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Dogged Pursuits, page two

"In my opinion," says Bruce Kraig, a culinary historian who specializes in food and culture, "a real hot dog is all beef. It's meaty, thick, juicy, it has snap and more flavor than the kid's hot dog. It's a wonderful, sensual mouthfeel on a really good hot dog. Texture and flavor put together."

The Web site of the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council puts it differently: "All hot dogs are cured and cooked sausages that consist of mainly pork, beef, chicken and turkey or a combination of meat and poultry. Meats used in hot dogs come from the muscle of the animal and looks [sic] much like what you buy in the grocer's case."

Josee Meehan, of the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, calls the hot dog a "center-of-plate protein." "The hot dog is a blank canvas," Meehan explains. "You can do just about anything with it."

One of the things the council does with it is to throw an annual hot dog party on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. It's a lobbying event where friends of the hot dog and meat industry (the council is part of the American Meat Institute) show their appreciation for campaign contributions and their love of what is a national symbol. Last year, during National Hot Dog Month in July, Congressmen Charles Stenholm (D-TX) and Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) were the official hosts and retired major league baseball players Jim Rice, Kent Tekulve and Greg Luzinski showed up to sign autographs and bolster the connection between baseball and the hot dog.

What goes into that "center-of-plate protein" is the stuff of legend. The U.S. government's Food Safety and Inspection Service guidelines say hot dogs can "consist of not less than 15 percent of one or more kinds of raw skeletal muscle meat with raw meat by-products. The by-products (heart, kidney or liver, for example) must be named with the derived species and be individually named in the ingredient statement." The dog can contain no more than 30 percent fat "or no more than 10 percent water, or a combination of 40 percent fat and added water. Up to 3.5 percent nonmeat binders and extenders or 2 percent isolated soy protein may be used, but must be shown in the ingredients statement on the product's label by its common name." You've been warned.

The process by which hot dogs are made is what distinguishes them from other sausages. Hot dogs are emulsified. That means that the ingredients are "comminuted"—reduced to minute particles—in huge vats that create a paste. Emulsification technically means that the molecules of different substances are combined into one. That's how all the major makers manufacture their hot dogs, irrespective of what's in them. In the manufacturing process, the hot dogs all have casings into which the paste is pushed. Those that are to be sold as skinless have a cellulose or plastic casing that is removed at the end of the mechanized line before they are packaged. That's how the Vienna Beef company of Chicago does it.

Chicago, some calculate, has more independent hot dog stands than there are McDonald's and Wendy's in the city's metropolitan area. Most of the stands buy their dogs from Vienna Beef, founded in 1894 or 1895 by immigrants Emil Reichel and Samuel Ladanyi. The story goes that the "canonical" Chicago dog, as Kraig calls it, was created at Vienna Beef (then Vienna Sausage) in the 1920s when a Hungarian sausage maker, whose name is not remembered by history, brought his recipe with him and started working there. While the founders chose Vienna as the name of their company in an effort to associate with the Austrian capital's reputation for high-quality cuisine, the sausage that actually became the prototype for the hot dog of the Windy City finds its origins in Frankfurt, Germany. The Viennese sausage, known in Austria as wienerwurst, contained at least 30 percent veal. Wieners, as they came to be known, were also finer, longer sausages. Frankfurters, the German sausages, were all beef. The canonical Chicago and New York dogs are all beef these days and the names "frankfurter" and "wiener" are interchangeable in common usage, though the names do apply to different sausages.

The name "hot dog," which came into common usage in the 1920s, is also interchangeable and there is much dispute about the name's origins. The popular myth goes that in 1901, a concessionaire at the Polo Grounds in New York City, home of the baseball Giants, decided to sell "dachshund" sausages, small links that earned their name in Germany because of their resemblance to the torso of the canine in question, which is also commonly referred to as a "weiner (sic) dog." The hawkers would yell something that indicated the sausages were "red hot" and from that, a local sports cartoonist for the now defunct New York Journal drew a picture of barking dachshunds nestled in buns. He purportedly tagged them "hot dogs."

Baloney, say historians. No such cartoon has ever been found, though others drawn later by the same artist exist with similar images of dogs barking in buns. According to researchers Barry Popick and David Shulman, the phrase "hot dog" shows up in the 1890s in Yale and Princeton University magazines in reference to a sausage wagon called the Kennel Club with the name "hot dog" used. The term was a joke about the shape of the sausages and speculation as to what was in them.

How the hot dog became a sandwich is equally hotly debated. In the nineteenth century, sausages were already popular in the United States thanks to heavy immigration from Europe. The modern hot dog has its strongest "links" to Eastern European and German sausage styles. Sausages were sold from pushcarts and in stores in Chicago and New York as early as the 1860s. In 1871, Charles Feltman, a German immigrant, opened a sausage stand at Coney Island. In the style of his homeland, he served his sausages with a roll, but not necessarily in the roll. Most serious culinary historians believe that the Germans probably established the practice of putting sausages in a roll at some point or that the dog migrated into the bun in a sort of natural evolution in the latter part of the nineteenth century when the sandwich had become popular in America. The term "hot dog sandwich" came into use around the late 1800s.

In 1893, the Columbian Exposition in Chicago attracted thousands of visitors. They ate copious amounts of sausage, including those sold by Oscar Mayer. He had founded his company 10 years earlier. In 1904, at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri, a legend was formed about the hot dog marrying the bun. Anton Feuchtwanger, a Bavarian sausage maker, was a vendor at the expo and, as the story goes, would lend a white glove to his customers so that they would not soil their hand while eating the sausage. Finding that the gloves were not being returned, Feuchtwanger asked a relative who happened to be a baker to make a long, rounded bun into which his "red hots," as he called them, would fit. Perhaps it was luck that the hot dog somehow eluded becoming the Feuchtwanger. The "wanger?"

In 1893, also in St. Louis—where claims are laid to the invention of the hamburger and also peanut butter—Chris Von der Ahe, the owner of a bar and the St. Louis Browns baseball club, reportedly began the tradition of selling hot dogs at ball games by putting the pup into a bun. This tale is as believable and as fanciful as any of the others, including those that are admittedly fictional. In his novel, If I Never Get Back (1989, Plume Books) Darryl Brock, who is ever in search of the perfect chili dog, tells the story of time-traveling Sam Fowler, who was riding on a modern-day Amtrak train. When he gets off in Cleveland, Sam finds himself in the year 1869.

"Bewildered at first," the explanation goes on the back cover of the book, "Sam soon meets up with the Cincinnati Red Stockings, baseball's first all-professional team, and begins to ride the rails with them on their first national tour across post-Civil War America. He encounters a political conspiracy, a get-rich-quick scheme with Mark Twain, and through it all, the shaky-legged beginnings of America's favorite pastime...before it ever was!"

During his travels, Sam puts to good use his knowledge of how baseball fed its fans in the twentieth century. After realizing the lack of concessions of the time, he eventually introduces hot dogs to the hungry customers watching the games. A few pages later, everything new was old again. Or something like that.

"The day's big news involved our concessions," Sam, the narrator, explains. "At a booth beside the clubhouse, the smells of hamburgers and hot dogs wafted over the grounds for the first time. A world premiere, so far as I knew. Johnny and I had brought in a small wagonload of supplies early that morning. While Helga unpacked our custom-baked round and long buns, we set up a grill and went to work.

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