Three-hundred sixty-four days a year, our family prefers unprocessed foods, and as local as possible. But come July 4th, we can’t shake our craving for a hot dog. Fresh off the grill or charred over a campfire, it’s a true umami-bomb of salt, fat and smoke, and it really explodes with flavor when topped with tangy ketchup, spicy mustard and a funky fermented kraut. Plus for us, like most Americans, it spells comfort.
Kids help us rediscover that visceral hot dog love. My 3-year-old, Theo, had practically gone vegetarian, until this spring when he started begging for griddled dogs from the popular Danny’s Dogs stand on Brunswick’s town green. Thrilled he’s back on meat, I’ve reluctantly indulged his desire. But it also set me on a quest to find hot dogs, beyond the standard industrial pork issue, that satisfied yet were made from the antibiotic-free, preferably local and pastured meat we value. We wanted hot dog indulgence less tinged with guilt.
At the grocery store and local meat markets, options abound: ones with natural or artificial casings, dogs made from pork, beef, chicken, turkey and tofu, and increasingly prevalent “uncured” ones made with no added nitrates or nitrites, that preservative often in the form of pink curing salt. Maybe you grew up preferring Hebrew National (now owned by feedlot-employing Con Agra) kosher beef? My husband, Dan, always favored the taste, texture and heft of beef dogs (I do, too). That “Ingredients of a Hot Dog” episode of “The Simpsons,” where vegetarian Lisa imagines a hot dog made from rat, raccoon and pig parts, plus shoe leather, made kosher dogs seem somehow cleaner. Yet now we applaud butchers who use all those “nasty” nose-to-tail bits of offal.
To wade through these choices, consider a hot dog cook-off at your next cookout. That’s what Bow Street Market meat manager Patrick Hill did at his 4-year-old’s recent birthday party in Brunswick, taste-testing several pork-beef blends on his guests: local ones from Pineland Farms, headquartered in New Gloucester, and Wee Bit Farm in Orland, plus hot dogs by Boar’s Head and Nathan’s. To Hill’s dismay, the cheapest ones, Nathan’s, won. He prefers Wee Bit’s nitrate-free, completely grass-fed beef/all-natural pork dogs, which are “bigger and uglier” but most delicious, he said. Bow Street in Freeport sells them for $7.99 a pound.
“They all picked the least-expensive ones – the kids and adults, too,” Hill said. “The kind of hot dogs they always had, that people grew up with, the Kirschner’s (Natural Casing Frankforts). It just brings them back. I thought the cheapest were lousy.”
As parents, we must acknowledge the choking hazard associated with hot dogs. A coin-size cross-section of one is the perfect tracheal plug, the size of a small child’s airway. For this reason, my retired anesthesiologist father-in-law would prefer we not serve them to Theo at all. As a precaution, many parents, including us, slice the dogs in half lengthwise, then cut them into half-moon bites.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also advises pregnant women to consume only dogs that are “steaming hot” – since they and other deli meats tend to harbor the bacteria listeria – and to clean up spills of juices leaked from hot dog packages right away. The CDC also steers those with high blood pressure or diabetes away from high-sodium hot dogs.
So, with those precautions in mind, we offer this tasting guide of locavore/antibiotic-free varieties (ranked in order of our favorites). Vegans and vegetarians, we’re focusing on meat dogs here. We found the vital wheat gluten-and-pea protein-packed Tofurky ones a tease, with subpar texture and cardboardy flavor. (You could grill smoky skewers of Bowdoinham’s Lalibela Farm tempeh instead.)
We also tried to steer clear of the “green-washing” that major players now engage in. Take, for example, Oscar Mayer’s new “Selects” line of uncured, hardwood-smoked franks. The package prominently claims “no artificial preservatives” and “no nitrates or nitrites except those naturally-occurring in celery juice.” They tasted good at a recent cookout. But the meat – yes Angus beef – is still factory-farmed and not antibiotic-free. The turkey ones bore the empty claim of “no added hormones,” then in small print the disclosure that “federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones in turkey” anyway.
Trader Joe’s “all natural” uncured turkey, chicken and beef dogs also all appear to be from conventional meats (buy the organic beef Applegate ones there instead). Personally, we’d prefer good local meat dogs cured with a little pink salt. Everything in moderation – and even those naturally derived are still nitrates that we, in fact, convert to anti-microbial nitrite in our guts, right? (See food writer Michael Ruhlman’s “The ‘No Nitrites Added’ Hoax.”) These are the hot dog tradeoffs you have to make.
• FARMERS’ GATE MARKET PORK AND BEEF FRANKS ($8.99 a pound at owner-butcher Ben Slayton’s meat market in Wales, forthcoming at his planned South Portland retail store and through his Meat-Ups, and at www.farmersgatemarket.com). Monmouth mom Emily Johnson recently inquired about these delicious dogs when she visited this grass-fed, local-meat market, a rural oasis near Lewiston, with her 6-month-old son in tow. Did the hot dogs contain dairy? Johnson’s husband, Andy, is lactose-intolerant. Yes, a pinch of milk powder for emulsification, said Farmers’ Gate apprentice Elizabeth Roma. But no problem – such customers can order custom batches, including reduced-sodium dogs.
