Tomorrow, 23 July, is “National Hot Dog Day”. At least in the US it is. As designated by the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council, no less. A festival revolving around eating hot dogs, wiener dog races, root beer chugging contests and face painting. You know the kind of thing.
I’m not a huge fan of hot dogs. All that salt and fat and corn syrup? Sodium nitrate and other nitritey preservative stuff? But I guess my detective character Moss Reid would find them a strange enigma. For a start, let’s find out what they physically are. Hope you’ve already had your breakfast…
It looks disgusting. At times almost NSFW. Reminiscent of documentaries about sewage treatment plants. All that meat sludge (pork, beef and chicken “trimmings”) that are “churned out like sausages” and turned into “a mouthwatering meal”?
Yet this miraculous transformation is all part of the strange mystery of the hot dog.
Its origins – probably in smallscale charcuterie in central Europe – are lost in the mists of time. (Please insert special effects of mists of time here in the film version of this blog post.) It harks back to older methods and frugal ways; using every bit of the animal, nose to tail, not just the fancy cuts. Respect that.
Yet nowadays it’s highly industrialised and largescale too, as in the video above. Frankfurters are the ultimate in modern processed gunge, a severe case of what the industry likes to call “advanced meat recovery”.
But what exactly are the historical roots and geographical origins of the hot dog? Somewhere in Austria or Switzerland? The more Germanic region of France? Or, stating the obvious, in Frankfurt am Main in Germany? All a bit vague. (Please switch off the mists of time machine – it’s getting far too foggy in here.)
The American icon
Yet while they may have originated Europe, once they reached the other side of the Pond they became so absolutely thoroughly American. Iconic and everywhere, from the hot dog stands on city streets to the fans in the baseball stands. American popular culture is good at that: assimilating stuff from the old world, grabbing it by the scruff of the neck and making it its own.
In Ireland you’ll often come across frankfurters in packets (and jars and tins) in supermarkets and other food outlets. They are probably much more common since workers and their families arrived from Eastern European countries during the boom.
Even so, they are nothing like the cultural phenomenon that they are in the States. They never will be, because how American can you get, with all those regional variations (from corn dogs to beanie weanies) and a National Hot Dog Day?
And another thing: when did they become “hot dogs”? What’s the “dog” bit? Was it to do with dog meat?
Does the hot dog refer just to the sausage, or does it mean the whole shebang with the bun and so on? As in the classic street grub combo: the hot frankfurter wrapped in a soft fluffy white roll with mustard (and possibly a splosh of ketchup and some fried onions that are beginning to caramelise)? Still confusing. (Turn off that bleddy mist machine!)
Taste, texture, smell and…
Take the meat out of the bread roll and consider it in isolation. What makes the frankfurter so yummy? The smoky smell before you’ve even started to tuck in? The taste – a little bland perhaps, but with the slight hint of spicy paprika and garlic? The fairly smooth texture, and the rubbery outer skin that – unlike a sausage or a black pudding – is caseless yet somehow encases it?
How do they do that? Skinless hot dogs? Watch that video and see how it’s done.
In France they call them saucisses de Strasbourg. Or knacks – from the German verb knacken. That, apparently, is the sound made as your teeth break into the sausage skin.
Perhaps that’s the ultimate strange thing about frankfurters. They have not just a different texture and taste and smell to other food: hot dogs even have a different sound.
(PS: You may have noticed that throughout the above I’ve tried to avoid any temptation to refer to the sausage’s obvious phallic shape and its cartoony qualities. You’ve had enough to deal with in those images from the meat factory.)
(PPS: And not once did I mention that a hot dog factory would be a damn interesting murder scene in a crime novel.)
(PPPS: Mind you, if you want a more upmarket and less bland alternative to the factory-made hot dog, think North African and Southern Mediterranean – try substituting a good spicy merguez sausage for the frankfurter; add a few salad ingredients to it such as sliced ripe tomato, raw red onion, crisp lettuce; maybe pitta bread instead of the bread roll or bap; oh, and a good dollop of hummus and a sprinkling of smoked paprika.)
(PPPS: Have you turned it off yet?)