Jamie’s Content Warning Corner
Before we begin, a few content warnings. “But Jamie, content warnings are for babies, I don’t need a ‘content’ ‘warning.’” Well, mind your business and turn the page, then.
In this book, there are occasionally frank (pun not intended but cannot access better word at this time) discussions of disordered eating, drug use, violence, and descriptions of working slaughterhouses. Much of the book isn’t about these topics, but some of it is, and I’ve tried to give you a heads-up where those sections are in case you’d rather read ahead. Take care of yourself; it is not worth it to sacrifice your mental health over my hot dog book even though I think it’s pretty good and thanks for picking it up.
These parts are important and unavoidable, but there’s good news: there are also descriptions of hot dogs I loved, there’s a picture of my cocker spaniel, there’re passages that get extremely horny out of nowhere. There’s a whole section about an intense fantasy I have where I get my shit rocked completely raw in Radiator Springs, which is the fictional town that the Cars franchise takes place in if you live under a rock. Depending on who you are, the Radiator Springs bit might be the worst part of all.
Next order of business—while true, all the events of this book took place some time ago! I’m fine. If you find yourself growing parasocially attached and wanting to ask if I’m fine, I am fine.
Not every hot dog place I visited is included in this book—it’s been edited for length and clarity, and to protect small businesses with shitty hot dogs.
And finally—if you’re standing in a big box store wondering if you should steal this book, the answer is yes.
A Word (Different from Jamie’s Content Warning Corner)
For a piece of Americana that virtually everyone has been forced to eat in celebration of European colonialism, there is stunningly little written about hot dogs in detail. There are a handful of books written with a swirl of research and love, and the assumption that you would only read a book about hot dogs because you love them. I will relieve you of that assumption. I would like to be a writer who can keep a cool distance from the subject, who can wait, like sitting meat, and look over at what interests me flirtatiously until it comes to me. That is not what I am like. I want to consume and be consumed by the objects of my desire until they make me sick; I want to puke them back out and rearrange them like tea leaves. I am a terrible flirt and an excellent hot dog eater. Tell me what’s interesting about you, and I will put it in my mouth, chew it up, and spit it out later on, never guaranteed to be better than I found it.
Think about how you feel about hot dogs right now, and let me know how you feel at the end. If it’s exactly the same, I promise I won’t write another one of these things.
My book is about hot dogs because like anyone, if you ask me a single follow-up question on the topic, I feel strongly about them. I grew up eating hot dogs boiled when my dad was left home alone with us, came of age with hot dogs sitting in a wet cardboard container at the bottom of my free-with-seventy-five-dollar-purchase tote bag “just in case,” got fired for tweeting about hot dogs after a cart sponsored by StubHub failed to pay me when I handed out lukewarm bacon-wrappeds after a Bruins game in 2013. The tweet said something akin to, say it with me, “fuck hot dogs.”
It’s my understanding that the best makers of and writers about food tell you a story—my grandmother who was trapped in a mine for fifteen years used to make me this soup; my husband turned into a mermaid and left me for a grad student who made a mean sourdough; learning how to make ramen at my apartment is self-care, praxis, body positivity, a radical political act, and pottery class. Food is a connector to one’s culture in the same way language can be—something that can launch you back onto a ratty couch during a commercial break where someone’s offering you either drugs or a Barbie doll depending on the year you’re airdropped into. The feelings some foods hold rattle in your skull, sink into your bones, and release into your toilet.
So I’m going to tell you a story, and you can tell me if it comes out of your plumbing in the same shape you took it in. This is a story about the summer of 2021, when everyone decided the plague had ended even though people were still dying, the year after Americans had grown so nostalgic for something bad and familiar to them while locked inside that hot dog sales leapt by more than 100 percent. This is a story about looking for a perfect hot dog and never finding it (spoilers ahead!), and you should know this trip doesn’t end well for anyone. Did I mention there were two of us at the beginning? Well, there aren’t now.
