Hot dogs are finicky to make. Casings break. The emulsification—a mix of meat and fat—gets warm and "becomes like peanut butter, really hard to work with," says CeCe Lopez of Bull City Burger and Brewery. Or, once processed, the franks burst while poaching.
"I don't usually talk to anyone while I'm doing this," Lopez tells me as she stuffs a blend of spices, fat and pasture-raised beef into natural pork casings during the quiet early morning of her shift at the downtown Durham eatery.
Until recently, there have been a limited number of small-batch hot dog producers. Now in Durham alone, locally made hot dogs appear on the menu at Geer Street Garden, Bull City, Scratch and Farmhand Foods' Sausage Wagon. And the dogs showing up these days are a far cry from the franks I grew up with in Johnston County, an area that Andrea Weigl of The News & Observer has called "ground zero in North Carolina for the fire-engine red dogs."
In my native Smithfield alone, there are Steven's Sausages and Carolina Packers, which have long supplied the Triangle with traditional hot dogs. In March, the latter began a three-year contract to provide bright red dogs to the concession stands at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
I love a charred red hot dog topped with chili, slaw and onions. The Carolina Packers' logo—a gold tobacco leaf with bright blue lettering—is fondly stamped on many childhood memories. But it isn't all nostalgia. In Smithfield, we instinctively roll up our car windows before passing the Packers' plant on a hot summer day. We drive fast. And we definitely don't go inside.
I wonder if the same is true of the headquarters for the Triangle's new dogs. I call Sam Suchoff, owner of The Pig in Chapel Hill, who doesn't look like a stereotypical butcher. He has a head full of messy cropped curls and sports the likes of kneesocks and neon caps—a fashion sense that hints at his Los Angeles roots. There, he grew up eating hot dogs from Pink's, Hollywood's legendary 71-year-old stand. "At the time, I was certainly not thinking about making my own," he recalls. "I was thinking about how to get my dad to buy me a third-pound chili and slaw dog."
Suchoff knows hot dogs. He makes his own at The Pig, which he sells from a cart at the Carrboro Farmers' Market on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Also, years ago he researched various aspects of the hot dog industry for NC Choices, an initiative of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems that was working to build a support system and outlet for North Carolina hog producers. The outgrowth of NC Choices was Farmhand Foods, which sells its local sausages through restaurants, retail shops and its own Sausage Wagon; it plans to eventually make its own hot dogs.
Suchoff hands me six typed pages of ideas to consider when making hot dogs. Bulleted points include meat (pork, beef or a combination), casings (which can be derived from plastic, collagen or the intestines of hogs or sheep) and additives (which can include nitrites, sodium erythorbate or phosphates).
The choices are dizzying. But Suchoff acknowledges that one of the hardest things about producing hot dogs is literally putting together the ingredients. "It's like making mayonnaise," he explains. Similar to mayo, a hot dog at its simplest is nothing more than a combination of protein and fat—which don't naturally mix. This challenge, Suchoff theorizes, is of interest to chefs and is partially responsible for the handmade hot dog's resurgence. "Meat working and butchery is very popular and trendy right now. I think it's feeding that demand and is interesting for cooks to get involved with, because it's definitely a challenge," Suchoff says. "It's also reclaiming Americana food or trashy food. But it's really not trashy food—lips and assholes or whatever they say. The same people go to Lantern and say, 'I'm so into nose and tail.'"
The change of phrase is convincing and the process sounds interesting. I make an appointment to visit a hot dog kitchen. "Don't tell me about it," my friend says, "I love hot dogs." But after one visit behind the counter at Bull City, I realize it's possible to reconcile the hot dog and the process of making it. Afterward, you can eat one, too, and it's crazy good—a toothsome tasty thing you don't want to bury under toppings. Now if only those hot dogs were red.
Correction: The original version of this article mistakenly stated that Farmhand Foods was an outgrowth of a paper prepared for NC Choices by Sam Suchoff; Farmhand Foods originated from NC Choices, a Center for Environmental Farming Systems initiative.