Deconstructing the Hot Dog
By Eileen Loh-Harrist
JUNE 21, 1999: Ahh, hot dogs. A true American fare, evocative of baseball games, beach parties, barbecues. Phallic, friendly, and universally appealing, hot dogs are as linked to summertime as sunburn, sand in the soap dish, and the smell of bug repellant. Even their jingles are irresistible. Hot dogs! Armour hot dogs! What kinds of kids eat Armour hot dogs? Oh, I wish I were an Oscar Mayer wiener! That is what I'd truly like to be
But there's a dark side to all that blubbery fondness. You've heard stories about what goes into hot dogs. Hair. Poop. Toenails, tails, teeth. Eyeballs and ears. Everything that should end up on the slaughterhouse floor. Lots of people say so
"They're full of shit!" Ben Fineberg roars.
Fineberg is the 84-year-old scion of the Fineberg Meat Packing Co. in Raleigh, producer of the Starling and Chelsea meat products and the only place in town that makes frankfurters. Since Fineberg opened the joint in 1939, he says, he's never put inedible items in his products.
"A lot of them use the cheapest crap they can use," Fineberg says of his competitors, "but we don't. We use only the best."
Frankfurters are, essentially, ground-up extra trimmings and meat too tough to be sold as cuts. The recipe obviously varies, so what makes hot dogs taste alike are the spices added.
Come on! What about the snouts, the bones, the genitals? The Flyer, not known for its schoolgirl optimism, couldn't ignore the rumors -- so we decided to see for ourselves what goes into the mighty wiener. Donning meat-packing smocks, hair nets and helmets, two Flyer reporters and a photographer went inside Fineberg's plant to find out.
"If it says beef on the label, it's more beef," says our guide, Yogi Ward, a 40-year veteran of the meat-packing industry who makes sure Fineberg workers follow federal regulations. "If it says pork, it's more pork."
Our first stop: a butchering room, where an assembly line of slit-open pigs swing from meat hooks. Workers slice them into choice cuts -- loins, spareribs, ham shanks. One employee pares fat off the meat and tosses the cut into one bin, then trims the remaining meat and throws it into another.
"See that?" Ward asks, pointing to the second bin. "That'll go into the [hot dog] mix."
Hmm. Fatty, but harmless so far. "We use what's called 'edible offal,'" Ward says. "Tongues and spleens and that type of thing."
What else? "We use the front feet only, not the hind the front. They don't have too much hair on them." He looks at his visitors, one of whom is scribbling on a notepad. "Am I giving you too much information?"
No such thing, he's reassured.
Edible offal, Ward continues, also consists of hearts, cheek meat, jowls, and livers (though those often go to separate meat mixtures, such as liverwurst).
Brains, eyeballs, bones, teeth, ears, snouts, intestines, and other organs go into animal feed, or a leftover mix known as "souse," says Ward, who won't elaborate much on souse except to say he won't eat it. "I do eat hot dogs," he offers.
What about tails? "That would never go into hot dogs."
Our next stop: the huge grinder, where all this excess meat and edible offal are dumped into a vat and pureed into a pinkish-beige goo.
Here in the grinding room, it's hot, suffused with an overwhelming frankfurter odor. The thick meat paste churns around in the vat, and Ward explains this is actually the base for not only hot dogs, but other products such as bologna, Polish sausage, and smoked sausage. Different spices give the various products their individual flavoring.
The adjacent spice room contains vats of spices and preservatives. We notice an open barrel filled with bubble-gum-pink powder resembling industrial detergent.
Not much of this stuff goes into the hot dog mush, according to an ingredients list, but it's bizarre nonetheless -- and there's a sinister-looking padlock dangling from its lid. "What is this?" we ask.
The bright pink stuff, Ward explains hesitatingly, is nitrite, a preservative. The barrel is open because the on-site USDA inspectors always check to see exactly how much nitrite is being used since it's also an explosive agent. "It makes them expand," says Ward, who really wants to change the subject.
"So that's what makes them 'plump when you cook 'em?'"
Off to the side, workers load red hot-dog casings into a "Frank-A-Matic," where the goop is pumped through a tube and extruded into the casings. Long strings of linked hot dogs are placed on racks.
Bologna, sausages, and the other meat-paste products are created through a similar process. Sometimes when they're cooling, though, a worker will unwittingly let in cold air, and the resulting temperature change makes them burst their casings. No problem! The goo is loaded right back into the vat with the next batch.
Back to the odor. It's not offensive, but overpowering. One hot dog might smell good, but ten thousand can be too much. Not only that, but each room in the plant varies from oppressively hot to freezing cold.
The plant workers are accustomed to the smell and the extreme temperature changes, but at least one visitor has to stagger to the bathroom and wonder whether he'll faint or hurl. He does neither and rejoins the tour.
What about the other, major portion of the hot dog -- the cow? Those carcasses are dangling in another part of the plant, and Ward explains that the ones that are tougher, stringier, or older go into the hot-dog vat.
Most of the fat on the carcasses is off-white, marbling through plump red meat. On some cows, though, the fat has turned yellow, the meat harder and drier. "When it starts showing yellow it means age," says Ward, who explains that these specimens are, also, hot-dog fodder.
We pass through several rows of dead cows. One visitor points to a yellowed carcass here, a shriveled one there, trying to identify future frankfurters.
"You're catching on!" Ward says proudly.
The hot dogs are cooked at 150-plus degrees to kill potentially harmful bacteria. Then they cool down and are separated. After workers remove their outer casings -- which give the hot dogs a reddish tint -- they're packaged up and shipped out.
We finish the tour with a trip to the "kill room," which one spectator insists she really doesn't need to visit. But her colleague, perhaps trying to reclaim his manhood after the earlier display of nausea, demands it.
We don't actually see any killing take place, but Ward makes a point of showing us a tub full of skinned heads, eyeballs intact. The stench is unreal, punctuated by the vivid sound of skin being ripped off carcasses.
Time to go!
As we leave, Ward presents us with packages containing frankfurters and bacon. "Now you know," he says. "Everything that goes into a hot dog here is class meat."
Not that Memphis eats it. Fineberg says local distributors prefer to buy meat products from out-of-state packers. "It's like a guy who goes to a convention looking for girls," he says, "when he's got the best girl at home."
After we leave, we stop so my colleague can get a hot dog, to prove the experience hasn't soured him on weenies. The first bite reminds him of the smell in that meat-grinding room, and he gags a little. After that, it's smooth sailing.
Pass the ketchup!
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