I traveled thousands of miles with a cat and a dog and a man, telling teenagers across this “great” “nation” that I’ll have whatever their regular is. I experienced the full spectrum of what it means to spend seventy-five dollars on a hotel. I fielded questions about “the nitrates,” questions about “the ketchup thing,” questions about whether someone’s aunt’s ex-husband still works at this stall in North Carolina, which he doesn’t because he died. I have had the arguments about whether it’s a sandwich (sure), whether it’s a taco (sure), whether there’s any truth whatsoever to that study that says each hot dog you eat takes thirty-six minutes off your life (I don’t buy it, and believe it is secretly funded by Big Lettuce).
I have had my ear talked off by business owners in it for the love of the game, by children of business owners who are in it out of obligation, by an actual child who runs a hot dog stand and makes them with steak, by an exhausted teenager preparing the tiniest hot dog I’ve ever seen and talking with the guy at the grill. I’ve seen all the signs: the neon signs; the distressed wooden signs; the all-lowercase, chic-font signs that tell you a quirky girl just got her trust fund and you’ll never believe what business she’s trying; the irrationally angry sign saying you’ll have to fucking wait a little longer because it would appear that the workers don’t feel like coming to work anymore.
I have become a hot dog snob, met a hot dog snob and wanted to walk into traffic, become a hot dog purist and fell asleep a snob again, all in the space of the state of New Mexico. I’ve woken up beside them, woken up from dreams of them, waved away sex after eating them, and been reminded of the sex I wasn’t having while looking at them. I’ve seen people of all genders with natural C-cups whip their tits out to watch a group of men nearly kill themselves eating them on the Fourth of July. I have seen an old biker and a young biker about to either fuck or have a lovely family outing share one with their lips dangerously close to each other. I have seen the machines, the goop, the paste, been certain that this would be the video, the person, the texture, the bowel movement to transition me to Brooklyn podcaster veganism, and never been correct.
Hot dogs are the kind of American that you know there is something deeply wrong with but still find endearing. They’re presented to people with no money as a filling and affordable alternative to health, all while people with too much money have found a way to charge fifteen fucking dollars for them. They’re high culture, they’re low culture, they’re sports food and they’re hangover food and they’re deeply American for reasons that few people can explain but everyone has been told their entire lives.
The hot dog, my hot dog, is the delicious and inevitable product of centuries of violence, poverty, ambition, whispers in human ears and knives in the throats, shoulders, and legs of cows, pigs, chickens, and, if you’re superstitious, maybe even the species they’re named for. Today she rolls around at the front of the 7-Eleven, is vacuumed into the gullets of champion eaters, sits beside a flag you are told you love from the time you start to form memories. She is not American at all, and the most American girl you could meet—all marketing, no substance.
A troubled girl who is cagey about her origins.
I followed the hot dog across the country over the course of several months in 2021, a period of time hereafter referred to as Hot Dog Summer. Starting in the Southwest, we wore no more than five shirts apiece all season, squirreling around the South and up the East Coast, pausing before hovering north and back down the Pacific Coast Highway. There was a lot of ground to cover, but that’s Miss Hot Dog’s way—she herself is an immigrant.
A hot dog is a whole lot of something shoved inside of something else, but you cannot, cannot confuse her with her father the sausage. A sausage is any meat shoved into casing with as many spices as you like, is tougher and less surgically precise in its production, does not require a large vat of pink goo to be smoked through for hours before being declared food. The hot dog is born of the sausage tradition, but insists on her own nastiness.
Here is her secret—the American hot dog is not American at all. Hot dogs are part of a massive family of meaty scraps in meaty casing from all around the world, but she holds her familial recipe in Germany, Poland, and Greece. Their sausage and meat sauce traditions immigrated to the United States over a century ago, only to become possessed by the lunatic frenzy of American individualism. The hot dog was willed into existence in name during the late nineteenth century on college campuses, in vaudeville performances, and in editorial cartoons, but early traces of her existence predate goddamn Jesus Christ.
The “ancestral sausage” goes back twenty thousand years to the Paleolithic era. The Geico mascots of yore didn’t have the machinery necessary to bring hot dogs to the masses, but they had the general idea: meat cooked in skins over open fires or in pits filled with hot water that, with all due respect, couldn’t have been much dirtier than New York hot dogs cooking on the sidewalk as you read this. The primordial dog pops up again in the Middle East during the first millennium BCE, appearing in Assyrian texts, then again when Homer’s The Odyssey turned blood sausages into a metaphor for you tell me what.