Farmers’ Gate owner Slayton just hired Andy Lindberg, known for his charcuterie at Portland’s Nosh Kitchen Bar, to make these pepper-flecked, pork-and-beef blends from pastured meat trimmings he gets from the dozen-plus sustainable Maine farms that supply the operation. These long and lean “not fully cooked” dogs, in natural lamb casings, are mottled like sausage rather than baloney-emulsified, and gently smoked, with sublime flavor similar to Farmers’ Gate’s memorable kielbasa.
The hot dogs, packed just hours before I picked them up last Saturday, were smoked the day before. Slayton says the dogs contain “minimal pink salt, just to be safe,” which many feel is more consistent than celery juice at keeping the toxins that cause botulism at bay.
“I am proud to feed them to my kids,” says Slayton, who lives in Yarmouth.
• PINELAND FARMS NATURAL MEATS UNCURED BEEF HOT DOGS ($7.99 for a 12-ounce pack. Buy one and get one free at Bow Street Market in Freeport through Monday.) We tried these pleasantly nutmeg-laced, paprika-tinted dogs at the concessions stand of the Coastal Summer Challenge soccer tournament at Bowdoin College over Father’s Day weekend. We found Sam Gagner there chowing down on a post-game snack. “It’s so good it doesn’t even need ketchup,” said the 10-year-old from Berwick.
Pineland’s natural casings have that satisfying snap when you bite into them. (But is that chewier exterior more of a choking hazard?) They have no added nitrites or nitrates except for those “naturally occurring nitrates in the sea salt and celery juice powder.” A major supplier of Whole Foods, Pineland is hardly just a small local player anymore. The brand represents over 200 antibiotic-free, vegetarian-fed Northeast cattle farms.
Pineland’s David Ordway told me their dogs are made in small batches by Usinger’s, a fourth-generation German sausage maker in Milwaukee (so they have to be trucked back here). No wonder these reminded us of thinner, yummy bratwurst.
• MAINE FAMILY FARMS PORK-BEEF HOT DOGS ($2.50 per dog at Wolfe’s Neck Recompence Shore Campground snack bar in Freeport; Sysco distributes wholesale; Hannaford sometimes carries for $7.99 a pound, and full line at Carl’s Meat Market in Kittery; [email protected]). This is a plainer, blank canvas that Portland husband-and-wife chefs Damian Sansonetti and Ilma Lopez choose for their wildly inventive dogs at Blue Rooster Food Co.
Sansonetti says the mild blend in a nude-colored, natural lamb-casing has a “clean” taste that isn’t overly seasoned or spiced (just with a little mustard, onion powder and smoke flavoring added). The meat comes from more than 50 local farms; it’s processed at Maine’s largest USDA-inspected slaughterhouse (an offshoot of Herring Brothers Meats) in Guilford. The ingredients do include less pleasant-sounding corn syrup and several sodium compounds, including the common hot dog preservatives sodium nitrite and sodium erythorbate, a variation of ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) said to reduce the formation of possibly carcinogenic nitrosamines present in the curing salt.
Maine Family Farms also sells those “red snapper” dogs, in artificially dyed red but natural lamb casings. The shocking, neon-crimson dogs are a beloved Maine tradition that W.A. Bean & Sons Inc. in Bangor proudly carries on.
• APPLEGATE’S THE GREAT ORGANIC UNCURED BEEF HOT DOG (prices range, available at Shaw’s, Morning Glory Natural Foods in Brunswick and Trader Joe’s in Portland). Though not local, these grass-fed organic dogs are succulent ones we feel good feeding Theo. They scratch the itch for those plump ballpark, kosher beef-style dogs, with that substantive meaty flavor. Lacking that natural casing, they’re an easier cut for toddlers to chew.
• NIMAN RANCH FEARLESS UNCURED FRANKS ($8.79 a pound at Morning Glory in Brunswick). Another respected national brand, like Applegate, for antibiotic and nitrate-free dogs. This pork-beef blend reminded us of a classic childhood hot dog.
• NATURE’S CHOICE ALL-NATURAL UNCURED FRANKS ($5.49 for a pack of 8 at Hannaford). These fully-cooked dogs also lack that toothsome natural casing, the easier for kids to swallow. They’re all pork, but we prefer richer beef, or at least a beef-pork blend. They were the only antibiotic-free uncured ones (no nitrates “except for that which naturally occurs in sea salt and celery powder”) recently available at our Hannaford in Brunswick. A suitable, but hardly the tastiest, option.
HOT DOG ADDENDUM: Since I don’t live in Portland, I don’t get to Rosemont Market nearly as much as I’d like. If I did, I’d have known their Brighton Avenue butcher shop smokes their own local beef dogs and I would have included that in my June 29 roundup. Reader Christopher White of Windham clued us in to this and other high-quality local options at Pat’s Meat Mart in Deering Center and Royal River Natural Foods in South Freeport. Such tips are most welcome! Let’s keep the dialogue going.