The Friday Fillip: Hot Dog, It’s Canada Day!

Today is Canada Day, so we’re all off celebrating. But because it’s also Friday, I thought I’d schedule this fillip for the folks south of the border and those Canadians who have taken their CrackBerrys to the cottage. It’s just a bit of musing on that “best friend” of summer celebrations, the humble hot dog — the frankfurter, the wiener, and surely one of the “wurst” hits of nutrition going.

Western lit first records the hot dog in ancient Greece, marking even then the eagerness of the diner: in the words of Homer’s Odyssey,

[H]e tossed about as one who turns a paunch full of blood and fat in front of a hot fire, doing it first on one side and then on the other, that he may get it cooked as soon as possible…

Though wisdom has it now that rather than grilling a dog, you really ought to steam it, so as not to dry it out. And speaking of steaming, in Montreal it used to be common (may still be) to call a hot dog a steamé (or stimé, or in English a steamie) and these might be eaten “all dressed,” which, curiously, doesn’t mean with everything on it, at least not everywhere, but does usually require mustard, chopped onion, and sauerkraut. (For me, relish is lacking; but surely no one puts ketchup on a hot dog. Ketchup is for hamburgers.)

In Toronto, where I am, hot dogs are the only street meat that’s legal; so there’s fairly intense competition among vendors to offer the best (or the cheapest) tube steak. But out on the left coast, where they’re more adventurous, you might be able to find a Japadog, which offers a Kobe beef sausage dressed with seaweed or fish flakes, among other things, but not, I’m happy to say, tofu.

What’s in a hot dog? Best not to ask if you’re at all squeamish, perhaps. (It’s often assumed that Bismark said that no one should see sausages or laws being made; but in fact it was an American, John Godfrey Saxe, this in a curious way reversing the Germanic origin — Frankfurt: frankfurter; Vienna: wiener — of what became the quintessential American food.) If you really want to know, you might take a look at the Hot Dog Council’s video on the topic (cut to the 4’23” point to skip the propaganda). But whatever parts of the animal get used, it’s likely the nitrites that should be the real source of interest. What do they do? According to the University of Minnesota:

Nitrite in meat greatly delays development of botulinal toxin (botulism), develops cured meat flavor and color, retards development of rancidity and off-odors and off-flavors during storage, inhibits development of warmed-over flavor, and preserves flavors of spices, smoke, etc.

But in quantity, nitrites are in fact carcinogenic, so you may wish to buy nitrite-free dogs. Or alongside the weenies pop some vitamin C and D, which “inhibit the formation of N-nitroso compounds,” explaining how it is that vitamin-containing spinach, celery, and green lettuce, which also boast nitrites, don’t make the danger list.

If you happen to be travelling on the holiday and nonetheless want to indulge, it might help to know that, according to a site I consulted, a hot dog in Finnish is makkarat, in Swedish it’s varmkorv, and Worstjes in Dutch. And, we’re told, in German it’s heisser Hund; but that, I happen to know, actually means a dog in heat, which makes my Finnish, Swedish and Dutch recommendations suspect, I’d say. But if you’re around the Vatican and hanker after a hot dog, call for a pastillum botello fartum — swear to god! it’s from the recent Vatican Latin dictionary.

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