5th February 2020
Hot Dogs and Extinction
A gently, slightly upward parabola- like someone throwing a tennis ball onto a balcony- would probably be the shape of a graph charting my fear of hot dogs over the last 3.5 decades. The 1990s were a time where, I imagine, the majority of the populace (myself included) were unconcerned with the labyrinthine industrial systems that connected the salty, ketchupy frankfurter in the impossibly spongy finger roll with distant, hapless pigs in Denmark (or wherever). The millennium arrived and I do not recall there being, or ever having been, any concern in my mind around the provenance of cheap sausages. At school I would consume reconstituted meats with vigour and fond familiarity.
University, mid-noughties: the arrival of autonomy and its unelected sidekick Responsibility. I began to read the Guardian. I came into contact with vegetarians and sober, moral voices. Ethics cast its (or their?) long shadow upon my decision making and I began to buy free-range eggs. My tastes began to change and I would elect to eat ScotMid’s pork and apple sausages, paying attention to the % of pork per product, uncomfortable to buy anything lower than 85%. It was around 2010/11 that I reached the days of ethical paralysis, as I now call them: times when I would be immobilised by ethical indecision in the face of consumer decisions, desperate to do the right thing, brought to a standstill by the weight of my own accountability to the invisible, concrete morals that I had perceived.
At some point somebody told me unpalatable things, probably true, about how McDonalds produce their beef patties. It wasn’t hard to project the same logic onto the jarred frankfurters in brine, stored at ambient like preserved objects-of-science on a laboratory shelf. The reality of the meat industry is that there is a lot we don’t know, much of which is probably pretty uncomfortable information. An additional reality in/of society is that there are a lot of voices that are strangely bent on propagating fear in the name of what is Right or Good. I suspect the fervour of such voices comes as a response to the blithe ignorance of the many.
Over time, there’s been a move away from a taste for sketchy, nondescript foods and opaque production or sourcing practices. people are more switched on about dodgy meat and retailers are in on the act. KFC and Subway are, at the time of writing, advertising vegan alternatives to menu favourites, a fascinating move from ‘bad’ to ‘good’ that doesn’t need to set foot outside the ‘nasty’ sector. If that’s too cynical, I hope that it’s at least clear that to fabricate artificial chicken or cheese or meatballs at a cheap fast-food price is an almost entirely unregulated form of ‘good’.
We’ve begun to explore sustainability in more detail and it’s been impossible not to scrutinise our sourcing in the process. The question of why and how we serve meat is ever-present in the mix. At some point, like KFC and Subway and the generic consumer, voyeur of billboards and resident of Earlsfield, there’s a fork in the road: which path do I go down in order to action my ethical choices? For us, it’s not been the binary one that leads to meat alternatives, but a more nuanced interaction with the bigger picture of meat as a foodstuff. This includes offal and extends to the conviction that if I’m going to embrace this sort of thing I should probably be comfortable stirring brains into my scrambled eggs.
What should a meat-based dish look like? Perhaps the better question is what a meat-based diet should look like- and not for the individual but for the community. For every 2 chicken breasts there are two thighs and two wings but also two feet, a neck, a gizzard, and a pot of stock. Dan Barber talks about the chicken nugget being a product of the breakdown in our perception of a chicken as a whole item and the development of an industry in which chickens are broken down into popular, less popular and unwanted elements. In this sense, chicken nuggets- using the ‘waste’ chicken from the production of chicken breasts, drumsticks and thighs- are an innovative solution to food waste. Which brings us back to hot dogs…
Could the hot dog exist as an openly ‘nasty’ food? Could it be the pantomime villain, the resting place of unused (but not unwanted) meat, a destination for the leftovers that we can’t find a home for? Could we fit the concept into our understanding of how we consume food- that the emulsified remains of an animal are the natural and sustainable bottom line of our appetites for the finer cuts? Will the production of jarred frankfurters become a grandma’s/grandpa’s kitchen staple? The curve on the graph will never come all the way down to zero again, but I think that my musing on the benign place of the frankfurter on the zero-waste continuum have softened my aversion to it.
The reality is that it’s only the concept that works: frankfurters represent everything that’s not sustainable about the food industry: factories, homogenisation and bad animal welfare. They only exist because of unsustainable appetites and unhealthy diets. There are voices of concern around the possibility of human extinction based on historic demand for what is not sustainable. Perhaps, therefore, when it comes to extinction, it’s humans vs hot dogs?
Possibly on account of the free wall charts that were included at that time- the consumer successor to the free-toy-in-cereal which meant that we bought shreddies for whole seasons of my childhood on the basis of the free Power Rangers collector cards  This also happened with jam- I began to shun the 40g-fruit-per-100g products in favour of industrial bastions of integrity such as Bonne Maman or Tesco Finest. Though Douglas McMaster’s use of ‘muscular veg’ to create meaty-texture in vegetable-based dishes is definitely interesting… we tried dehydrating a celeriac and then cooking it with a pastrami rub. It tasted, on the whole, like celeriac. I think there’s still mileage in the experiment though. Cf.