“As when a man near a great glowing fire turns to and fro a sausage, full of fat and blood, anxious to have it quickly roast,” Homer wrote. What do you think?
We find Little Miss Hot Dog again in Italy on one of her many journeys made possible due to the oppressors’ impulse to violently colonize and force their culture on others. I was raised to believe that commonalities between Greek and Roman mythologies could be chalked up to Italian insecurity and copy-cattery, but it’s yet another imperial tale. Even so, the Romans beat the Greeks to the sausage punch—the southern Italian province Luciana produced a sausage of the same name between the seventh and eighth centuries BCE.
Once colonized by the Greeks, the Romans violently forged west, bringing sausage with them to the banks of the Rhine, where the ancestral hot dog makes her first critical contact with Germans. Germany didn’t need the assist—there are German sausage recipes from as early as 228 CE, and hot dog historian Bruce Kraig has speculated that the two cultures likely developed their own sausage traditions without knowledge of the other. The exclusively pork sausage increased in popularity throughout the medieval era over the pork-and-beef-mixture alternative, becoming a staple throughout Europe and some parts of Asia for its ability to be preserved for long periods and its easy incorporation into working-class religious feasts. The dish continued to make appearances in pre-plumbing pop culture—in England, the fourteenth-century utopian poem “The Land of Cockaygne” features people filling themselves to the brim on walls of bright red sausages.
Germany continued to independently develop the sausage over the next few centuries, with the Thuringer, filled with pork, beef, and veal shoulder from the German Thuringia region, debuting in the early 1400s. Finally, between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, the hot dog’s parents were born: the maternal frankfurter and the paternal wiener.
Let’s not upset the family—frankfurters and wieners are not the same. German-style frankfurters are most commonly made with beef today, but began as smoked pork sausages prior to the beef-exclusive label from the Gef-Volsings company in the late nineteenth century. Wieners are of Austrian descent—precooked pork, beef, and veal mixtures most popularly canned as Vienna sausages in North America today. (In a confusing turn that will be far from the last in hot dog lore, the Chicago-famous Vienna Beef company serves all-beef dogs.) To the average consumer, the frankfurter and wiener are the same, but think of them as cousins in matching clothes on Easter.
Most regions of Europe developed their own form of sausage, with thicker ground meats finding local character in the form of Polish kielbasa, French boudins, and more than forty kinds of bratwurst. It’s these characters, along with frankfurters and wieners, that made their way across the Atlantic in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in order for the “all-American” hot dog to take shape.
The countries responsible for the majority of brutal North American colonization and subjugation of Indigenous people from the 1500s onward are Britain, France, and Spain, none of whom have a significant footprint in sausage or hot dog culture. Still, it’s important to note that it’s unlikely the sausage ever would have gotten to North America without western Europeans first perpetrating this violence. German families were present in the US as early as the 1600s, and sausage became a new tradition on stolen Indigenous land by the 1700s. The first cookbook to be published in the Thirteen Colonies, Eliza Smith’s The Compleat Housewife, included a painstaking recipe for home pork sausage preparation that involved mincing meat, mixing with leaf lard, preparing pig guts, stuffing extensively, smoking, and finally frying or grilling the entire situation. The book was written for the “gentlewoman” of the higher classes, but the meal that was simply meat stuffed into other meat wouldn’t achieve its status as a street-side staple until the Industrial era, thirty years after the publication of Smith’s book.
Once again, violence for the hot dog to make her way into your hand. Prior to the American Civil War in the 1860s, sausage was handmade in local butcheries—more accessible to the general public than centuries past, but not yet automated for the masses. Meat markets around this time were still dominated by finely ground pork, but lack of regulation and the general mystery of butchery fueled (often rightly placed) superstitions around what was really in these sausage things. Butcher and writer Thomas Farrington De Voe vocalized these industry-wide concerns in an 1867 appraisal of New York meat markets in The Market Assistant, warning that “there is danger, also, in the kind and quality of the flesh which some use, it being almost impossible to tell, from outward appearance, of what animal or in what condition the flesh was.”
