A Cook's Diary

On chili dogs, hot dogs and sausages

I’ve always wondered what distinguishes a hot dog from a sausage. Both refer to ground (often, scrap) meat, fat and seasonings encased in animal intestine. Technically, a hot dog is just a variety of sausage. But why is the term “hot dog” more popular in modern times that it is often used a generic term to refer to any and all kinds of sausages?

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I suppose it’s a culture thing. An American culture thing, actually, that we Filipinos have assimilated after half a century of American colonization. It’s as American as canned Vienna sausage which is really nothing like real Viennese sausage.

(For the record, a sausage is not limited to something that comes out of a can. There are so many varieties of sausages — cured, smoked or dried — and canned sausage is not even a real sausage. Sausage is known by different names in different cultures — from the Mexican chorizo to the Spanish longaniza to the Italian pepperoni and salami to the German bratwurst to the Chinese lap cheong or lap chong. Our native longganisa is a sausage.)

Hot dog, then, is an American synonym for sausage. Along with the burger, hot dogs are iconic of the cuisine of Northern America. It’s funny to use “hot dog”, “burger” and “cuisine” in one sentence, I feel like singing “Which does not belong?” but that’s that. Quite a contrast to the cuisines of southern United States with their Cajun and Creole roots. I certainly have no problem using the word “cuisine” when talking about the cooking in southern United States.

Interestingly enough, there seems to be some debate as to whether the term hot dog refers to American-style sausage (which is pre-cooked unlike its European counterparts) or to the sandwich that consists of a bun, sausage filling and a variety of toppings. Personally, I think that a hot dog is still a hot dog even without the bun.

Which now brings me to the chili dog. What is a chili dog?

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A chili dog is a hot dog in a bun smothered with (usually, beanless) chili con carne. Obviously, a strange (though wildly popular) marriage between American and Mexican culinary traditions. Grated cheese and chopped onions are the most popular toppings.

Undeniably, the chili dog is an American invention. But if, instead of “American hot dog”, some other kind of sausage is used (say, a veal bratwurst), is the sandwich still a chili dog? I don’t know. I do know, however, that I can’t eat my hot dog sandwich (with or without chili) with soggy steamed bread. I prefer my bread grilled or toasted, or toasted on a grill.

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