The Sunday Magazine19:01Relishing the cultural and historical impact of hot dogs with Jamie Loftus
Writer and comedian Jamie Loftus has, in her own words, been “obsessed” with a video about how hot dogs are made since she was in college.
The five-minute video, taken from a 2008 episode of the show How It’s Made, details the factory process of turning scraps of meat into the eight-packs of wieners seen everywhere in North America from school lunchrooms to baseball stadiums.
In one shot, pink-grey emulsified meat — spiked with spices, water and corn syrup — oozes out of a metal pipe, looking more like soft-serve ice cream.
“It’s funny to me because it is the best possible, most flattering way to show how a hot dog is made, and it’s still absolutely disgusting,” she told The Sunday Magazine’s guest host Megan Williams.
Loftus travelled the United States in 2021 to learn more about the hot dog, including tasting dozens of regional variations, for her book Raw Dog: The Naked Truth About Hot Dogs.
On the outside, she says the hot dog is an iconic dish that exemplifies the ingenuity and individualism of the United States; on the other, its continued popularity and affordability is only possible thanks to the dark side of capitalism.
“There just wasn’t a lot written about the history of hot dogs that also acknowledged the labour exploitation that’s necessary in order for hot dogs to exist,” she said. “So I … jumped on the opportunity to punish my body with as many hot dogs as possible.”
The sausage is industrialized
Loftus said that for many, hot dogs are associated with a working, lower-to-middle class due to their historically low price and easy preparation.
“It endures because it is still possible for basically everyone to have access to it, which is kind of rare for any kind of famous food,” she said.
That’s thanks in no small part to how the dogs are mass-produced and distributed, she noted.
“The industrialization happens in the 1930s, and it comes through … emulsification, which is basically just taking meat and blending it into a paste and then pumping it into artificial casings,” said Jeffrey Pilcher, a professor of history and food studies at the University of Toronto.
That process helps set it apart from traditional sausages, and shares many techniques that made other items like fish sticks and chicken nuggets possible, Pilcher said.
Their accessibility and affordability, however, is largely thanks to low-wage workers manning the factories that make them, said Loftus.
A 2022 report by ProPublica found evidence that then-U.S. president Donald Trump’s administration worked directly with the heads of Tyson Foods and Smithfield Foods — makers of Ball Park Franks and Nathan’s Famous hot dogs, respectively — to issue an executive order allowing the plants to remain open during COVID-19, ostensibly in the patriotic interest of feeding the American public.
“The CEOs were basically sending copy for this executive order so that they could continue to, you know, profit at astronomical rates while doing absolutely nothing to protect their employees,” said Loftus.
According to another report, processing plants owned by the U.S.’s five largest meat companies accounted for 59,000 COVID-19 cases and 269 deaths among workers between March 2020 and February 2021 alone.
Loftus argues that the hot dog’s status as a uniquely American food buoyed public support for keeping the plants open despite the risk.
“All of these nostalgic, kind of childhood meals had a huge comeback during lockdown because of, I think, how desperate people were to feel something familiar and feel some comfort,” she said.
All-beef origin stories
The patriotism behind hot dogs in the U.S. is ironic, Loftus said, since the dish traces its earliest origins to sausage-making in Europe. Immigrants from places like Germany and Poland brought their food traditions with them; eventually they would cross with mass industrialization to produce the “uniquely North American nightmare fuel” that is the modern hot dog on a bun.
“Most hot dogs that you eat wouldn’t be possible, really, without the industrial process and all of these sort of ethical quandaries that come with it,” she said.
As for how exactly the classic hot-dog-and-bun combo came to be, it’s hard to say.
Loftus says she researched competing origin stories and usually found a mix of marketing campaigns and fabrications, most centred on “one man’s exceptionalism” of having the idea before anyone else.
“There’s a million versions of that story. None of them are true. They all are kind of fun,” she said.
She ran into other marketing-fuelled myths, such as the genesis of the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, where competitors scarf down dogs at a breakneck pace every July 4.
The company once touted that it began in the 1920s as an impromptu dare between immigrants on how much they could eat in one sitting — as proof of “Who is the most American?” Loftus said.
In reality, she says, it began as a promotional event in the early 1970s.
Working class? Not always
The working-class association people have with an affordable hot dog or other fast foods isn’t as longstanding as one might believe, either, Pilcher said, noting that going to a baseball game and eating a hot dog while in the stands was a leisure-time activity that many people couldn’t afford.
“So you know, these class associations certainly change over time,” he said.
After unravelling the history and unsavoury truths about hot dogs’ place in the modern food industry, Loftus says she actively encourages people to seek out dogs and sausages made locally and ethically, and to avoid those made by Tyson and Smithfield Foods, specifically.
But she admits the adventure hasn’t turned her off the food entirely — which came as a surprise even to her.
Her favourite from her cross-country road trip? The ripper, a dog popularized by Rutt’s Hut in New Jersey that is deep fried until the casing snaps open.
“It’s on the side of the highway in Jersey. So you feel like you could commit a murder and then go get this hot dog and a beer and just sort of revel in your crimes. I just love it.”