-great-grandfather of one?
In any event, Asian bakeries have taken pigs in a blanket and run with the concept over the years. Chinese hot dog buns have existed in bakeries in various Chinatowns for decades. Hot dogs still regularly appear in Chinese, Korean and Japanese pastries, at least in bakeries in New York. Legendary Chinatown bakery Golden Steamer has long offered bao with every filling imaginable, including one bun that looks plain until you bite into it, when — surprise! — it’s a pig in a blanket, Chinese-style. The enriched dough used for Chinese hot dog buns also deserves a shout-out. It’s wonderful: sweet, airy, soft, the perfect counter to the salty meatiness of the hot dog. It beats a tube of Pillsbury crescent rolls by a mile.
A more recent truckers’ legend attributes the dish’s creation to a diner on Route 66 in Oklahoma. The problem with this legend is that it claims pigs in a blanket must have been invented about 10 years after their star appearance in the Betty Crocker cookbook. The mysterious diner may have perfected the snack as diners are wont to do, but can’t have invented it. That said, truckers continue to contribute to pigs in a blanket culture, like The Crafty Trucker’s recipe for pigs in a blanket made in a truck. (These are low-carb, which feels like a violation of the blanket’s integrity, but I’m giving her this one, as I have never — and will never — cook in a truck.)
As for innovations in the field, look no further than Pizza Hut’s hot dog pizza, whose crust is made of a regal ring of pigs in blankets. While this beautiful abomination may seem as American as they come, it actually comes to us from… Pizza Hut Japan! Maybe pigs in a blanket are an Asian creation after all! Still, whatever their origin, whatever name your grandma originally called them by, pigs in a blanket have become an American staple.
As they say, it’s just not a party without pigs in a blanket.