There is an old saying with many variations, the gist of which is, "Making laws and making sausages are both disgusting processes." The quote is often attributed to Otto Von Bismark but according to Yale's Fred Shapiro (writing for the Times), it was actually lawyer-poet John Godfrey Saxe who said "Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made." In any case, jokes about the nastiness of hot dog production date back to the 1800's.
Most mass-produced hot dogs are made from a mix of beef, pork and chicken "trim." Common ingredients also include water, artificial flavors, corn syrup and curing agents. And it turns out Saxe was right; it's not a pretty picture. (Check out the Science Channel's How It's Made minisode at left, which shows the start-to-finish process at an industrial scale hot dog plant, at your own risk.)
Americans eat a whopping 20 billion hot dogs every year and according to the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council, we put down 150 million of them every 4th of July. The hot dog may be as American as apple pie, but this summertime favorite is not without controversy, past or present.
Like its grill-top cohort, the burger, the hot dog is a food of commoners, which makes its history difficult to trace, but both definitely have roots in Germany, where the hot dog was served at the 13th century crowning of Maximilian II, beginning a tradition of serving Frankfurter Würstchen at every imperial coronation thereafter. By the time it made its way across the pond, the hot dog had lost its royal connection -- by around 1860, immigrants were pushing hot dog carts on the streets of New York City.
In 1870, a German immigrant named Charles Feltman started selling sausages on buns at Coney Island. In 1916, one of his employees, Polish-American Nathan Handwerker, decided to open his own shop and undercut his former boss by half the price of a dog (a nickel to Feltman's dime), and Nathan's Famous was born.
Every summer, Nathan's holds its annual July Fourth International Hot Dog Eating Contest, a tradition that reportedly dates back to a challenge between four immigrants bent on proving their patriotism. Today, the Brooklyn contest draws approximately 40,000 to Coney Island and nearly 2 million in live television viewers.
American-born Joey Chesnut holds the current title but for most of the early 2000s, it was held by Takeru Kobayashi, a competitive eater from Japan who, unwilling to sign an exclusive contract with Nathan's, has abstained from the official contest since 2009 and remained controversial fringe character since. In 2011, he beat his own record next to a live telecast of the competition on a Manhattan rooftop. Also in 2011, the formerly coed contest became a gendered event, with separate tracks for men and women. Sonya Thomas took the women's title with 40 HDB (hot dogs and buns). Side note: in 2007, my friend Jerusha was a judge -- here's her up-close, first-hand glimpse into the world of competitive hot dog eating.
If the hot dog is an icon of Americana, it's also an emblem of an unhealthy Western diet.
To be sure, hot dogs and other cured meats are some of the very worst for you. A 2010 Circulation study found that even small amounts of processed meats (under 2 oz. a day) increased risk of diabetes and coronary heart disease by 19 and 42 percent, respectively. Fat and salt are culprits, but much of the problem is in the nitrates (and nitrites), which are formed on the meat during the curing process - even when the curing agents are natural ones (including celery powder and celery juice, typical ingredients in "natural" and organic dogs).
Frustratingly, the USDA labeling convention around this is super confusing and requires that dogs cured with natural curing agents to be labeled as "un-cured." (For more on that, see this Times article from last summer, which cites a study in The Journal of Food Protection, which found that "natural hot dogs had anywhere from one-half to 10 times the amount of nitrite that conventional hot dogs contained.")
The food safety mavens at Consumer Reports point out that un-cured sausages pose their own risk in botulism -- the point is, really, that you shouldn't eat like hot dogs like a competitive eater.
A note to the mommies and daddies: kids love hot dogs, but their cylindrical shape makes them easy to choke on, and they account for a whopping 17 percent of child choking cases in the US, so many that advocates have lobbied for warning labels on packages. Do your little one a favor and cut that dog up.
In May, a class action lawsuit was filed against ConAgra, alleging that Hebrew National hot dogs do not meet kashrut standards. Employees of a firm called AER, which provides the meat for Hebrew Nationals, reported to AER supervisors as well as a rabbi from Triangle K, a New York-based kosher certification company, that they had observed slaughterhouse procedures that were not kosher. ConAgra, not surprisingly, denies the charges.
The 2006 UN FAO study Livestock's Long Shadow famously reported that the livestock sector accounts for 18 percent of the greenhouse gases that cause climate change, and 8 percent of global water use. The larger the animal, the larger its "footprint," but all meat requires significant resources in terms of feed and water, and the factory farm system under which the vast majority of US meat is produced causes significant environmental damage, including air and water pollution and soil degradation.
A recent report, What's Your Beef? from the UK's highly reputable National Trust suggests that indeed, grassfed beef is more environmentally sound, partly through demonstrating that grazed land helps to sequester carbon, off-setting the emissions of the animals grazing it. And though the public debate has largely focused on them over the past few years, greenhouse gas emissions are just one of the environmental impacts of beef production -- and arguably not even the most important (see water pollution, other air pollutants, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, etc.).
Meat from grassfed and pastured animals is also better for you, because it contains a healthier ratio of Omega 3s to Omega 6s, has a lower fat content in general and is loaded with vitamins and nutrients.
Veterinarian and farmer Patricia Whisnant, who runs Rain Crow Ranch with her husband Mark and their children, happily tells me that since they started offering grassfed hot dogs, they haven't been able to keep up with the demand for them.
"We launched our Rain Crow Ranch hot dogs last spring and were very pleased with their success. The price is within range of its high end conventional counterparts so it is a good starting point to step into the grassfed world. Families love the idea of 100 percent grassfed beef from whole muscle cuts, no chemicals and simple spices."
If all this hasn't killed your appetite for a hot dog, here's the deal. In general, we recommend eating animal products in moderation and opting for higher quality (grassfed) meat. When possible, buy direct from a farmer or rancher who raises animals on pasture -- not only will the beef you buy be better for you and the environment, but you'll also be helping to support your local economy.
Between the environmental impact of meat production and the health problems associated with cured meats, you might be -- wisely -- inclined toward vegetarian hot dogs instead.
I asked my husband, a former vegan who will now eat almost anything (but will also critique it to death) which veggie dogs he favored, to which he replied flatly, "There are no good veggie dogs. There are some good veggie sausages, though." His argument is that sausages rely more on seasoning than hot dogs, which are tasty mostly because of the salt and curing. We really like Field Roast's apple and sage sausage, and he notes that Tofurky makes some good sausages too (though he insists that their dogs are as bad as anyone else's).
Grilling, while delicious, is not without its health risks. The good news is, hot dogs are almost always cooked before they're packaged, so they can be warmed up away from the hottest part of the grill, one of the Consumers Union's suggestions for avoiding the formation of those carcinogenic heterocyclic amines (HCAs).
As for how to cook it most deliciously, I'd take a long look at the two source links included in the Regional Flavors section below and try to compliment my hot dog with the best toppings available. Then, check this brilliant CHOW tip -- I haven't tried it yet I think the spiral cut could be a hot dog game-changer.
This post was originally published in July 2012.