FRANKFURT, Germany -- Standing in line at Muller, a venerable sausage shop on Frankfurt's Schweizerstrasse, I asked for one of what Americans typically call a hot dog.
"Ein frankfurter, bitte."
Momentarily perplexed by my accent, the saleswoman then smiled as she plucked a sausage nearly the size of a zucchini from a pot of simmering water. She slapped it onto a plate alongside a generous dollop of spicy mustard and a baguette of crusty French bread.
July is national hot dog month in the United States. It's a season when America's year-round love affair with what are variously known as wienies, franks, red hots or tube steaks is celebrated at baseball parks, church picnics and backyard barbecues.
Perhaps you heard of Takeru Kobayashi, the native of Nagano, Japan, who this year won the Nathan's Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest by downing 49 in 12 minutes.
Nathan's sponsors this publicity stunt every Independence Day weekend to urge us to go hog-wild over hot dogs -- as if we needed encouraging. According to statistics from the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, based in Arlington, Va., Americans eat 2 billion pounds of hot dogs every year.
I'd come to Frankfurt, a city that in 1987 celebrated its 500th anniversary as the birthplace of frankfurters, to explore the culinary roots of this beloved American sandwich.
What I found (surprise!) was that something's been lost in the translation. A true frankfurter, as sold in Germany or even by Baltimore's own German butchers such as Binkert's Meat Products on Philadelphia Road in Rossville, bears as much resemblance to an average hot dog as a triple-cream goat cheese does to Velveeta.
First of all, even the talented Kobayashi would be stymied by a frankfurter's size, not to mention consistency. Rather than a gelatinous mush of pulverized beef a la Oscar Mayer, a frankfurter has the full-bodied texture of ground pork.
Second, the difference is skin-deep. No reputable German butcher would dare sell a frankfurter encased in anything but sheep's intestine. Chomping through this elastic membrane is rather like trying to mount a floating air mattress; one's teeth slide off the surface for no apparent reason. Making a successful incision, and the audible pop that results, is quite satisfying. In other words, a frankfurter is a dog that bites back.
There are differences, too, in how frankfurters are served. Many Germans consider grilling a frankfurter to be desecration nearly as unforgivable as eating one with ketchup. (Frankfurters should be boiled or steamed.) And, don't get a Rhinelander started on the squishy horror Americans call a hot dog bun.
Deep culinary roots
Sausages are one of the oldest forms of processed food. They're mentioned in Homer's Odyssey, and probably date back to the 9th century B.C. The cradle for frankfurters, however, is thought to be Frankfurt's old butcher's quarter near the cathedral where in 1487, or five years before Columbus sailed for America, a new way to cook pork was discovered. Indeed, recent excavations of a 15th-century Carmelite monastery nearby revealed a pair of fossilized frankfurters found in a window column, alongside an empty bottle of wine.
Goethe reports that during the crowning of Joseph II in 1764, bread and frankfurters were distributed free to townspeople who'd gathered for the pageantry. Hence, they were quickly dubbed "coronation sausages," a moniker that stuck for many years thereafter.
Up until the beginning of the 19th century, frankfurters were nearly always fried immediately after they were made. As butchers experimented with methods of preserving meat, though, it was found that frankfurters could be smoked quite easily.
Much of this history came from Heinrich Werner, who for nearly three decades was head of the meat department at the Bergius Schule, a culinary school in Frankfurt that's well-respected throughout Germany. Werner is a tall, bearded and powerfully built man who, though nearly 70, looks like he'd have no trouble hacking a pork carcass in half with one swing of his cleaver.
As Werner smiled and joked as we spoke in the Bergius Schule's kitchens, it seemed hardly possible that he, a radiant picture of good health, has consumed so much junk food, which is what many consider hot dogs to be nowadays. Yet, as he made immediately clear, high-quality German frankfurters are not fast food, but made from a recipe that's been closely protected for centuries.
Werner showed me an early one that read as follows: "Take the meat from the front legs of the pig, or otherwise the tenderest of meat, and cook it up together with fatty bacon. Put the mixture in a deep bowl, add various seasonings, to wit: nutmeg, mace, salt, pepper, thyme, marjoram and a pinch of coriander."