The hot dog has never gone out of style, but that doesn’t mean it’s always been respected. From cracks about New York’s “dirty water” dogs to urban legends about what’s actually in your average tubesteak, it’s taken its fair share of knocks from a PR perspective. But if you consider the American wiener in the context of the country’s broader culinary landscape, the hot dog looks primed for a coup.
But the real game-changer is the resurgence of nose-to-tail cooking—when every part of the animal is used, so no meat goes to waste—which has reached a heightened level of popularity thanks to offal-mad chefs like Chris Cosentino and Jamie Bissonnette, a resurgence in butcher shops, and mainstream whole-animal festivals such as Cochon 555, which holds its final show down in Aspen next month.
At least that’s what Janet Riley, certified “Queen of the Wien” and president of the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, believes. “When Americans raised their own livestock, they tried to use every part of the animal. No one used to go to a grocery store and choose what cut they wanted.”
The further we got from farm life and butchering, the more we relied on packaging to make choices about what to eat. “Food regulations are strict in the U.S. and require manufacturers to list everything on the label, and they check up on it weekly,” says Riley. “We tend to export most variety meats to other countries.”
Sure, some people don’t favor eating “primitively,” but let’s be honest: What is really more primitive than an American with a napkin bib fisting a dozen hot dogs into his mouth in a matter of minutes? The distinctly American hot dog eating competition is nauseating (though fascinating) in part because these are hot dogs—the rubbery, faux-meat that we’ve wolfed down despite our parents’ warning at barbecues since we were six.
“Hot dogs are the stuff of memories,” says Riley. “They’re consumed at family picnics and ballparks; kids love them. They are in countless songs and famous movie scenes. Even though hot dogs came from Germany and Austrian immigrants, they are the ultimate American food.”
Indeed—and they are as much wholly American as they are a testament to the American regional cuisine. In Riley’s hometown of Chicago, for instance, the classic local hot dog is topped with yellow mustard, relish, raw onion, peppers, sliced tomato, and a pickle, with a dash of celery salt and served in a poppy seed bun.
Even though hot dogs came from Germany and Austrian immigrants, they are the ultimate American food
“At the time, hot dogs were called the Depression-era sandwich,” she says. “Hot dog vendors were trying to one-up each other with toppings. It started with adding tomatoes, then pickles; and it graduated to serving practically a whole meal on top.”
So what is really in a hot dog that warrants such a bad rap?
“’What’s in it?’” says Riley. “That is the most common question I am asked, and the answer is really not that interesting.”
According to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council’s standards, hot dogs are simply a variety of sausage—like tequila is a type of mezcal—that has been cured and cooked; they consist of mainly pork, beef, chicken, and turkey, or a combination of meat and poultry.
Riley says the meat usually comes from small trimmings left over from butchering other cuts that you might find in the freezer section. These are blended with ice; seasonings like salt, pepper, and garlic; and curing agents like sodium nitrate. The exact blend depends on its maker, and fillers like cereal grains are sometimes used in budget varieties.
There are horror stories about cheapo brands lacing their dogs with everything from plastic to bugs. But when it comes to tales of pig snouts and ears in a properly produced hot dog, perhaps people’s gut reaction will shift as these items become more coveted at top-notch restaurants.
“It’s ironic that people are so wary about hot dogs containing some sort of mystery meat,” says Riley. “Yet now it’s becoming popular again to eat a whole animal—we’ve come completely full circle.”