1972 was a bad year for the hot dog. As if on cue, and with inspired fervor, people began lining up for the chance to land a well-placed kick.
- Oh I wish I were an Oscar Mayer
- wiener; that is what I truly want
- to be. For if I were an Oscar
- Mayer wiener, everyone would
- be in love with me.
“We have an optometrist next door who'll come in here and brag that his sex life is 40 percent better, and he says it’s because of our dogs.”
1972 WAS A BAD YEAR for the hot dog. As if on cue, and with inspired fervor, people began lining up for the chance to land a well-placed kick. First, Consumer Reports magazine decided to put frankfurters under the unflinching eye of their microscopes; the results were disheartening. Then came Ralph Nader barely a month later, armed with caustic one-liners (fat-furters, America’s deadliest missiles) guaranteed to stick in the craw of dog lovers everywhere.
The flood gates had been opened:fife, Time, The New Republic, Science Digest, even Ladies’ Home Journal came marching out of the editorial closet, guns drawn, ready to take aim on the hapless little wieners. No responsible publication, it seemed, could resist the temptation to play for the crowd while the heal was on. There was an air of siege.
The lowly plain franks have turned out to be the best buy—nutritionally and economically.
Like Upton Sinclair’s grisly stockyard expose 66 years before, the 1972 blitzkrieg leveled at the American hot dog served to thoroughly embarrass manufacturers and stir to a fever pitch the nutritional and gastronomic outrage of the innocent, helpless consumer. But whereas Sinclair’s fictional images led to the pure food laws and better working conditions for thousands of downtrodden workers, the rash of criticism five years ago apparently had little lasting effect. In 1973, it was estimated that the average American ate at least 80 frankfurters a year. Considering the fact that a lot of people wouldn’t touch them after all the bad press (Bess Myerson swore she’d never eat another), that figure meant that some people were downing a lot of hot dogs. The latest industry figures suggest that the hard core are still at it, with frankfurter sales up a reported 20 percent from 1975 to 1976.
Scientists noticed that salt-cured meats would be spotted with red dots.
Norm Enterline, owner of the Underdog on Broadway, takes a break from the noon rush and muses on the state of the hot dog. “It bothers me when I eat a wiener that I wonder if there’s a rat in there. But like cheese or anything else, if you buy a quality product, which I do, you’re probably not going to end up with a rat somewhere inside it.”
Before he opened his little hot dog restaurant nearly three years ago he had been a stock broker (“I was frustrated”). He has an abiding faith in his dogs. “We have an optometrist next door who’s eaten a wiener every day for lunch since I opened. No problems; he looks better than ever. In fact, he’ll come in here and brag that his sex life is 40 percent better, and he says it’s because of our dogs.”
"You go to a ball game and you get a hot dog. I just can’t even imagine buying a hamburger at a ball game."
As the dozen little tables begin to fill up with the lunch crowd, Enterline recalls his youthful days in the rural San Joaquin valley. “We didn’t have any hot dogs when I was a kid. Living out in the country like we did, there just weren’t any hot dog stands around. But I really started liking them when I was about 15. I guess I’m kind of a late starter.
“There was a bar near home that served a really good chili dog, and we’d slip in there and get three or four and go outside and have a pig-out. I loved it.”
When he came to San Diego with E.F. Hutton, Enterline looked around for a dog to match the ones he feasted on up north. He couldn’t find it. “I went to the California Theatre— they were supposed to have good wieners—but I paid what I thought was an exorbitant price for an inferior product. Then I knew there was a market for a good hot dog here.”
He spent a year and a half looking for a location and found the little space on Broadway. It had been vacant for two years, and the owners. Home Federal Savings, were willing to lease it. “They thought I was crazy, trying to sell hot dogs, but they said ‘if you’re a stock broker, you must have some sense,’ so they let me have it. Then I had a contest at the office for a name and this guy came up with ‘underdog.’ I took him out to dinner.”
- No candidate for any office can hope to get elected in this country without being photographed eating a hot dog.
- —Nelson Rockefeller
In the summer of 1972, Dr. Neil H. Raskin, a University of California medical researcher, reported that he had stumbled on to a widespread but little known malady. He called it the “dietary migraine,” or “hot dog headache.” When the first incident came to his attention, Raskin thought it to be an isolated case, but as his research team began to investigate, word circulated and other individuals volunteered what they had thought was a useless bit of information—whenever they ate hot dogs, they got dull, throbbing headaches. Before long, Raskin had isolated sodium nitrite as the ingredient in hot dogs (and a half dozen other cured meats) that had led to this cerebral indigestion.
