How putrid tubes of mystery meat became America's most 'Merican food

How putrid tubes of mystery meat became America's most 'Merican food

CultureJuly 03, 2017 By Isabelle Kohn

This Fourth of July, Americans will consume 150 million hot dogs. According to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council — which is a thing — that's enough to make a line from Washington, D.C., all the way to Los Angeles more than five times. Half the god damn country will spend Independence Day biting into a processed protein stick, a massive figure which begs the question: How did the hot dog become the ultimate meaty emblem of American freedom? Why do we choose to celebrate our storied independence as a nation by munching on tubes of processed and dubious mystery meat?

According to the writings of hot dog historian Bruce Kraig, part of the reason America is so obsessed with hot dogs is because they transcend every level of society. Their appeal is indiscriminate — every class, race, gender, and political delineation loves a good dog, despite collectively viewing them as a cheap and somewhat suspect snack. The fact that presidents eat them in public to seem more down-to-earth while the poorest people eat them to survive makes them the great equalizer, an edible symbol of the American ideal that all men are created equal.

You see, those oily meat hoses represent all of us — every player in the American Dream game from the industrious immigrant, to the brilliant businessman, to the creative chef, to the boy at the ballpark fuck with the humble hot dog, weaving together a popular image synonymous with uniquely American things like baseball, KOA camping and, of course, Coney Island. This ubiquity has created a nostalgia and cultural integration unrivaled by any other food (except perhaps the hot dog's mortal rival, the hamburger).

This association between hot dogs and 'Merican freedom has deep roots. In fact, the very history of America is the history of the hot dog — they truly are a patriotic creation, a product of the social and economic forces that have shaped this country. The biggest of these, in terms of hot dog history, are immigration and industrialization.

In his book "Man Bites Dog," Kraig describes how hot dogs were introduced to America by way of immigrants who used their own diverse cultural roots to create the versions we know and love today. Because of their association with immigration, they're also heavily related to the American Dream and the idea that, for many immigrants, "food is the way up."

That was definitely true for German and Austrian immigrants in the 1860s who started selling bastardized variations of fancier European sausages in street carts in order to integrate into American society and make money in a strange new land where both the language and culture was unfamiliar. In turned out that sausage vending was a cheap and easy home business that afforded upward mobility for them, and soon, Greek, Jewish and Polish immigrants began slanging their own street meat as well. By the end of the 19th century, sausage carts were everywhere that immigrants were, a permanent fixture on urban streets across the country.

"I mean, the immigrant experience, people came with no money at all," Kraig said. "Let's say we're talking about 1900 — you could buy a sausage for a penny and the other accouterments for a penny and you  could sell it for a nickel. And that's the way you move up in the world. This was an American idea."

Hot dogs also united immigrants and people from different cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds. Sausages of some sort were a common feature in the diets of most European countries from which many Americans had immigrated, and the fact that all of them could not only eat, but profit from a version of it in their new home leveled the playing field and broke down walls where they'd otherwise be.

However, the early warm canines of yesteryear were a little more finessed than they are today.

According to Salon, "Early frankfurters were prepared in small butcher shops or kitchens and probably featured a coarser grind of meat than does the average modern hot dog, which is the product of emulsifying technology. But it’s hard to pinpoint 'average.' Even today, the definition of 'hot dog' is vague: Hot dogs can be made of beef or pork or both, with or without casings. According to the Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink: 'Most hot dogs are made from emulsified or finely chopped skeletal meats, but some contain organs and other ‘variety’ meats.” Mm-mmm!

Industrialization is largely to blame for hot dogs' eventual foray into the world of processed, weird meat, yet it also contributed heavily to their popularization and subsequent ubiquity in the bellies of all Americans. The advent of the heavy machinery, big factories, assembly lines and industrial agriculture our country was built upon made large-scale food production easy and commonplace, and no food is more easily processed and produced for mass consumption than the hot dog. They're cheap, the machinery is simple, and they can be readily frozen, making them the ultimate low-cost snack. And what's more American than mass producing a processed food item that contributes to obesity and heart disease amongst our nation's poorest citizens? Don't answer that.

Hot dogs are also weirdly political. In 1938 Eleanor Roosevelt insisted that hot dogs be on the menu when Crown Princess Louise of Sweden picnicked with the Roosevelts on Duchess Hill. However, because hot dogs were viewed as so indelibly lower class and far beyond what royalty should have to stomach, a controversy ensued. Eleanor was public enemy #1 for a while for her unspeakable rudeness, however, when the queen finally visited, the meal was a success. To the embarrassment of Sweden's royal advisers, the king even returned for a second helping of savory cylinders.

This incident prompted the term called “hot dog diplomacy,” an actual political strategy for winning foreign diplomats over that was most recently applied to President Obama’s dealings with Iran. So, healthy international relations — the kind that built America's early reputation as a world leader — actually were facilitated by the plebeian meal. 

Hot dogs have also become a platform for regional variations, which have come to collectively represent the diverse tastes of America's equally diverse population.

"They become regional because immigrant groups like Greeks move to Detroit, and for added value they put something on the hot dog to compete with others," says Kraig. That competition has lead to a vast array of hot dog biodiversity, from slaw dogs in the South to the bacon-wrapped Tijuana dog in the Southwest. Those, as well as the poppy seed bun on Chicago-style dogs, the reindeer meat in Alaska's variation and Jersey's disgusting-sounding breakfast dogs all function as mascots for regional America, contributing to the very American sense that though we are all different, we're also all one. Who knew hot dogs could be so meta?

And just how did they get that sexy-sounding name? Quiet morbidly, it turns out.

Kraig says it came from the old-timey song "Oh Where, Oh Where Has My Little Dog Done," a beautiful melody about a dog that was put in a hot dog machine.

"People would say when a butcher moved into town, all the cats and dogs disappeared, so it's that jokey word," he said, which is a really swell image.

Well, they definitely taste like your childhood cat took a wrong turn into a meat grinder, but you know what? It doesn't matter. Half a nation, populated largely by immigrants, industry and politicians, all enjoying their terrifying flavor at once is more than enough to justify a Fourth of July frankenfurter or five. Enjoy?