Frankly Speaking

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Posted Friday, July 2, 2004, at 12:25 PM PT - The Fourth of July is not only America's most patriotic holiday, it's also the holiday during which we consume large quantities of the foods the writer H.L. Mencken once described as "rubber, indigestible pseudo-sausage"—that is, the hot dog. Yes, the mighty hot dog: perennial of ballparks, barbecues, and lowbrow punch lines alike. (It's also the inspiration behind the freestyle-skiing sex comedy Hot Dog ... The Movie!) According to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council (located at the highly amusing, 150 million hot dogs will be consumed during the July Fourth weekend. But are we gorging ourselves on the tastiest brand of pseudo-sausage?

To find out, I assembled a panel of six tasters, dedicated to determining which dogs are the hottest on the market. We tested examples of every available variety in a Los Angeles Ralph's: all-beef, chicken, turkey, tofu, and regular old hot dogs. Although there is great variance in their healthfulness, our panel only considered one thing: taste.

This shopper is all about what you should serve at your Independence Day barbecue, not what you'll regret the next morning. Water and beer were available to wash the dogs down and our sorrows away, respectively. All the food was prepared by my friend Scott, who met the requirements of journalistic integrity, culinary competence, and grill ownership. Each brand was both grilled and boiled, to see how they fared under different cooking conditions. The dogs were then chopped and eaten plain, without buns or condiments of any kind. This was a blind test; only Scott knew the type and brand of each entry. (For the dogs, it was an unforgiving and occasionally humiliating test: With nothing to cover them up, a few of the denuded wieners just couldn't compete with their beefier brethren.)

We gave two scores to each dog, one for grilled taste and one for boiled, on a 1-10 scale, with 10 equaling delicious and 1 equaling disgusting. Ignoring my explicit instructions, some testers gave out zeroes and negative numbers, which I generously counted as ones, though it isn't too hard to figure out which brands fared so poorly. (Here's a hint: Their average scores are in the 1.0-to-1.25 range.) Below are the dogs, from the most cringe-worthy to the most crave-worthy. (All dogs are ranked according to their grilled score, since it's unlikely too many people will be boiling their dogs on the Fourth.)

Lightlife Tofu Pups
Cost: $3.99/12 ounces
Average Scores: Grilled, 1.0; Boiled, 1.0
Seeing as how the Tofu Pups received the lowest possible score (an unprecedented low for one of my "Shopping" taste tests), I feel I must point out that none of the panelists is a vegetarian and point out, once again, that we're eating just the dog, with no ketchup, no mustard, no mercy. That said, I also feel I have a duty to let readers know that these things taste "like a sponge made out of bile," that they "smell like burnt rubber" and "have no flavor except nasty." Both cooking methods yielded grossness: "[T]hey broke up in the water when boiled," and "grilling only created an extremely tough, inorganic skin."

Lightlife Smart Dogs (vegetarian, made with soy)
Cost: $3.99/12 ounces
Average Scores: Grilled, 1.17; Boiled, 1.25
Our other soy entry beat the Tofu Pups only because one panelist gave the dogs a score of "2" for grilled and "2.5" for boiled—everyone else gave them a 1 or less. Here is that lone enthusiast's comment, which is by far the most positive description: "Mealy, dry, rank." Other panelists were less adulatory: "I want to eat this as much as I want to eat a box of ants"; "Grody! They are orange, very orange"; and, "I dry-heaved and spit it out ... 10 minutes later—still queasy."

Zacky Farms Jumbo Chicken Franks (sorry, folks, no Web site)
Cost: $2/16 ounces
Average Scores: Grilled,
4.17; Boiled, 3.5
"Really spongy" with a "pungent and odd taste," the chicken franks taste "not terrible" but "strange" and, to one panelist, even "decent," but the "mouthfeel"—for lack of a better word—is somehow off. "Blubbery," "plasmalike," and "sooooo fleshy," are among the descriptors panelists chose to explain the texture. One panelist notes of a fellow taster: "Jodi ate a bite, frowned, and said, 'Oh, weird.' That's not what you want people to say at your Fourth of July barbecue."

Cantinella's Turkey Hot Dog (no Web site here, either)
Cost: $3.49/16 ounces
Average Scores: Grilled, 4.3; Boiled, 3.8
This "heavily processed" offering "doesn't taste like mammal meat." The "oddly spiced" turkey hot dog—"[l]ike warm bologna"—is "too solid" and "too dense." It either has a "real tough skin" (grilled) or is "way too rubbery" (boiled). In sum, it tastes "different than the real meat" ... "kind of sweet and peppery."

Oscar Mayer Turkey Franks
Cost: $3.19/16 ounces
Average Scores: Grilled, 4.67; Boiled, 3.75
The look isn't ideal—"boiled, this dog looks like something from Oscar Mayer's nightmare, while grilled looks like something from Oscar Mayer's nightmare that was grilled"—and neither is the taste: The dreaded "warmed-up bologna" comparison again rears its unappetizing head. The dogs also have a heavy, "artificially smoked flavor," which makes "the grilled much better than the boiled," though they're both "boooooring!" But worse than the taste is the "disgusting, processed appearance."

