Forget about commercial feedlots and GMOs. Forget high cholesterol, expanding waistlines, and the merits of plant-based diets. Forget The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Fast Food Nation. Forget the trends of locavorism and clean eating.
Instead, consider the chili dog: the mass-produced frank, rolling down a gleaming conveyor belt. Consider the pillowy consistency of a bun pulled from a package of so many identical buns. Consider the ladle of brown chili draped over the top. Consider the sprinkle of cheddar cheese or the stripe of mustard, both the same artificial yellow.
The chili dog’s story is actually many stories: not only one about American fast food and appetites, but also about American industrialization, immigration, and regionalism. And each component—the hot dog, the chili, even where we eat chili dogs—adds another twist.
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What is a hot dog? In his thoughtful and thorough book Hot Dog: A Global History, Bruce Kraig calls it a category of precooked sausage. Hot dogs can be skinless or stuffed into a casing. They are filled with emulsified red meats (beef, pork, veal). They are served in a bun. They are eaten out of hand.
Sausage has been a part of humans’ culinary repertoire for 15,000 years. Nobody knows who first thought to chop up one part of an animal, stuff that mixture into another part, and then cook it. But as long as humans have had access to fire and meat, they have been eating something that we could recognize, with only a bit of squinting, as a sausage. Ancient Rome and medieval Europe had sausages. They’re even mentioned in the Odyssey.