How Did The Hot Dog Get Such A Bad Rap?

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When I was but a wee MBQ, I’d often sit in front of the refrigerator when no one was watching and eat hot dogs straight out of the package. “Gasp!” friends would later say when I recalled that guilty pleasure. “Do you even know what’s in hot dogs?” That widespread urban caveat of hot dogs as tubes of mystery meat has persisted, but is there anything actually scary about the contents of a hot dog?

From the humble supermarket packaged dog destined for the campfire, to the exalted gourmet encased meats cooked up by professional chefs, consumers have a wide variety of hot dogs to choose from. But what exactly makes a hot dog different from other sausages? Where did this undercurrent of anti-hot-dog sentiment spring from, and is there anything to it?

Hot Dogs In History

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To find out, we got in touch with Janet Riley of the North American Meat Institute, or the “Queen of Wiens,” as she’s known in the industry. With that admittedly impressive title and 24 years with NAMI comes a wealth of information, including some tidbits about the bad reputation attached to the hot dog name.

She tells Consumerist the figure of hot dog in food mythology is something they’ve looked into a lot, as part of the group’s mission to spread the good word about packaged meats.

As you might know, hot dogs are a kind of sausage — all hot dogs are sausages, but not all sausages are hot dogs — and were a helpful way to use everything in an animal.

Many sausages contained what’s known as “variety meats” or offal; they’re essentially organ meats or cuts that wouldn’t taste that great on their own but could be chopped up and ground. While the resulting sausages were delicious, tongues started to wag about what exactly could be included in that mix of various meats.

At the same time, notes Riley, the sausage that would become known as the hot dog came to U.S. shores by way of the Germans and Austrians, which is why we call them “frankfurters” like Frankfurt, Germany, or “wieners,” named after Vienna, Austria.

Riley says that the Germans especially were involved in vaudeville and were known for having great senses of humor. They also happened to own a particular breed of dog — you guessed it, the dachshund — which just so happened to be sausage-like in appearance.

She tells Consumerist that the combined mystique between their sausage predecessors and the vendors’ own jokes about their pets led to the hot dog’s place in encased meat mythology.

“So there was some joke apparently at the time that they would be selling their sausages from stands and they’d have their dogs next to them, and they would joke that they had made the sausage out of the dogs,” Riley says. “That was where the name hot dog evolved.”

What Makes A Hot Dog A Hot Dog?

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Despite its reputation as a tube of mystery meat, the Unites States Department of Agriculture has a definition for hot dogs that requires them to contain at least one kind of meat from livestock, though they may also contain poultry meat: “Frankfurters (a.k.a., hot dogs, wieners, or bologna) are cooked and/or smoked sausages according to the Federal standards of identity,” the definition states, noting that hot dogs are “link-shaped” and come in more than one size “— short, long, thin, and chubby.”

If you don’t want to eat any offal, check the package — the USDA requires that any hot dog has to include the presence of byproducts on the package, and name them individually according to what kind of animal they came from.

The requirement for a hot dog to contain meat is also the reason vegetarian products can’t call themselves as such, Riley adds.

“When you see a tofu product that’s sort of tubular in nature, it’s kind of a hot dog wannabe,” she explains. “Because it doesn’t have meat, it can’t be a ‘hot dog.’ That’s why you’ll see names like ‘tofu pups’ and plays on words.”

Then there’s the distinction between your run-of-the-mill grocery store dogs, that are prepared in processing plants using a cellulose casing that’s discarded by the time the hot dogs make it to the package, and those gourmet or specialty hot dogs that come in a natural casing.

If you’re not sure which one you’re biting into, bite into it. If your teeth break through the outside of the wiener with a snap, that’s the natural casing, an experience many hot dog connoisseurs prefer over the yield of the uncased kind.

Hot Dogs Today

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In spite of any bad reputation swirling around hot dogs about mysterious meats, there’s no doubt that Americans still love their wieners and frankfurters: According to NAMI’s Hot Dog & Sausage Council, in 2014, consumers spent more than $2.5 billion on hot dogs in U.S. supermarkets.

Crowding into that field as well are restaurants dedicated wholly to elevating the humble hot dog to a gourmet level — from Crif Dogs in New York to Billy’s Gourmet Dogs in Colorado, hot dogs are hot business.

For years in Chicago, land of the Vienna Beef hot dog, one man had people lining up every day to sample gourmet encased meats — Doug Sohn, the proprietor of Hot Doug’s Encased Meat Emporium in Chicago. If you know your frankfurters, you’ll also know, however, that his fans were left out in the cold when Sohn shuttered his restaurant in the fall of 2014. But that doesn’t mean he’s lost his grasp on hot dog lore.

Doug tells Consumerist that the gourmet resurgence of hot dogs these days could be, in part, due to those same ingredients that people once eschewed in favor or pricier cuts.

“With the rise in offals and the parts that years ago, you would throw away or turn your nose up at now are sought out and they’re prized because they taste really good,” Sohn explains.

The Ideal Wiener

As for what makes the ideal wiener, Sohn thinks it comes down to the texture — a fine, smooth grind inside, and again, the signature “snap!” of a well-made hot dog in a natural casing.

“It not only adds flavor to it because there’s flavor in the actual casing, but also that combination of textures,” he says. “So you’ve got this smoothness of the hot dog inside the casing and this crackly, firmer texture of the casing.”

That, and it’s got to be delicious. Which you can get in a hot dog at a stadium or on sale at the grocery store, as Sohn thinks even those caseless dogs have gotten better over the years, despite their tendency to be a bit mushier, which he maintains “is not that pleasant.”

“The hot dog itself should have sort of a bold flavor,” explains Doug, adding that this boldness is often missing in non-gourmet hot dogs.

“They just don’t taste like anything. You sometimes get the salt, but that’s it,” he explains. You don’t get that really nice heady meat flavor. And I really like the addition of a good amount of garlic, i just think that matches up really nicely.”

Geography Matters

One thing is for sure — no matter what region you live in, there’s likely a “right” way to make hot dogs, Sohn points out, allowing for a delightful variety in meats to go along with all the various condiments deemed appropriate in those areas (just try putting ketchup on a hot dog in Chicago and see if you don’t get driven straight out of town). At the end of the day, it all comes down to meat.

“Some are pork, some are beef, veal, some are combinations — and there are different flavors,” Sohn notes. “How much garlic, how much salt — the Chicago hot dog is different from the northern New Jersey dog from something in California or Detroit. So many areas have their real distinct style of what would be considered their hot dog.”

For more on how hot dogs are made, Riley pointed us to the below video from NAMI: