The Enduring Appeal of Pigs in a Blanket
A few months ago, a guy I matched with on a dating app broke the ice by asking me, “What’s your favorite hors d'oeuvre?” Not the best conversation starter, I thought, as there’s only one right answer. Sure, many dishes can be minified and then passed around a room for mingling partygoers to pop into their mouths. Cheeseburger sliders, crispy coconut shrimp, tiny takeout containers of sesame noodles, smoked salmon with crème fraîche on a quarter-sized blini.
When you hear the term “hors d'oeuvre,” a clear image materializes—of a miniature hot dog sheathed in a jacket of buttery puff pastry, served alongside a ramekin of mustard to dip. Pigs in a blanket, the culinary kings of cocktail hour, are the undisputed greatest hors d'oeuvre of all time.
Liz Neumark is the CEO of Great Performances, the largest catering outfit in New York City. She tells me that of the 250,000 hors d'oeuvres they serve in a year, pigs in a blanket are the #1 seller by a long shot, making up almost 5% of total hors d'oeuvres produced. “That’s a big number,” she says, “because everything else is 1% here, 1% there.” (The runner-up is mini boneless lamb chops, followed by lobster rolls and coconut shrimp.) “I always serve pigs in a blanket. Everyone loves them,” said Joan Rivers in a 2003 New York Magazine article titled “Dinner Hosts Tell Their Secrets.” The late TV host was known for the dinner parties she threw at her Upper East Side penthouse, with regular attendees including the gossip columnist Aileen Mehle and Princess Firyal of Jordan. And she was right. What’s not to like about “hot dogs in croissant dough,” as they are bluntly defined on Wikipedia? The salt, the fat, and the snappy texture of a frankfurter combined with puff pastry’s rich flakiness and a hit of spicy mustard (or maybe you prefer a sugary dose of ketchup, or both) makes for an irresistible snack. Kids adore them, as do adults. A pig in a blanket is the perfect party bite, too, because it pairs wonderfully with a glass of cold Champagne, a heady martini, or really whatever it is you’re sipping on. While I don’t have a statistic to back this up, I feel confident in claiming that a cater waiter carrying a tray full of pigs in a blanket will forever and always be the most chased-after person in the room.
According to the meticulously researched Food Timeline, pigs in a blanket—described as “franks baked in flaky crust”—is an American dish that descends from the British sausage roll and first started appearing in cookbooks in the 1930s. Joy of Cooking, released in 1936, contained a recipe for “Sausages in Pastry or Biscuit Dough.” A decade later, a U.S. military cookbook called Army Recipes, published by the Government Printing Office in Washington, D.C., featured a recipe for “Pork Sausages Links (Pigs) in Blankets” with only three ingredients: pork sausage links, biscuit dough, and eggs (for an egg wash). Still, many credit Betty Crocker’s 1957 Cooking for Boys and Girls for putting pigs in a blanket on the map. The exact origin of the term “pigs in a blanket” is unknown, but it seems to be linked to an appetizer of the same name, the small sausages wrapped in bacon that are commonly served during Christmastime in the U.K.
Given the name, it’s safe to assume that the earliest renditions of pigs in a blanket utilized pork sausage. These days, many iterations of pigs in blanket are made with kosher, all-beef hot dogs, particularly those served at bar and bat mitzvahs. The famous Jewish delicatessen Katz’s Deli makes their pigs in a blanket out of their house-made all-beef hot dogs and ships them nationwide by the dozen for $16.95. In the New York Times, Stephen D. Solomon wrote about having his bar mitzvah in Great Neck, Long Island during a winter storm in February 1969. He got snowed in to the catering hall, along with the 40 people who were able to attend and the pared-down parties of several other bar mitzvahs and weddings, for two days. “We slept on the floor in our tuxedos and gowns, ate kosher egg rolls and pigs-in-a-blanket for three meals a day, and made new friends,” he recalls. Of all the ways to get snowed in, shacked up amongst shul members with a bottomless supply of pigs in a blanket is not the worst. Relatedly: when the pandemic first hit New York, one of the items I grabbed while shopping for the lockdown was pigs in a blanket from the frozen aisle.
Part of the charm of pigs in a blanket is that they’re “idiot proof,” as Neumark points out. “It’s probably the only hors d'oeuvre you could buy frozen, pop it in your oven, and serve, whereas if you were going to do smoked salmon in a cucumber cup, you would have to be working so hard to prepare it.” (Pro-tip: keep a stash of Sabrett’s cocktail franks in your freezer to whip out on a whim when you have friends over. It’s a move that’s sure to delight.) And they can be fashioned in a number of ways: made with hot dogs that are miniature or full-sized then sliced, stuffed with chili or cheese, wrapped in pretzel dough, or gussied up with caviar.
In her memoir Tiny Hot Dogs, the caterer to the stars Mary Giuliani recounts a meeting with the celebrity event planner Colin Cowie about a party they were putting together for Elizabeth Taylor with Instyle at Christie’s: “I’m only serving pigs in a blanket, darlings, if they are presented in mounds of caviar,” Cowie said. The recipe that follows is for “Fancy Pigs,” which aren’t pigs in a blanket, per se, but instead, crispy bacon cups filled with dollops of crème fraîche and Petrossian caviar.
Today, you’re still most likely to come across pigs in a blanket at a big catered event or a dinner party. But you can also find them on certain restaurant menus, too. Not every establishment can get away with serving pigs in a blanket, which aren’t exactly a cheffy food. (Unless they’re akin to those once served by the New York chef Wylie Dufresne at his now-closed Alder, made with Chinese sausages, compressed hot dog buns, and Japanese mustard). Chic destinations with menus that center around comforting American classics, however, can. At the Tower Bar, the restaurant inside Hollywood’s Sunset Tower Hotel, six glamorous mini franks encased in melt-in-your-mouth pastry come on top of branded parchment paper for $25. Ten miles southwest in Culver City, Wagyu beef pigs in a blanket are served at Dear John’s, the old-school steakhouse once frequented by Frank Sinatra. At Polo Bar in New York, classic pigs in a blanket, wrapped in flaky dough and paired with spicy brown mustard for $18, are one of the most popular appetizers on the menu. And at Sadelle’s, the Major Food Group restaurant devoted to classic New York cuisine with outposts in Miami, Las Vegas, and Paris, pigs in a blanket are presented with golden brown crusts and sides of mustard and Thousand Island dressing.
Back in 2006, the food and wine writer Florence Fabricant argued that pigs in a blanket were back in vogue after being denigrated by high-end caterers as cliché. “Without pigs in blankets, it seems, no black tie cocktail hour is complete. They are more than acceptable; they are again being seen for what they are: perfect finger food, delicious and surrounded by the same aura of affection enjoyed by all comfort foods,” she wrote. 2006 is also the year that the Tower Bar opened, with pigs in a blanket on the menu from day one. Almost two decades later, the utter appeal of pigs in a blanket endures. They are timeless, they are classic, they are canonized party food.