Foster Farm Chicken Franks
Cost: $2/16 ounces
Average Scores: Grilled, 5.1; Boiled, 5.0
We break the 5-point barrier with this chicken frank, which some find to be like the other fowl-derived dogs—"artificial and grody." Others remark on the "good taste" and are grateful that these are "not at all greasy." Still they can be "chewy—too chewy," and one panelist chafes at the "purplish flesh" and concludes, "not as juicy, not as good." It may be "overflavored" or it may "taste like nothing"—the panelists were polarized—but either way, "with ketchup and mustard, it could be palatable."

Oscar Mayer Wiener (made with turkey and pork)
Cost: $3.89/16 ounces
Average Scores: Grilled, 6.38; Boiled, 5.75
At this point, we're through with the imitators and into the real wieners, though they still received some mixed reviews: "[S]moky, tasty," says one panelist while another complains, "too smoked, slightly faux." Yet another comments that the dog "tastes like a breakfast sausage, not like a hot dog" (but finds this to be a "good" thing). As for how this dog fared with different preparations? "Basically the same grilled or boiled," notes one taster. Another says that boiling lends it a "stronger bologna taste." In the end, the panel decides that the Oscar Mayer is not quite at the Platonic ideal of hot dog, but it's a "good attempt at authentic."

(made with beef, pork, and turkey)
Cost: $4.29/16 ounces
Average Scores: Grilled,
6.92; Boiled, 6.5
The ubiquitous ads for these dogs boast that Ball Park franks are "girthy," but, in not-totally-freakish terms, we'd call them "good, plump, and not too greasy" ... which, after all the inferior options, elicits a cheer of "yay!" Though one panelist nitpicks, "[t]he taste is not of meat, but of fat," others simply enthuse "lots of flavor!" Everyone likes that they aren't overly greasy, but some note that they're "just not as juicy as I'd like." Regardless, Ball Parks are definitely "a good standard."

Oscar Mayer Beef Franks (all beef)
Cost: $3.89/16 ounces
Average Scores: Grilled, 7.25; Boiled, 5.5
Greasiness is the thing when evaluating Oscar Mayer's all-beef entry. "Almost unbearably greasy," says one taster; "a classic hot dog: salty, greasy," counters another. It seems that one man's greasiness is another man's "very, very juicy and flavorful." The grilled version far outperforms the boiled because grilling provides "that nice crunch" and "boiled equals overflavored and kind of gross." (Although it should be noted that others praise the boiled dogs for their "salty, smoky flavor.")

Hebrew National Beef Franks (all beef, kosher)
Cost: $4.79/12 ounces
Average Scores: Grilled, 7.9; Boiled, 7.3
A "rich taste," "hearty juiciness," and "good texture and flavor" make this dog "what a dog is meant to be." This is a "beefy hot dog, juicy without having something to prove." (Or, as one panelist with a full mouth put it, "spurts grease, yum.") That "spicy, salty taste" and terrific boiled performance ("tastes just like the grilled") make this a dog to remember. "I had another one right after the contest," confessed one convinced taster.

Nathan's Skinless Beef Franks (all beef)
Cost: $4.89/18 ounces
Average Scores: Grilled, 9.0; Boiled, 6.67
"Very beefy" with "a good snap," Nathan's beef franks are our grilled high-scorer by a good margin: This is "so fatty and good." "Fat is oozing out and delicious," drools one panelist. The "hearty, smoky flavor" and "good texture" make this the big winner. "Fat and glorious," praises one panelist; "very beefy," exclaims another. Any way you slice it, this dog is "pure summer!"

First, a word on grilling versus boiling. The results were no surprise: Grilled dogs taste better. Overall, our findings were straightforward, showing a clear hierarchy of substance. The worst by far are the vegetarian options, which are absolutely horrific. Sure, they're probably closer to edible when smothered with condiments, but seriously, serving these to guests at a barbecue could be construed as an act of aggression. Next in the pecking order are the fowl entries. Foster Farm Chicken Franks were the winner here, but the other poultry entries fared much poorer, leaving me to conclude that turkey and chicken dogs are pretty well interchangeable—that is, both are inferior options. Of course, while these healthier dogs won't satiate meat lovers, they could definitely prove a viable low-fat option if you're grilling up a range of hot dogs. (Incidentally, Foster Farms chicken dogs were also the best value, offering the highest score for the lowest price—$2 for 16 ounces.) Next are the good old fashioned mixed-meat dogs, Ball Park franks and Oscar Mayer wieners, made out of turkey, pork, and, in the case of the former, beef. These beat the bird-dogs easily but still fell consistently behind the all-beef entries. Still, if you're serving these, it's unlikely your guests will complain. But if it's plaudits for your grilling you crave, you gotta spend a bit more money and go with the all-beef options. For flavor, for juiciness—damn it, for America—go with all-beef, the finest pseudo-sausages from sea to shining sea.

Ben Wasserstein is a writer based in Los Angeles.

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