This suspicion was compounded by the frequent presence of a bafflingly named “common pudding,” said to consist of pork skin, head meat, and pig’s liver stuffed into beef casing and cooked—a charcuterie of the supposedly inedible.
* * *
By the time the Industrial Revolution fully gripped the US, a new class of underpaid, overexerted workers was surviving paycheck to paycheck in the extremely dangerous meatpacking factories of the 1800s and early 1900s. This was where the most important legal intervention in the modern Miss Hot Dog’s young life took place—by writer Upton Sinclair, somewhat unintentionally. Sinclair’s 1906 novel-exposé, The Jungle, is a stunning work that remains one of the most effective recruiting tools to the socialist cause (about which I am enthusiastic—no, don’t put the book down) but is primarily remembered for its influence on legislation regarding American meatpacking plants.
The Jungle had a massive influence on American culture, but only one element of its protagonist’s complicated story had legal impact. Sinclair’s fictional Lithuanian immigrant, Jurgis Rudkus, attempts to secure the American dream for himself from within the working class, only to be met with predatory landlords, illness transmitted through unsanitary factory conditions, corrupt politicians buying votes, male bosses abusing and coercing female colleagues into sex in order to retain employment, police corruption, failed unions, jailing the poor instead of rehabilitative solutions, alcoholism, depression, drug addiction, grueling work hours, and neglected children. The ending is stunningly optimistic, with Jurgis losing everything before learning about the concept of socialism—a concept, it’s emphasized, that could theoretically land a nuclear bomb on the majority of obstacles he experienced in his American journey.
(An aside: I feel the need to include this rejection of The Jungle from Macmillan, the publisher behind the imprint that brought you the very book you’re reading. It says:
“I advise without hesitation and unreservedly against the publication of this book, which is gloom and horror unrelieved. One feels that what is at the bottom of his fierceness is not nearly so much desire to help the poor as hatred of the rich.”
Sinclair’s intention was to expose “an inferno of exploitation” stemming from his personal experience growing up as the child of poor immigrants in the late 1800s, then spending seven weeks undercover working at meatpacking plants in Chicago to accurately reflect the experiences of his protagonist. The American political machine had contempt for the labor issues expressed in the book, but its success couldn’t be ignored, and so they hedged their bets by tackling an important but not establishment-shaking cause—hot dog rights.
“I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach,” he joked of The Jungle’s popular reception in Cosmopolitan in October 1906.
President Theodore Roosevelt absolutely hated Sinclair’s work and loyalty to socialism, calling him a “crackpot,” “hysterical, unbalanced, and untruthful,” but did agree that some, some of the ammunition behind “the efforts of arrogant and selfish greed on the part of the capitalist” needed to be addressed. Reader, Roosevelt did not choose actual capitalism to address, nor the instances of police brutality or lack of healthcare access that so defined Jurgis’s struggle—he chose meatpacking plant conditions. This somewhat flippant decision directly led to three critical moves by the government in the year following The Jungle’s publication: the founding of the Food and Drug Administration and the passing of the Federal Meat Inspection Act in June 1906, as well as the Pure Food and Drug Act, focusing on consumer protections and labeling, in January 1907.
The Federal Meat Inspection Act’s history in particular has significant bearing on the journey of the hot dog. Roosevelt remained suspicious of the leftist leanings of Sinclair and other reporters whose work claimed severe safety and health risks in plants, and sent out his own goons (sorry, a labor commissioner and a dedicated civil servant) Charles P. Neill and James Bronson Reynolds to the same Chicago plants Sinclair had studied to confirm his findings. The boys returned similar reports—the working conditions and product were cutting corners in the interest of cost and time efficiency, resulting in an unsanitary environment for humans and animals alike. The Federal Meat Inspection Act was set into motion just four months after The Jungle’s publication. It demanded that livestock be inspected before slaughter, then again postmortem, in addition to implementing sanitation standards for slaughterhouses and meat processing plants with ongoing inspections from the US Department of Agriculture.
Copyright © 2023 by Jamie Loftus