When my son and his wife visited with their daughters last week, the consensus for dinner was hamburgers and hot dogs on the grill. These choices were noteworthy in that I honestly can’t remember the last time I ate a hot dog. Sweet Italian sausage? A couple of times a month cut up into a stir-fry of vegetables. Beer brats? Also delicious, hot off the grill with a little mustard. But a hot dog is child’s play by comparison. Or should I say, a “dachshund sausage”?
It’s true. The Germans, who by all accounts can take credit for the invention of the hot dog (five hundred years ago!) nicknamed their frankfurters “dachshunds” – or “little-dog” sausages because, well, they looked exactly like the dog breed. The only history Americans claim is the re-nickname “hot dog”. Even the hot dog bun – which really took hold at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 – points back to the Germans, who always ate their sausages with bread.
Are hot dogs a staple in your diet, or like me are they simply a distant memory? If they weren’t hot off the grill in the backyard or at a summer picnic, perhaps you had one at a baseball game (but not so much football or basketball, go figure). You’ve probably also seen hot dogs on the midway at carnivals and county fairs. Wherever you get your franks today, they’re just not as likely to come from established restaurants.
In the 1970s, America seemed to have hot dog stands on every corner. The most popular of these was the distinctive drive-thru Der Wienerschnitzel’s, but you also had – at least from my California-based memory – Pup ‘N’ Taco, Ben Franks, Tail o’ the Pup, and the walk-up Hot Dog on-a-Stick booths you’d find at amusement parks. Today’s retail hot dog is at a Sonic Drive-In or the food court at Costco. If you live anywhere near New York’s Coney Island, you can also include “Nathan’s Famous”, or at least the annual hot dog eating contest of the same name.
A hot dog may be “a cooked sausage eaten in a long, soft piece of bread”, but its secondary meanings are less definitive. “Hot Dog!” is something you used to say when you were VERY happy about something else (“used to”, meaning sixty or seventy years ago). A “hot dog” is also a person “who makes fast, skillful movements in skiing, snowboarding, or surfing to make people notice them”. That last definition still stands.
Speaking of “used to say”, we also used to sing about hot dogs, didn’t we? Oscar Mayer’s jingle convinced us we should BE hot dogs (so everyone would be in love with us). But the better song came from Armour, which asked us what kind of kids eat Armour hot dogs? Per the lyrics, “…fat kids, skinny kids, kids that climb on rocks… tough kids, sissy kids, even kids with chicken pox…” Today’s version of the Armour jingle would probably be censored just for using the word “kids”.
Hot dogs will always be a childhood memory more than a dietary preference in my book. My mother, raising five hungry boys, developed several dinner recipes when time and ingredients were in short supply. These included canned baked beans and weenies (two ingredients = dinner!), and a truly odd creation from the Betty Crocker cookbook made up of hot dogs, mashed potatoes, and cheese (three ingredients!). Whether it tasted good or not – I honestly can’t remember – dogs, mash, and cheese conveniently covered the protein, carb, and fat categories, all in one broiler-blasted casserole.
My most vivid childhood hot dog memories are not the dinners mentioned above. Instead, I can’t forget snacking on raw hot dogs from the refrigerator (which sounds awful now, but hey, I was a kid). My mother was faithful to the Oscar Mayer brand so I ate a lot of their hot dogs raw. Speaking of Oscar Mayer, here’s the better memory. They built a motorized advertisement which to this day may be the coolest vehicle on wheels. The “Wienermobile” cruised the streets of Los Angeles, stopping every now and then in a parking lot so you could view it up close. The driver handed out tiny plastic replicas of the vehicle, appropriately labeled “Weenie Whistles”.
Let me conclude with a solved hot dog mystery. Your grocery store sells most brands in packages of ten. They also sell hot dog buns but in packages of eight. Why? Because hot dogs weigh about 1.6 ounces, which makes a package of ten a convenient sale of exactly one pound of meat. On the other hand, hot dog buns are baked in trays of four, which work best with conveyor belts and processing. An odd number of buns – trays of five – is a model of inefficiency. So until one or the other manufacturer changes their standard, you’ll always have leftovers for snacks. Or better yet, for your dog.
The hot dogs I served my granddaughters last week were comically advertised as healthy: no fillers, no preservatives, and so on. They weren’t very good. Maybe the worst part of a hot dog is what makes it taste so good? Or maybe hot dogs have simply lost their appeal to me? No, wait, that can’t be true. Anything my granddaughters ask me to eat has instant appeal.
Guess I haven’t eaten my last little-dog sausage just yet.