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Why Your American Wiener is Unimpressive

by Mark Hay

October 21, 2014
Illustration by Tyler Hoehne

Hot dogs have a pretty bad reputation in America. At best they’re mystery meat, at worst sodium nitrate- and MSG-laden symbols of all that’s cheap and gross in our culture. As the World Series kicks off Tuesday, and peak wiener season gets into full swing, this is as good a time as any for Americans to examine their sausage culture, from the dirty water dogs of New York City to the Dodger Dogs of Los Angeles. Though there are thousands of types of sausages from around the world, maybe the best tube-steak tutorial can be gleaned, surprisingly, from Iceland, where the hot dog is a widely celebrated, unironic national treat.

Iceland’s brats aren’t just gussied-up haute dogs or high-end chefs’ recent Wagyu beef Pygmalion products. These are solid, cheap, street cart-style franks. The most popular hotdog stand in Iceland, Baejarins Beztu Pylsur, “The Best Hot Dogs in Town,” opened near the Reykjavík harbor way back in 1937. At least 70 percent of the country’s population have reportedly at one point stood in line to eat at the simple seaside shack; even former president Bill Clinton has been seen eating one. And these days, hot dogs are so popular in Iceland that they’ve spread to almost every shop in even the most remote and sparsely populated corners of the country—there are accounts of hot-dog carts popping up at the base of remote waterfalls and the edges of lava fields.

But hot dogs didn’t conquer Iceland because they were the only food game in town. Any hungry carouser in Reykjavík can choose from traditional Icelandic snacks like ram’s testicles, boiled sheep’s heads, and hákarl (a fermented shark dish so foul that it nearly felled Andrew Zimmern)

The frankfurter won over Icelanders because local slingers have managed to make a cheap street food taste damn good. Here are five tips those in the U.S. can take from Iceland’s meat masters to improve the sorry state of the American wiener.  

1. According to one Huffington Post travel writer, “[Baejarins Beztu hotdogs] taste properly of meat, not an indistinguishable blur of brown.” That’s because, rather than factory-farm leftovers, Icelanders use free-range, grass-fed, organic, hormone-free animals. Cooking like that might raise sausage prices in America a bit, but if the result is a sustainably better brat, a few extra cents certainly seems worth it. 

2. Aficionados credit Icelandic hot dogs with a richer, sweeter, more complex flavor, the result of using not just beef or pork, but a mixture of the two alongside a healthy helping of lamb. Again, that sounds like a tall order for America, but international lamb producers have long been looking for a good excuse to slip a few more sheep into the states.

3. The flavor mixture is accented with a healthy, natural snap in every bite—the result of using a natural (read: intestinal) casing. It’s far more satisfying than the dissolved cellulose casings most American franks use, and we’re not exactly running a shortage of these types of slaughterhouse by-products.

4. Iceland style dogs use a complementary medley of simple yet satisfying condiments: raw and fried white onions, ketchup, and a remoulade of mayonnaise, capers, mustard, and herbs. Ergo, they get a more complex zing than the masking, emetic mustard we slather on. 

5. The add-ons create another layer of texture to the Icelandic wurst, not just heaped on top—the onions and ketchup go underneath, forming a bed for the brat, with the brown mustard and remoulade on top. The eating experience builds slowly and complexly, as opposed to the single-note U.S. presentation.

All in all, Reykjavik’s red hots win out because Icelanders have a knack for respecting simple ingredients and the simple foods that come from them. Aside from using better meat, the island’s secrets are mainly about the right combos of taste and texture. And that’s a much better way to improve a hot dog than what seems to be America’s current fad: Throw money at it until it tastes good-ish.

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Why Your American Wiener is Unimpressive