Serious about sausages: The hotdog gets a makeover
Thursday 04 August 2011
When was the last time you had a hotdog? I mean an authentic, American-style dog with fried onions and mustard, not the British barbecue favourite of a banger in a bun cloaked in ketchup.
Unless you've been to the US or Germany recently, or been suckerpunched by one of the terrible, but mercifully rare, hotdog carts lingering in city centres late at night, the chances are the closest you've come to a proper dog is watching an overweight detective snack on one in a cop drama.
For many reasons, the hotdog culture embedded in American folklore has never really caught on over here. We love a good burger, but hotdogs are so far down the food chain they're pushing plankton.
Over the past few years, however, a number of eager foodies have been working on bringing proper hotdogs to our small island, and it looks like wieners could be ripe for their 15 minutes – if not a permanent role in Britain's fast-food hall of fame.
Take Cooper, aka "The Dogfather", who is serving some very special dogs indeed to the well-heeled shoppers at Dulwich's North Cross Road market on a sunny Saturday morning. He is set up outside an expensive flower and homewares shop and a café where customers are comparing Labradoodles and real miniature sausage dogs, but apparently this is the right clientele for Cooper's high-end, bespoke hotdogs.
"I've always liked hotdogs," he explains, "but when I started 18 months ago I was looking for a street-food concept that would make me stand out from the competition. Everybody's doing burgers. I wanted to do something different, so I took the hotdog and turned it up a notch."
£2.90 will get you a plain dog – 100 per cent beef with no added nasties, served in a bun Cooper has worked on himself with his local bakery. For £4.50 you can indulge in one of Cooper's trademark, somewhat fantastical, creations, which today are The Mexican Elvis, which is smeared in steak-and-pinto-bean sauce, a thick slice of cheddar, jalapeños, onions, hot cheese sauce and guacamole.
If that hasn't made your arteries shudder, there is also The Dogfather (chorizo and mozzarella, homemade marinara sauce), The Snoop Dog (bacon, cheddar, spring onions, bbq sauce and corn mayo) and The Slum Dog (saag aloo, onion bhaji flakes, curried mango mayo and jalapeños).
"As a kid I used to make sandwiches out of my leftovers," says Cooper. "The Slum Dog was born when I found myself making a sandwich out of a curry. People are often a bit shy about trying it, but when they're done they usually call me a genius!"
The Mexican Elvis is a play on the classic chilli dog, and my favourite. They all impress, though, because the 100 per cent beef sausage is so different to the limp, watery frankfurters we understand as hotdogs. They're so, well, meaty.
Cooper has experimented to find the right ratio of toppings to sausage and bun, so that customers don't spray themselves with mustard and melted cheese, and he's got it just right. There are a few tables set around his stall and he provides knives and forks, but I manage it standing up with no spillage – as it's meant to be.
Cooper does about 100 dogs every Saturday, pre-steaming the sausage and then grilling to order. It's not a huge number, but all he can manage on his own. He says word is getting out and hotdog fans and the food-curious are making special trips across town to seek him out.
If demand rockets, Cooper hopes to take on some help, and the eventual plan is to open his own hotdog diner. He's been abreast of the UK diner scene since the early Nineties, when he worked at Ed's Diner, and has watched burgers, fries and milkshakes gain in popularity, leaving the humble dog behind.
Meanwhile, a mini-chain called Banger Bros is bringing the hotdog to the high street. Founder Julian Dyer opened his first shop on London's Portobello Road in 2007, and soon found champions among the sort of crowd you'd expect to see sharing a cupcake, not cramming down a huge sausage.
Dyer now has four shops across London and big expansion plans. Last month he took a stand to the Cartier Polo. No one, it seems, is too posh for sausage.
This year, his hotdogs took over from the Cumberland sausage as the number one product, which could explain why they've run out when I visit Euston station to try one. Dyer says that sales of Banger Bros sausages are up 44 per cent on last year, and hotdogs are now by far the biggest seller.
"Hotdogs have a bad name because there are so many bad ones out there," says Dyer. He scoured Europe for sausages before opening and found his first hotdog – 100 per cent beef, slightly smoked – in Germany. He now uses a UK-based company, which is more fitting because part of his plan has always been to improve our access to brilliant British bangers. "I used to visit a lot of farmers' markets and noticed that the longest queues were always for hot sausages. I thought, 'For god's sake, we've got some of the best sausages in the world, but nowhere can you get a hotdog on the high street.'"
In the few places you can find one on the high street, the quality tends to be rather pitiful.
"The 'hotdogs' usually served from British hotdog carts are plain awful," says food historian Bruce Kraig, author of Hot Dog: A Global History. "Flaccid, porky things bloated by frying in oil or grilling."
