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Trip offers a frank look at the history of hot dogs

Visit to Germany proves enlightening

July 20, 2005|By Stephen G. Henderson | Stephen G. Henderson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Red wine was sometimes added to moisten this mixture and, occasionally, bread crumbs, though the latter was frowned upon and never sanctioned by fine chefs. In the early 19th century, German nobility considered frankfurters to be an exquisite delicacy; they were served as a side dish to partridges, accompanied by sauerkraut.

As their fame grew -- and other European cities tried to copy them, notably in Vienna (or Wein), where veal was mixed with pork to create "weinies" -- frankfurters also were called the "champagne of sausages."

In 1929, Werner said, the frankfurter's ingredients were actually patented in an attempt to certify that, like champagne only coming from France's Champagne region, a genuine frankfurter could only hail from Frankfurt.

Some like it hot

"During the heavy German migration of the 1840s and '50s, butchers brought their sausage culture with them to America. Initially, they still primarily used pork," said Bruce Kraig, a culinary historian and senior editor for the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America (Oxford University Press, 2004).

Those German Jews who arrived, however, elected to make their frankfurters with beef because pork wasn't kosher. "So, the American all-beef hot dog is really Jewish in origin."

Another innovation allegedly occurred during St. Louis' Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904, thanks to a German butcher named Anton Feuchtwanger. Story has it that he supplied his patrons with white gloves to prevent their fingers from being burned while they ate his piping-hot sausages.

Satisfied customers kept walking off with the gloves, however, so Feuchtwanger reportedly asked his brother-in-law, a baker, to create a long, soft roll to hold the frankfurters -- thus, inventing the hot dog bun.

As frankfurters increased in popularity throughout the United States, said Kraig, their production was streamlined. Instead of using "the tenderest of meat," soon enough, leftover bits such as the pig's snout, mouth and tail were all being emulsified into "a slurry or paste, but not the coarsely chopped sausage you'd once gotten from a butcher shop."

Supermarket hot dogs, he said, are now even allowed to include bone meal and powdered milk. And, sheep's intestines have long since given way to an artificial viscose casing in which the hot dog is merely formed. This casing is subsequently discarded, so the hot dog can be sold as "skinless."

"Today, hot dogs are pretty much a culinary deal with the devil," Kraig said. "Based on their content of fat and salt, they may taste good, but they are certainly not good for you."

What's more, as America's so-called immigrant cuisines are repackaged and marketed to their country of origin -- Pizza Hut is popular in Italy, Taco Bell in Mexico -- American-style hot dogs are showing up in Germany.

Driving around towns nearby Frankfurt, I was dismayed to see uncooked hot dogs selling at gas stations. Cheaply produced of formerly heretical ingredients like chicken, turkey and beef, they were sold in multicolored "party packs," all bundled together like so many Popsicles.

"Today, frankfurters are not a fancy dish, by any means," said Werner, "but for some people, they are still a specialty."

Baltimore's `best'

Happily for Charm City, one frankfurter specialist is Lothar Weber, owner of Binkert and a third-generation sausage maker who hails from Baden-Baden, Germany, which is about two hours southwest of Frankfurt.

Baltimore Magazine awarded Binkert the "best hot dog in town" award in 2002, an honor of which Weber is justifiably proud. Seeing all the work that goes into making his frankfurters is exhausting, yet it also whets the appetite.

He uses a mixture of one-third beef to two-thirds pork, the latter bought from Mennonite farmers who raise pigs organically in Lancaster, Pa. He uses only sheep's intestines ("when you bite in, there has to be snap") and stuffing the ground meat is tricky because the casing is very tender. Weber smokes the frankfurters for two hours over a smoldering sawdust fire. He claims to be the only butcher in town who still does this; most use "liquid smoke."

Because his frankfurters are considerably more expensive then supermarket brands -- Binkert's go for $4 a pound, or seven frankfurters -- he urges customers to treat them carefully and only boil or steam them before serving. His frankfurters are smoked already, he said, so their delicate flavor is lost when they are grilled.

"Sure, it's an old-fashioned way of doing things," Weber said. "But we are a German sausage factory. We make frankfurters like they do, or should do, in Germany."

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