We’ve partnered with Rooster Street Butcher Shop in Lititz, PA to add some Happy Valley Meat hot dogs to our offerings (though the USDA doesn’t let us call them hot dogs because they don’t have nitrates, so “Uncured Smoked Sausage” for those in Washington). In honor of turning our Happy Valley Meat into the most familiar, yet mysterious of meat treats, we’re taking a dive into what makes a hot dog, a hot dog.
Hot dogs, the quintessential American mystery meats, are simultaneously feared and adored. For over a century, at ballparks and on playgrounds, in mine shafts and at church picnics, folks have been overcoming their curiosity about the ingredients of these alarmingly pink meat-like foods and chowing down.
Ancient Rome and Gaius the Genius
It all starts with sausage. And sausage, so goes the mythology, all starts with Nero. Emperor of Rome for 30 years starting in 37 AD, Nero is otherwise notable for being a real butthole. He had a bunch of soldiers bump off his own mother, and later murdered a whole mess of other Romans whom he suspected of disloyalty. Vicious bloodshed aside, history shines favorably on Nero for his decision to employ the plucky cook, named Gaius, that great-grandfathered ballpark weenies. Gaius the Plucky, one evening whilst preparing a whole hog for his murderous boss, discovered that some of his kitchen minions had failed to remove the guts before roasting it. He cut open the belly and discovered that the intestines (empty due to a customary week of starvation for pigs bound to slaughter) had been puffed by the heat. He stuffed those puppies full of the ground meat of wild game, some spices, a little extra fat, and KABOOM! Sausaggio.
From there, the hot dog’s ancestors traveled through Italy to Germany. The Germans really took this sausage idea and ran with it. What goes better with beer and kraut than sausage? Not a frischen thing. Hamlets and burgs all over Germany developed their proprietary recipes, often naming the resulting sausage after its hometown. Dozens and dozens of the sausages that make it onto our grills these days trace their meatline back to a German town. Chief among them is the weenie. Two German towns jockey for the right to claim the weenie as their own. If you’re inclined to believe the good people of Frankfurt, it was they who sired the hot dog (they mark 1484 as the year of inception). Vienna says that’s bogus, and points to the “wienerwurst” (Vienna is Wien in German) as the grandpappy of the American weenie.
God Bless the US
Whatever the case may be as regards the hot dog’s early days in Germany, it is a matter of public record that the hot dog owes its popularity in the States to a Jewish immigrant from Poland, Nathan Handwerker. Nathan took a job slicing hot dog buns at Coney Island, eventually saved up enough money to start his own stand, and quickly drove his former employer out of business. Thus was born the weenie empire of the man this article joyfully refers to as the “hardworking Handwerker”. Before long, weenies were ubiquitous in New York and inextricable from baseball.
The National Hot Dog and Sausage Council - chief advocates for the nefarious “big hot dog” lobby - indicates the following as the official recipe for a weenie:
Combination of beef and pork or all beef which is cured, smoked and cooked; seasonings may include coriander, garlic, ground mustard, nutmeg, salt, sugar and white pepper; fully cooked but usually served hot; terms “frankfurter,” “wiener” and “hot dog” often used interchangeably; sizes range from big dinner frankfurters to small cocktail size; may be skinless or with natural casings. Cooked, smoked sausage.
The contents of hot dogs have been the source of much speculation and dismay over the years. Not for nothin’. Food safety standards have only improved since the hardworking Handwerker was first slinging his dogs on Coney Island, and even now the meat that goes in a weenie is referred to with terms like “pink slime” and “meat slurry”.
Of course, a hot dog is as good or scary as the meat it’s made from. There’s nothing icky about eating meat trimmings if they’re good meat—sausage has long been a delicious use for the pieces of an animal that are otherwise unmarketable. The truth of the matter is that hot dogs aren’t scary because they may contain cat meat or toenails. They’re scary if they contain mass-produced, miserably treated pork or beef. This is surely no news to you, dear meatie.
Don’t miss the Oscar Mayer Weiner Song. If it’s been more than a few days since you revisited this gem of American consumer culture, fire it up!