Fact: Americans eat 19 billion hot dogs a year. At seven franks per yard and assuming a diameter of one inch, that means that if you were to put all those hot dogs end-to-end in a continuous, stacked loop around the vast boundaries of Kansas, the resulting "wienie fence" would be 86 glistening feet high! Or nearly 2,000 feet high around the Beltway! Higher still if you used a jumbo brand and bloated them by overboiling! Put another way, if all of America's baseball fans formed a line at a typical ballpark frank stand, it would take them -- including the time used to condimentize and count change -- 5,845 days to eat every spicy cylinder! And if the energy from all the "reminder burps" produced by this gastronomic feat could be harnessed (note: it couldn't be), there would be enough gigawatts to light . . .
Oh, sorry. You're probably not in the mood for hot dog fun facts. Yesterday you downed six 4th of July bun gents, and for the thousandth time, as you unhinged your mouth to say "yes" to this bizarre, bread-swaddled meat tube that you've trained yourself not to ask too many questions about, the questions came nevertheless. Disturbing questions like: Hey, what's in this thing? And, I pro'ly shouldn't be eating this, should I? But you did it anyway, and today you feel like you just swallowed a pound of Mar-Gon Wood Putty. You may even have a headache. But . . . surely that can't be from the pups? That's where you're wrong. C'mon, let's go on a not-too-appetizing tour through the modern hot dog's interior . . .
But first let me make it clear where I stand on hot dog eating. I'm for it, foursquare. Sure, I like healthy New Age foods as much as the next contemporary wimp, but I also think that every socially active person needs to keep his junk-digesting stomach enzymes in working order by regularly indulging in a sweet and/or fatty secret food vice that simulates whatever atrocity your hosts may happen to sling at you. Otherwise, you'll turn into one of those dinner-party pains-in- the-butt for whom they must prepare a "special plate" of bulgur wheat noodles. Some people eat Twinkies, some Slim Jims, and some (God forbid that I should ever see this) eat those pickled eggs that percolate in huge jars of pink vinegar for decades. I eat hot dogs. More specifically, I eat the mouth-watering Wienie Sandwich that my mother sprung on me whenever I started the old locked- jaw "me no hungry" act. I'm making one right now. On my stove, three wienies are frolicking about like armless, legless, headless, featureless meat marionettes in the roiling surf of a pan of boiling hot dog water. When they are cooked to a ruddy perfection and I've donned rubber gloves to protect against painful juice squirts, I'll slice each yummy dowel into "coins" that I'll lay flat between two pieces of white bread coated with French's mustard. Then I'll slice the sandwich diagonally, pour a tall glass of Bosco, and man, I've got a recipe for some gooooood eatin'. Sure, it makes more sense to cut the dogs lengthwise into stable mini-planks, but Mother noticed that I was highly amused by the way the wienie coins fell out and rolled off the table. I am still amused by this. Try it. You will be, too.
Now, back to hot dog anatomy. As every schoolboy knows, the frankfurter was invented in 1852 by the butchers' guild in Frankfurt, Germany. Legend has it that one of these gusto-oriented men had a pet dachshund whose long tubular body inspired the frank's long tubular shape, and that's why, in addition to frankfurter, it came to be called a "hot dog." Sounds bogus, huh? Hot dogs are shaped exactly the way all sausages have been for 3,500 years. I suspect what really happened was that some poor dachshund wandered into the butchers' guild backyard during a weekly beer bust. Somebody yelled "Meat!," and the little pooch was awarded a one-way trip through a grinder. Thus began the hot dog makers' long tradition of grinding up questionable critters and critter parts (snoots, lips, ears) and squirting them into casings, where they cannot be traced.
Today, though, thanks to pushy government meat inspectors, your chances of biting into a stray beak or a shoelace are not good unless your hot dog package says "made with variety meats." (Others will disagree, but to me, this robs frank-eating of valuable pizazz.) What you're mostly getting now is meat scraps (usually beef and pork), fat (about 26 percent of a typical dog), water (56 percent), fillers (dried skim milk and cereal), salt, corn syrup and preservatives such as sodium nitrite and sodium nitrate. Nitrite, a suspected carcinogen, prevents hot dogs from turning a strange color and growing fur before you buy them. (Or as Science Digest once so dramatically put it: "Bacteria that attack frank surfaces produce hydrogen peroxide; while this turns drab brunettes into pretty blondes, it turns the ruddy frank surface into a non-marketable green.") Nitrate further inhibits bacterial growth; for some people it also causes the same "dietary migraine" you can get from eating Chinese food laden with monosodium glutamate. Anyway, the dog itself is made like so: All this stuff is mushed up in giant grinders, power-squirted into casings (once made from the finest intestinal skins from Russian and Chinese lambs, they're now usually cellulose), and then run through a linking machine that makes periodic pinches and forms those nifty "belly buttons" on each end of the wienie. Mmm, boy. Let's all smack our lips.
So what am I saying? I'm saying: 1) Good news, hot dogs are still disgusting enough to be worth the trouble; and 2) even though you should be squeamish about them, don't be. After all, they could be worse. In 1958 (again according to Science Digest), scientists were looking into the idea of preserving wienies with radiation: "At the American Meat Institute Foundation labs . . . physicists have created a genuinely hot hot dog. They stuff the frank into a metal 'bun,' lower the sample into a cobalt-60 furnace, and study the effect of gamma rays . . ." Are today's wienies being subjected to this sort of experimentation? Well, I could find out, but "frankly," I'd rather not know. Pass the mustard.
By now you're probably scrambling through the fridge looking for dogs. Wait, don't eat 'em raw! For your dining pleasure, I've combed through dozens of cookbooks looking for the most disgusting hot dog recipe. And here, narrowly beating out Hot Dogs Au Vin and Hot Dogs Amandine, is the recipe for Hot Dogs Flambe': Take 1/4 cup granulated sugar, 1/4 cup cornstarch, 1/4 cup vinegar, 1/4 cup orange marmalade, 1 can pineapple tidbits, with juice, 1/2 cup seeded and split green grapes, 10 maraschino cherries, 1 cup drained mandarin orange sections, 1/2 cup Cointreau, and 10 parboiled hot dogs and their liquor. Mix the sugar and cornstarch over heat; mix the vinegar, marmalade and pineapple. Cut the franks into coins, place in a chafing dish, dump on all the fruit and goop and douse everything with Cointreau.
Ignite, present with a flourish, and run. ::