Nothing says New England summer better than a split-top hot dog roll, buttered and toasted, its crusty exterior the perfect bed for hot dogs, of course, but better yet, creamy lobster salad or fried clams. Long associated with fish shacks, backyard barbecues, and Fenway Park, this iconic staple got its start during the post-World War II boom of automobile travel and the growth of America’s first franchised restaurant chain: Howard Johnson’s.
Variously called top-sliced, top-loading, or frankfurter roll, the style was developed sometime in the mid- to late ’40s, explains Michael Cornelis, vice president of American Pan, which makes baking pans for the industry. Howard Johnson’s approached J. J. Nissen bakery of Maine to develop a special bun for its fried clam strip sandwich. The restaurant chain wanted top sliced rolls that would stand upright and be easier to prepare, serve, and eat.
The fact that the flat sides naturally lent themselves to being buttered and grilled or toasted was an added bonus.
“Before the New England-style roll,” says Cornelis, “there was no way to mechanically slice a bun part of the way through. If you wanted a roll pre-sliced, commercial bakers would slice them all the way through. Well, that’s not as happy a hot dog bun.”
The hinged and side-sliced hamburger and hot dog buns used in most regions of the country today, Cornelis explains, did not come until later, sometime in the mid-’50s, with the invention of the mechanical side slicer.
Another appealing feature of the top-loader was its potential for display. “It’s amazing how you can make a presentation with a top-sliced roll — whether it’s with lobster or just a hot dog because the roll sits up on its own,” says Mike McCall, president of Lepage Bakeries and Flowers Foods of Maine, which has been making a top-sliced roll since the late ’40s or early ’50s.
Today, some markets in Florida sell New England-style top-loaders to satisfy the Northern snowbird population. Closer to home in Plymouth, Peter and Nicole Nyberg of Hearth Artisan Bread offer their take on the classic bun, selling two styles wholesale to local and Boston businesses. One is a traditional version, which is used at all of the Jasper White Summer Shack locations; the other is a larger and richer brioche-style, which is used at Legal Harborside and other area restaurants. One catch: Chefs must slice Hearth Artisan rolls themselves. “If we cut the rolls down the center at the bakery, they would immediately start drying out,” says Peter Nyberg.
Back in the days when HoJo’s were flourishing, and New England-style rolls were in all their establishments, J. J. Nissen knew it would need a special pan for an automated production line. Industrial baking-pan manufacturer Ekco Products designed the first commercial pan for the bakery.
A retail version of the same pan is available from USA Pan, making it easy for amateur bread bakers to produce professional-looking rolls at home. Why would you bother to make them if you live here, where split-top rolls are ubiquitous? You’ll get a fresher roll with better flavor and texture, using the grains you like. Where the side-loading, or side-sliced, style is sometimes available in organic or whole-wheat versions, not so with our regional bun.
If you want a better-tasting or custom New England-style roll, your best bet is to make them yourself.
New England-style hot dog pans are available at KitchenWares by Blackstones, 215 Newbury St., Boston, 857-366-4237 and www.kingarthurflour.com . Hearth Artisan Bread is located at 123 Camelot Drive, Suite 2, Plymouth, 774-773-9388, www.hearthartisanbread.com.