One of my favorite things about the radio show (airs weekdays 2-4pm on 990 AM.) is the interactive relationship between the listeners, and us. The subject came up for the 4th of July and we were talking about National Hot Dog Day coming up on July 20th.
Several opinions came in from different callers with each declaring their favorite frankfurter brand the best on the market. Strong declarations invite challenges, and I was immediately intrigued.
When the kids were little a lot of hot dogs were consumed here at The Cool Water Ranch. I loved basic Oscar Mayer wieners. I love the product and the company culture, with their Weiner Ambassadors in their traveling Weinermobile. And I liked the Spicy Weiners I ran into in the DC area after Katrina. (They were not available in this market.)
Recently I had a hot dog and I didn’t like it at all. What was different? No kids? No party? Had I grown up? There was nothing familiar about this product. It said Original on the package, but it also said “uncured.” Was that the difference? After one bite all these wieners went to the dog, who had no objection to that eventuality.
The “uncured” explanation was not settled by anyone on the radio show, but it remained in my mind. We did have a robust discussion of which hot dog is best. Opinions were strong, and a few favorites emerged: Nathan’s, Hebrew National, and Vienna Beef. I asserted that Oscar Mayer still reigned, if I could find the now mythical “cured” weiner. And I remembered my promise to try Schott’s chili, the tubed chili of my youth. This product has since been absorbed by Chisesi.
I decided for the holiday I would grill all these brands and do a taste test. I would get some Bunny Bread hot dog buns, which I love but never eat, and have a weiner festival.
The most interesting thing about this turned out to be procurement of the products. Vienna Beef hot dogs must be commercially available only. I got Hebrew National easily, as well as Nathan’s. While studying the weiner array, I noticed a meat market guy and asked him where Schott’s chili was. He showed me and explained the Chisesi acquisition. He seemed to know his business so I inquired about the “uncured” label on Oscar Mayer products. I told him I wanted the Oscar Mayer weiner of the Nineties. He said, “What you see there is the Oscar Mayer Weiner of the Nineties. You know how they have to tell you everything now? The Oscar Mayer weiner has always been uncured, they just have to tell you about it, like gluten-free, etc.? Same thing.”
I remain unconvinced because I don’t like this weiner. Could my tastes have changed that much?
While I was still pondering that question, I embarked on a last search for Vienna Beef. Usually I am able to find any upscale or outlier product at Acquistapace’s in Covington, but even they didn’t have Vienna Beef. More curious than ever I went to Whole Foods, where I was again disappointed.
But I did notice a pack of Feltman’s dogs hanging in the case. Currently I am obsessed with the History Channel’s series, “The Food That Built America,” which chronicles the rise of all iconic American foods we eat as part of our culture. In one episode Nathan’s hot dogs were featured. They were created by an immigrant working the hot dog station at Feltman’s of Coney Island.
So many years later, these Feltman’s dogs were pretty expensive, but I had to get them because Nathan’s dogs were good enough to put Feltman’s out of business. I was interested in comparing the two.
We would serve these dogs with a homemade relish, yellow cheddar, and Schott’s chili for anyone wanting that. I made a relish of minced jalapeno, minced white onion, and minced pickle. It was the most interesting thing about any of the hot dogs.
And I took a can of Trappey’s navy beans with jalapeno off the shelf and channeled Sandra Lee and her semi-homemade ideas, transforming these into baked beans. I chopped onion and bell pepper, and some bacon bits, softening the vegetables in a pan. This went into the dish with the beans, and about ¼ cup of ketchup, 2 tablespoons dry mustard, and ¼ cup of brown sugar. This I baked for an hour, and they were great!.
After the dogs had grilled on the indoor cooktop grill, I assembled them for the taste test. Again, I was underwhelmed by the Oscar Mayer hot dog. It was the only pork product in the competition, and I have never been afraid of hot dogs. Okay, maybe the red dye ones, but not basic Oscar Mayer wieners.
Of everything before me, the Nathan’s hot dog was the tastiest. It was a little too skinny for my taste, in contrast to the Hebrew National, which was too fat in circumference for me. The Feltman’s weiner was first, a little slimy when it came out of the pack, and I really didn’t like the taste. Compared to Nathan’s I can see why Feltman’s couldn’t hold its own next to the upstart Nathan’s.
I was a little surprised at how fatty Nathan’s was cooked. But fat has flavor, and this was by far the tastiest of the lot.
Hebrew National had a nice grind and casing, and a flavor that was also fine, but I couldn’t get past the heft.
But what I learned most in this experiment was that I don’t really like hot dogs anymore. And that pains me. The hot dog is the quintessential American street food, and it was a big part of our kid’s childhood. I’ve certainly eaten my share.
I also learned that Schott’s chili hasn’t changed a bit since the days of my youth when it covered every red dye hot dog of my experience.
And Bunny Bread still makes the best pillowy home for any frankfurter. Along with some sharp yellow cheddar cheese, relish, mustard and maybe chili, it’s a terrific bite of food.
I haven’t given up on finding a hot dog I can like with all the accompaniments. It’s gotta be out there somewhere.