In the fledgling years of food chemical research, scientists noticed that salt-cured meats would be spotted with red dots while the rest of the meat remained an unattractive gray color. The areas which retained their fresh look resulted from sodium nitrite—impurities in the salt. Thus, sodium nitrite was welcomed as an alternative to the food colorings which had been banned by law.
It was discovered that the chemical acted as an inhibitor to the growth of certain bacteria, especially those which led to the bane of preserved foods, botulism. The meat industry hailed the finding as a minor miracle, and immediately set about pumping it into such things as bacon, ham, salami, and frankfurters.
At nearly the same time Raskin and his associates pointed the accusing finger at sodium nitrite as the culprit behind hot dog headaches, other researchers began uncovering a growing | and ominous list of nitrite side effects. It was determined, for example, that sodium nitrate, a byproduct of sodium nitrite, impaired the ability of infants’ blood to carry oxygen. Additionally, sodium nitrate was found to have a tendency to combine with other chemicals in the body (amines), forming nitrosamines. Nitrosamines, when ingested in low dosages over a long period, led to cancer tumors in laboratory animals. Nader took stock of the situation and called it “chemical violence.”
“You name it, everything causes cancer. You can’t even drink water, they say. It’s all a fallacy, like everything else.”
As Ida McNamare moves around the cramped quarters behind the counter at the California Malt Shop, she warms to the topic. “I’ve been in this business 30 years, and I’ve seen a lot of hot dogs, and none of ’em I ever looked at had any cancer.”
The Malt Shop, tucked in next to the California Theatre on Fourth Avenue, has just ten stools at the counter. Ida makes her way down the counter refilling coffee cups and picks up support as she goes. A middle-age woman with silver-blue hair and sequined glasses blows on her steaming mug and proposes a theory.
“I’ve often thought that all this cancer stuff was some kind of device to take our minds off of what they’re doing to us with the taxes. No, really, I mean it. I mean if it’s not one thing, it’s another. But hot dogs....”
Two stools away a man named Bill comically slaps both hands on the counter and swivels back and forth. The jacket of his leisure suit flaps to and fro as he moans, “I just ate two hot dogs.” “Well, nice knowin’ ya’, Bill,” the silver-haired lady says with a grin.
Bill grabs his sides, throws his head back, and feigns a severe stomach ache. “Oooooohhhhh.” “What kind of flowers did you say you like. Bill?” says Ida.
For 26 years the California Malt Shop has served up hot dogs. They are still the best-selling item, and Ida says that on a scale of ten, hers rank somewhere around nine, that “nobody’s perfect.” As evidence of the quality, she points out that a lot of people from New York stop by.
“Some of ’em come in here and ask for a Coney Island and I look at ’em blank. Like I’m supposed to know what they mean.”
“Coney Island!” says Bill. “Jeez, that’s what we used to call it ’em in Detroit. Now there’s a place where they know how to make hot dogs. That’s all they do there; they’ve got these little places, just a hole in the wall, where that’s all they serve— dogs.”
Ida scrapes the griddle and asks him how it is that hot dogs always taste better at the beach. “Maybe it’s the salt air or the water or something,” she says, “but do you know what I mean? They’re not the same when you’re at the beach. I don’t know what it is.”
Bill has forgotten his brush with cancer and reminisces about the old days when they made hot dogs out of good stuff.
“My uncle used to take me down to Lane Field to the old Padre games. Great times then. And you go to a ball game and you get a hot dog. I just can’t even imagine buying a hamburger at a ball game.
“They’d have this guy who’d pass the dogs down the seats and some guy would take a bite of it and then the next guy would take a little bite, and by the time it gets down to the poor colored fella at the end, they’d be about this long.” He holds up his thumb and forefinger, measuring the abbreviated dog.
Ida says the dogs at San Diego Stadium these days are lousy. “I even tried their Padre Dog. Terrible. I’ll tell ya’ the secret to a good hot dog is a nice hot bun.”
Bill isn't listening. "Like I say, it’s not a hot dog,” he says, “unless you eat it in the stadium.”
- I came from humble origins. Why. we were raised on hot dogs and hamburgers. We’ve got to look after the hot dog.
