Welcome to Anxious Carnivores, a miniseries about the changing culture around meat consumption. Despite growing pressures to quit meat, many Americans can’t quite do so—but they’re getting weirder and weirder about how they eat it.
As a kid, I’d heard hot dogs were made of everything from pig anuses to pigeon breasts to literal dog meat. The reality isn’t much more appealing: Hot dogs are made by grinding up spare chunks of cow or pig into a paste—too edible to throw away but too unsightly to sell at the grocery store. Then they’re piped into tubes and sold cheap, served at ballgames, cookouts, or other events easily ruined by discussing where hot dogs come from.
Like all meat products, hot dogs are made from dead animals. Specifically, as writer and comedian Jamie Loftus says in her new book, Raw Dog: The Naked Truth About Hot Dogs, “the hot dog’s reputation is for extremely dead animals,” organic material pulverized into an inorganic state to the point where it’s hard to imagine it being alive in the first place. When we joke about the meat industry, hot dogs are a punchline, a catchall for the worst ills of factory farming.
But if you’re fine with eating meat, it’s not worse to eat meat in hot dog shape. A grocery store steak, despite not being mashed into a pulp, is not morally superior to a fast-food hot dog. The two could even come from the same cow. The modern hot dog is merely a microcosm of the entire process of American meat production—the final link in a chain that squeezes livestock and labor for its last drop of value.
Raw Dog, out May 23, follows that entire chain. The book falls somewhere between a send-up and a takedown of America’s favorite sausage. It details a road trip Loftus took in summer of 2021 sampling the country’s most famous dogs, from JJ’s Red Hots in North Carolina to The Varsity in Atlanta to Nathan’s Famous in Coney Island, Brooklyn. She discusses hot dog history: how Polish and German immigrant communities created the hot dog for cheap sustenance and how it rose to prominence during the Great Depression, when the popular Chicago dog was marketed as two meals—a salad and a wiener—for the price of one. That legacy is alive in New York’s famous Gray’s Papaya, where the famous recession special is still on sale: two franks and a drink for seven bucks. Loftus also delights in the horny history of the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile or newly named Frankmobile (a shocking number of the 20-somethings behind the wheel end up together), the sport of competitive hot dog eating, and her complicated, primal crush on its reigning champion Joey Chestnut.
But Raw Dog’s sillier moments are balanced with a weighty critique of the meatpacking and food service industries woven throughout the book. Loftus begins this investigation in a chapter titled “Here Is How You Make a Hot Dog,” in which she explains exactly that. In a strange way, reading about (or watching, if you’re nasty) this process is kind of marvelous. As Loftus puts it, you’re seeing “garbage being repurposed as mass-appeal food,” and in an industry practically synonymous with excess and pollution, I’m almost happy to see the agriculture sector preventing further waste. The greater issue lies further up the production chain. “The meat being used for hot dogs are scraps,” she writes, “but what’s more important is how the animals whose head meat is being fashioned into factory-certified shapes are treated at the facility that comes before—the slaughterhouse.”