Posted by Elyse Bruce on July 26, 2013
THE FOLLOWING POST MAY NOT BE
SUITABLE FOR MINORS DUE TO CONTENT.
When you hear someone exclaim in horror: “Pimp steak again?” don’t be alarmed. They’ve just found out they’re being served a hot dog. So how is it that the perfectly good name for a hot dog wound up with this moniker as well?
For one thing, the term pimp didn’t always mean someone who procures customers for a prostitute or brothel and lives off the earnings. Back in the 1630s, it was used to describe any despicable person, and in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, the term has been used since the mid-20th century to identify a spy or an informant.
The Boston Phoenix reviewed “The Old Settler” by John Henry Redwood on November 4, 1999. It was playing at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston and critics had identified the play as one of the Top 10 most-produced plays of the current season. The reviewer, Carolyn Clay, referred to the play as “theatrical comfort food, rich in ethnicity and emotion, served warm.” The play, set in 1943 Harlem, centered on relationships and healing. The review read in part:
The Old Settler is sentimental and easy to see coming (’40s Harlem meets The Heiress), but it is carefully wrought. And it paints a colorful picture of African-American life in an earlier time, a particular place where magical if disreputable spots called Small’s Paradise and the Savoy Ballroom duke it out with a strong, supper-slinging black Church. Moreover, there is in the elegiac evocation by Bess and Husband of the Southern places they come from a feeling of displacement that’s one of the themes of August Wilson. Redwood tells a tighter story than Wilson does (though at first, with Husband searching like haunted Harold Loomis for his lost mate, The Old Settler seems like a lightweight Joe Turner’s Come and Gone). And if he doesn’t make as vivid and musical use of black speech as Wilson, Redwood does doodle a linguistic tune. Quilly’s conjuring of the chitterling dinner at Singleton’s Restaurant on Lenox and 136th Street is a feast in itself. And who ever knew that a hot dog was called a “pimp steak” or that “swamp seeds” were rice?
Now back in the 1940s, Dan Burley chronicled Harlem nightlife for the Amsterdam News. He was born in 1907, the son of a Baptist minister, he spent his childhood in Kentucky and Texas. By the time the Black Migration of World War I slowed, the Burley family lived in Chicago, and one of his classmates at Wendell Phillips High School was jazz musician, Lionel Hampton.
He became a journalist for the Chicago Defender after leaving school, and in 1937 (at age 30), he joined the Amsterdam News as a reporter, city editor, nightlife columnist, theater editor and sports editor. What came of his time at the Amsterdam News was a 157-page book entitled “Original Handbook Of Harlem Jive” which was published in 1944. And right there, among the many other expressions that came out of Harlem was this definition for a frankfurter: pimp steak!
But in reading Cab Calloway’s book “Hepster’s Dictionary: Language of Jive” published in 1939, the term doesn’t show up anywhere in his listings. Either the expression wasn’t in vogue at the time or it was in vogue but not popular enough to rate inclusion in Cab Calloway’s dictionary.
Either way, the earliest this expression can be pegged at is sometime during World War II (1939 – 1945). Hope that works for all you hep cats out there.