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The Independent Archive - 2 June 1990: Under the skin of a German sausage

Keith Botsford takes up wurstology in the search for the roots of America's hot dog
WHEN MY good friend Jimmy O'Donnell died a few weeks ago, I received from his estate, as he had promised, a manuscript he had written for Reader's Digest, which it had, foolishly, not published. Entitled "Casing the Sausage", it is in part an account of Jimmy's lifelong search for the origin of the American hot dog and in part a treatise on what he called "wurstology", a study of the (German) sausage.

One of the wonders of Jimmy's book is the number of people he enlisted among his researchers. I had not known that Konrad Adenauer was a wurstologist, but it appears that he had sought (among many inventions, including an electric darning egg and a garden-worm electrocutor) to get a patent for a sausage he had invented during the First World War. Jimmy visited the German chancellor's "tinkering corner" just off the kitchen, where Adenauer had a sausage casing-machine. His sausage was a mixture of pig's blood and soya bean (not unlike our own wartime banger, designed for when meat is short) but Jimmy spotted why, in improved circumstances, Adenauer's sausage would not sell. It was because "the first or cardinal law of classic German sausage production is that butchers simply must make both ends meat".

With a hint from Adenauer, Jimmy set out for Thuringia in East Germany to check out the use of the Semmel, or soft bun, in conjunction with sausage, the essence of the hot dog. But wandering about the heartland of the old German Democratic Republic asking about sausages quickly ran him into trouble with the security police. What was clear from the start of his search was that the American frankfurter or wiener came neither from Frankfurt nor from Vienna. The laws of eponymy had caused a German sausage to reach America, have a bun added, and the city of its origin misplaced. Or so Jimmy was told by the great radical American journalist and lexicographer H.L. Mencken, who said: "There simply must be a third German city . . . because, in the long history of wurst, you have always to consider the Law of the Geographical Misnomer."

Diligent as ever, Jimmy persisted, eventually coming up with an engraving dating from 1700 showing a woman sausage-vendor at her grill. "What instantly catches the eye," he wrote, "is that her sausage sits in a slightly more crescent position than is usual today, and it is somewhat longer than the bun . . . any American would instantly call it `the real McCoy'." The bun was solved. But the sausage itself?

To find his wurstological grail, Jimmy first had to study the traditional Frankfurter Wurstchen. This proved a complicated matter and regulated by the German Supreme Court, which established its ingredients: "pure pork from Hessian porkers six to nine months old, stall-kept and foddered on potatoes and rye . . . the spices must be white ripe pepper, nutmeg and mace, and paprika", plus salt and ice water.

Ice water? By law, American sausages cannot have more than 10 per cent water; in Frankfurt, the water content is 13 per cent, because without the ice water you don't "get this crackling noise you hear". The US frankfurter, his interlocutor told him, "just doesn't have that special crackling noise, the snappy taste. It is, well, a bit rubbery." To be settled, too, was the question of the wiener - the (false) Viennese connection. "A true wiener," Jimmy was told, "is also a Bruhwurst . . . It is not pure pork, but pork and beef, sometimes veal in the better grades. The German wiener has a very light lamb casing, called Saitling. Your American hot dog is very similar to the wiener . . ."

Jimmy pinpointed the origin of the American word "frankfurter" at the 1893 Colombian World Exposition in Chicago, when the genuine (Frankfurt) article was exhibited. This trendier, upmarket sausage name was then applied to the inferior wiener. In Vienna, Jimmy was shocked to find the Viennese themselves calling the wiener a frankfurter. Fortunately, Mencken's Law of Geographical Misnomer came to his aid: as the Bolognese don't call bologna bologna, but mortadella, so the Viennese got their own sausage wrong.

Jimmy's first true clue came in Oldenburg in northern Germany, where he came across a housewife ordering wieners, but actually asking for Halberstadters. The butcher explained that they were really the same sausage, "but some of the older people still like to call them Halberstadters".

As Jimmy concludes:

If our American hot dog could talk, or even bark a few syllables, I am sure it would proudly proclaim, "Ich bin ein Halberstadter."

From the Food & Drink page of `The Independent', Saturday 2 June 1990