- —Richard Milhous Nixon
As late as 1937, frankfurters were, for the most part, unadulterated—the fat content, for instance, was nearly the same as that found in the meat used to make them (about 19 percent). With the onset of the war, however, the demand for meat grew tremendously, and the makers of franks resorted to the use of fillers (grains, dried milk solids, soy flour) and increased the fat and water content. By 1970, the once straightforward wiener had slipped miserably, consisting at that time of about 28 percent fat and well over 50 percent water. The dog had become a mere ghost of its former self, and in spite of the outcry from consumer advocates, those dismal figures had the sanction of law.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 1969, had set guidelines for manufacturers allowing them to fill their wieners with up to 30 percent fat and to squirt each one with an additional 10 percent water. At the same time, under pressure from poultry interests, the department permitted franks to contain up to 15 percent chicken meat. There were vociferous calls for public hearings on the chicken issue, and more than 1,000 letters from consumers were received (the largest number ever for a proposed change in meat and poultry inspection regulations). But the Nixon administration pushed on, claiming that hearings would “unnecessarily delay” a decision. Nader was on hand again, quick to add another word to the lexicon: chicken-furters.
“People got to try these dogs. That’s all I ask, just try me. Whatever it takes.” From behind the narrow counter of Teddy’s Kosher Style Hot Dogs and Sandwiches, owner Curt Levine pleads his case. He opened his shop, hidden behind a liquor store on University Avenue, when he realized that for a year he’d have some time on his hands. He’s a jockey, he says, and points to the dozens of horse racing photos on the wall. After a “personal beef” with certain officials, he was suspended from racing for a year.
Peering over the counter, with his beard and long, curly hair, he bears a striking resemblance to a truncated Cat Stevens. “I talked to the bun people and they said San Diego just wasn’t a hot dog town. And then I went over to Blumer’s and asked them about Kosher stuff, and they said ‘no way.’ But my first week I did over a hundred dollars a day.”
His dogs, all-beef Vienna brand, come with a crunchy casing. “It’s the non-Jews I’m worried about. I don’t know if they’re ready for these casings. But it’s the only way to eat dogs—like in Chicago. I’m from Chicago.
“Ya’ see, if I started this business back East, I’d starve. There are guys there who line up the buns on their arm like this and go swish, swish, swish, and they got ’em all done. It’s crazy. But here, people don’t know about good dogs.”
A customer, having recently discovered the Kosher dogs at Teddy’s, leans on the counter listening intently. Finally, he joins in. “I’m a hot dog lover, and for example last Thursday night my daughter and I felt like having a hot dog—just going out and getting a good one—and I wracked my brain and there’s no place around here.” He turns to Levine and asks him if he knows a particular place in Chicago with legendary dogs.
“Oh, people from Chicago know hot dogs,” says the jockey. “You mean that place called Paul’s Umbrella?”
“No. It’s called....What the hell is it called?”
He tries to think of it but can’t, then asks Levine if he’s got a phone and disappears around the corner.
Levine continues, “San Diego’s never been hit with good solid hot dogs the way they’re supposed to be made. Ya’ see, I’m not serving nothing I don’t like, and if I dig it, then I know other people will digit. These are superior dogs.”
The enthusiastic hot dog lover is off the phone and trots back to the counter, announcing proudly, “Carl’s. Carl’s in Chicago.”
- What is patriotism but the love of the good things we ate in our childhood?
- —Lin Yutang
When the ever-vigilant Nader made public the precise meaning of “edible offal,” the meat components of frankfurters, millions of stomachs turned. Among other things, such offal include lungs, hearts, lips, snout, ears, and esophagi. But there was more.
Consumers didn’t know whether the franks they bought in markets were made from beef parts or pork, or even chicken. As a result of the ensuing clamor, the department of agriculture forced manufacturers to group their products into three categories and list all ingredients. The categories were all beef, all meat, and plain frankfurters. All beef were to contain only beef offal, water, salt, spices, and stabilizers—no fillers. All meat could include beef, pork, chicken, mutton, lamb, veal, turkey, or goat— again, no fillers. Plain franks, the bottom of the line, could include all of the above plus up to three and a half percent filler.
The government stopped short of requiring the ingredient listings to include percentages. As it is, the label orders the ingredients according to decending amount by volume. Thus, a package of meat wieners may show the following ingredients: pork, water, beef, salt, paprika, sodium nitrite, etc. In this case, the dogs contain more water than beef.
Ironically, the lowly plain franks have turned out to be the best buy—nutritionally and economically. They have more protein, and the filler costs less money. Alas, plain frankfurters are rarely served in restaurants and seldom found in markets. Their protein advantage, though worth noting, hardly makes them, much less the other two categories, a consumer’s bargain. In fact, as a source of protein, dogs are notoriously inefficient. What protein there is costs around ten dollars a pound, which puts them in the same league as caviar.
On a sweltering day in mid-June, 1939, over 600,000 people lined the streets of Washington, D.C. as Franklin D. Roosevelt, President of the United States, hosted the first visit of a reigning British monarch. King George VI, in the company of his wife and entourage, spent one night in the White House, where Roosevelt presented a lavish state dinner in honor of his majesty. The entree that splendid evening? Hot dogs.