Hotdogs came to the US with European immigrants: German sausage makers began serving them in a bun, as they are in Germany, in public spaces from 1865 onwards. Other immigrants – Jews in New York and Chicago and Greeks all over, notably Detroit and Atlanta – then followed, explains Kraig. "There is no single origin – they grew organically from city streets and spread out to towns and villages across America in the late 19th century and early 20th century. This manner of serving food is America's major contribution to world food culture."
Hotdogs even have a role to play in the great American Dream, because the first street vendors earned their entrepreneurial stripes selling sausages, which allowed them to cross over into the economic mainstream. Today everyone in the US might eat a hotdog; they're not specific to any economic, racial or geographical group.
There are also a few theories as to where the name "hotdog" came from, but most likely it is a reference to the Dachshund dogs Germans brought to the US, along with their sausages. Dachshunds, of course, are petite, long, thin dogs, with very short legs. It is said that a New York cartoonist, Tad Dorgan, used to buy "hot Dachshund sausages" at ball games and popularised the term by drawing a cartoon of a dog wrapped in a white bun with the caption, "Get your hotdogs", but there is no trace of this cartoon. The first known reference to a hotdog is in the Yale Record, a Yale University publication, in October 1895. Students there called the hot sausage stands "dog wagons".
According to the Hot Dog & Sausage Council, Americans spent more than $1.6 billion on hotdogs in supermarkets alone last year, and on Independence Day usually get through around 150 million dogs. The quality of the sausage varies greatly, explains Kraig. "Cheap ones are made from varieties of meats, some with mechanically separated meats and fillers. There are supermarket brands, often eaten by children who don't know any better. There are good quality hotdog stands or restaurant hotdogs, made from skeletal meats [real flesh, rather than any processed byproducts] and with various spicings that recall their German and Eastern European origins. These are the prized 'adult' ones, which people who love hotdogs and know the differences dote upon. Gourmet – a word I hate – hotdogs are made from various other meats such as venison, elk, moose, ostrich, alligator, and topped with fancy items such as foie gras."
Kraig is currently researching an encyclopedia of global street food and says that "fancy food trucks", of the sort we're seeing in the UK, are becoming more popular. British snobbery, says Kraig, is behind our reluctance to embrace the hotdog. "There is a fear and loathing among many Brits – especially elites of various stripes – yet sneaking admiration for American pop culture."
This doesn't explain why we have taken so heartily to burgers, fries and milkshakes and other American imports. What's more, we already have our own sausage culture: they're mostly made of pork, and you grill them for breakfast. But we haven't caught on to making decent hot sausages readily available outside the home. Plenty of other European countries have worked this out: Germany and Austria in general, especially Hamburg, Frankfurt and Vienna, have hot sausage shops and restaurants everywhere. Dyer spotted a shop in Barcelona selling chips, beer and five types of chorizo, which was the inspiration for Banger Bros' "Spanish Chorizo" roll.
It looks as if hotdogs may have been co-opted by foodies over here before they had a chance to go mainstream. But if the demand is there, there's no reason other hot dog vendors can't turn their trade into a point of national pride, as it is in America.
Where to eat them
The Gourmet Hotdog Company
Based in Canary Wharf, London, choose from the classic Chicago Dog, complete with sauerkraut, the Full English (pork sausage with mushrooms and brown sauce) and even a chicken hotdog with chilli sauce. www.thegourmethotdog company.co.uk
Big Apple Hot Dogs
Inspired by the hotdog stands found on every corner of New York, Big Apple Hot Dogs in London and offers halal meat and locally baked buns. Hotdogs from £2.50. www.bigapplehotdogs.com
Primo's Gourmet Hotdogs
There are chorizo, bratwurst and Lincolnshire pork sausages on offer alongside the classic beef frankfurter at this Leeds cafe. Exotic sauces and toppings abound. All at £3.85. www.primosgourmethotdogs.co.uk
Kurz & Lang
Proudly German, this is where to go in London to enjoy specialities from the traditional bratwurst to the curry or cheesy wurst from £4.70. www.kurzandlang.com
What's in your bun?
The classic hotdog sausage is made not with pork but with 100 per cent beef, cured and highly spiced. Cheaper versions, many of them in fact the porkier and blander weiners, have dented its reputation.
Authentically German, but enthusiastically adopted in the States, there are dozens of varieties of Bratwurst. It's usually made with pork and veal, with any of a variety of herbs and spices.
Traditionally made with pork and veal (a higher proportion of veal than its cousin, bratwurst), there are lamb, turkey, chicken and even fish variations. Spiced with paprika and herbs, it's a German favourite.
The coarsely cut, highly spiced Spanish sausage has become a British favourite. Not traditionally a hotdog sausage, that hasn't stopped us from serving them up in a bun.
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