Among a spread of snacks like flavored hummus, maki rolls, and a cheese selection, pigs in a blanket were the hit of my neighbor’s recent party, with guests gobbling them up as if we were the Joey Chestnuts of cocktail wieners. Then it dawned on me: While pigs in blankets are perennially popular, they’re currently having an NYC moment.
My neighbor’s British friends reminded me that night that pigs in a blanket mean different things to different people. “We call these sausage rolls,” one Brit said between bites. To them, pigs in a blanket are mini-sausages wrapped in bacon. To those of Polish heritage, they are cabbages stuffed with meat. And in some regions of the US, they are breakfast links cloaked in pancakes.
To New Yorkers, they are tiny hot dogs encased in puff pastry, a snack that falls somewhere between the French saucisson en croute and the Chinese lop cheung bao. A staple at bar mitzvahs and cocktail parties that rose to popularity in the post-war era, some say that they were originated by Betty Crocker. While a recipe for pigs in a blanket does appear in the 1957 Betty Crocker’s Cooking For Boys and Girls, restaurant consultant Clark Wolf theorizes they more likely evolved from wartime rations of tinned sausages rather than from a fictional brand ambassador.
“They came to popularity in that silly, dear era that gave us Cher’s performance in Mermaids, where every meal was an hors d’oeuvres extravaganza,” Wolf says. “Plus, for us Jewish folks, it was yet another way to pretend we weren’t eating pork… when we were. Like Chinese food on Sunday, somehow there was a free pass involved.”
Though kosher beef versions are as popular as pork, Wolf’s comment speaks to immigration and deli culture in NYC. Jake Dell, proprietor of 135-year-old Katz’s Delicatessen says that “franks in jackets” — the traditional deli term for the snack —“is a result of Old World cooking brought to the New World. They are American combined with Eastern European, German, Russian and Polish, then blended with the cultures of the surrounding immigrant communities.” Katz’s garlicky all-beef pigs are accompanied by the deli’s own spicy brown mustard, “never that yellow crap,” Dell says. He asserts that their nostalgia factor especially warms New Yorkers’ hearts. “People love them today because they are part of the realm of rope salami they grew up with as kids, and then never outgrow.”
Ben Grossman, CEO of the Fireman Hospitality Group, agrees that pigs in a blanket represent New York’s melting pot culture. Their version at Midtown locations of Brooklyn Diner and Red Eye Grill is the offspring of Brooklyn Diner’s signature 15-bite hot dog, featuring a 100-percent beef Pat La Frieda frank served with Dusseldorf mustard. Grossman notes that they are warm and juicy on the inside while crispy on the outside.
To some, pigs in a blanket are emblematic of an enterprising work ethic. Missy Koo and Stacy Cole founded Brooklyn Piggies 12 years ago “because we thought we’d make America’s favorite hors d’oeuvre even better,” says Koo. They enlisted a “sausage artist” to style their quality pigs — which come in beef and pork; beef, pork, and cheese; spicy pork; and chicken — and started selling them at Smorgasburg Williamsburg. Then Oprah anointed them one of her “Favorite Things,” and today, not only are Brooklyn Piggies shipped across the nation, they can be enjoyed at NYC landmarks such as Madison Square Garden and Citi Field.
Standard-issue pigs also wouldn’t do for the recently opened sports bar Rocco’s Sports & Recreation in the Village. Their version, inspired by tacos al pastor, features a pork sausage seasoned with achiote, chiles, garlic, and smoked brisket drippings, and they’re served with paprika-lemon-garlic aioli and a slice of pineapple. “They’re something reminiscent of game day, but with the influence of our kitchen and for the modern-day palate,” says F&B director Max Stampa-Brown. That striving spirit causes pigs to be upwardly mobile. As Stampa-Brown points out, “They are a confluence of a country club-style passed hors d’oeuvre mixed with stoner-style food.”
Jamie Loftus, who researched pigs in a blanket for her book Raw Dog: The Naked Truth About Hot Dogs, observes, “They have snuck their way into high society, perhaps because they are presented as kind of European.” Pigs in a blanket are an item at gala events and a must-order at VIP haunts like the Polo Bar, located a stone’s throw from Rockefeller Center. “If you’re from a regular family and you find yourself at a nice party, it’s comforting, like ‘I have an ally here!” Loftus says, which explains why both Ralph Lifshitz and Ralph Lauren can enjoy them.
A certain urbanity and sense of modesty comes along with crossing societal lines. That’s why pigs in a blanket are not as vulgar and showy as their bigger sibling. They don’t need to be “dragged through a garden” or ostentatiously smothered in chili and cheese. “They have a healthy sense of shame,” says Loftus. “They’re petite and cover themselves up.” Like a true New Yorker, a pig in a blanket would never gawk at a celebrity, for example. A hot dog, on the other hand, would ask for a selfie.
Pigs in a blanket are also a symbol of what New Yorkers are craving right now: the carefree days before we put a pause on social gatherings. “They fit right in with the adult pizza party vibe at my restaurants,” says Emmett Burke, whose Vienna beef pigs in poppyseed pastry come perched on a tower during happy hour at Midwest supper club-inspired Emmett’s on Grove in the Village. Other places you’d find them on the menu include Brooklyn’s Patti Ann’s, Mile End, Dead Rabbit, Sadelle’s, Bubby’s, any just about any pizzeria serving sausage rolls.
“They’re kind of goofy, casual, sharable, comforting and evocative of everything that is fun,” he says. “People really need fun in this post-COVID era.”