To love hot dogs and to critically examine them are often opposing forces. Enclosed in each mechanically filled tube is not just savory meat, but a long and unsavory history of politics, labor, animal rights, and economic battles. But someone has to do the dirty work, and we’re lucky that Jamie Loftus has taken on the job.
Loftus’ debut book, Raw Dog: The Naked Truth About Hot Dogs, is a robust inquiry into this deeply American meal. The book is framed by a massive road trip from Los Angeles to Massachusetts, where Loftus is headed to help care for her father, who will be undergoing lung surgery. Loftus, her boyfriend, and their pets (a cat and a dog) visit pretty much every hot dog joint along the way—Hot Dog Summer, she calls it. Within an enthusiastically socialist framework, Raw Dog gathers a fascinating history of the modern hot dog and the violent forces that both created and maintain it.
If you’ve managed to avoid learning about hot dogs’ dark past until now, Raw Dog is certainly a crash course. In describing Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and its influence on the formation of the Food and Drug Administration, Loftus writes about how “the meatpacking industry had [by the 1890s] reached a level of automation that made the modern hot dog possible, provided that menial immigrant labor was readily available and exploitable alongside emerging technology.” Even now, deplorable working conditions persist, with COVID shedding further light on the industry’s negligence: In 2020, “An executive order from failed casino owner President Donald Trump kept meat plants open so that Americans could continue to comfortably gorge themselves on cheap meat while the employees working to process it were put at an even higher risk for disease and injury than usual.”
But despite the (many) depressing facts about America’s favorite tube meat, the book is incredibly funny. It’s a story about hot dogs, but also the country in love with them, the people who cook and serve them, those who eat them every day, and the select few who eat 76 of them in 10 minutes on a national broadcast from Coney Island. In a county so violently divided on just about every topic, the hot dog perseveres as one beguiling constant. Every region has its own style. Raw Dog mines the turbulent world of hot dogs and the country that can’t stop shoveling them down.
The Takeout: Are you exhausted talking about hot dogs?
Jamie Loftus: I’m exhausted traveling about hot dogs. I have yet to get tired of talking about [them], which I’m kind of surprised at. But yeah, when I’m talking about hot dogs, I feel infinite.
TO: In the book, you come out against the Chicago dog. Did you have apprehension during the writing process that you might talk shit on a variant of hot dog and incur the wrath of that region of America?
JL: Yes. It is my worst fear in the entire world for anyone to be 1% mad at me. But also, I was writing this a year and a half before anyone would ever see it. So I feel I gave myself a real long leash to talk shit, because I’m like, “Who knows if we’ll even live to 2023? Let me write how I feel about this damn hot dog.”
The people in my life can attest that as the publication grew nearer I was like, “Oh, I have to go to Chicago.” I was walking around [thinking], “Wow, this is the last time I’ll ever be allowed to come here. I will be put on a list and I will not be served hot dogs.”
My [book tour stop] in Chicago was last week. I did the event with Women and Children First, and they brought me this peace offering of a huge thing of ketchup. And they taped my picture to it. They were like, “You can put ketchup on your hot dog, but keep it away from us.” So it felt like we reached an understanding. I hope to go back. I really like it there.
TO: That gets at one of the coolest parts of what you’re exploring, which is the regionalism of the hot dog.
JL: I think that’s one of the things that’s so awesome about hot dogs: It feels like this fun canvas for any region to project their own food traditions onto, and it’s also the easiest way in the world to start a conversation with someone, because everyone feels strongly about it, whether they know it or not.
It’s usually a fun, occasionally chilling way to get introduced to where you are. Because you’re like, “Well, why the fuck would this be on this tubed meat?” And there’s always an answer. You don’t have to like it, but there’s always an answer, and it usually has to do with where you are and that place’s history.
TO: You describe the interior aesthetics of hot dog places. Anyone who’s been to one knows the classic design tropes that come with a hot dog shop. If you were to create your own brick-and-mortar hot dog place, what would you like it to have?
JL: Oh my gosh, I do love the car park aesthetic. It’s not something I grew up with, it’s mostly across the South, where it’s just a beautiful central hot dog fulcrum, and in this gigantic parking lot, just full of every single kind of person in the world. I love that.
The two places I love are the institutional hot dog places that weirdly have, like, a stained glass window of a hot dog—like, how did this get here? And you know, there’s the red and the white and someone who’s worked there for 50 years and the wall of celebrities, most of whom are dead. The long lines and the big tradition. That’s one amazing hot dog place to go to.
And the other one is a place that has burned down 50 times but it’s still open, and everything is kind of new, but not super well-built, because it feels like they know it’s just gonna burn down again. Both of these places are great.
TO: During your Hot Dog Summer you are eating multiple hot dogs a day and traveling by car, which seems like a bad combination. What was your biggest bathroom emergency?
JL: Definitely in the middle of New Jersey. I remember it so clearly because I was going into a hotel that we wouldn’t have been able to afford to stay in to use the public restroom. I was very aware of how sweaty I was, and how I was wearing all of these weird layers and I just looked dirty and in a rush and it was very obvious what I was about to do. It felt violent of me.
TO: You establish some rules for Hot Dog Summer, designed to aid you and your digestive system. Were these rules ad-hoc, or did you set them up before embarking on your journey?
JL: I was really playing fast and loose with the rules. There were a lot of different versions. Originally I had a scoring system, but after the first place I was like, “This isn’t going to work.” So I just had to create vague guidelines that would mean that the trip would not kill me, which is basically what the rules are for: to give me the fullest idea of what every hot dog tastes like, what the mouthfeel is, what the bread situation is, to get the full idea without eating so many hot dogs that I die. Most days I would follow those guidelines, and the days that I did not, I would suffer.
TO: I could imagine thinking I could eat seven hot dogs a day, but then realizing pretty quickly that I’ve overshot my expectations.
JL: People are really surprised. With the exception of one book event, I did a hot dog eating contest with all of the moderators of my book events across the country. Part of why I love professional eating is because it’s the only sport in the world where people watch and everyone is like, “I could do that.” But when the moment comes, and I ask you to do a 60-second hot dog eating contest with me, it’s really hard! I’ve done it ten or twelve times now, and I’ve never gotten past two hot dogs.
I was trying to make the book tour fun for me. In Boston, I filled a kiddie pool with ketchup, and the moderator was allowed to send me to ketchup jail if I didn’t give a satisfactory answer.
TO: In the book, you mention that you once got fired from a hot dog job for tweeting “I hate hot dogs.”
JL: I got fired for tweeting “fuck hot dogs.” That was when I was in college. This was a gig for StubHub, where they were like, “Okay, we just need a bunch of girls to pile into this hot dog truck and give away bacon-wrapped hot dogs outside a Bruins game to promote StubHub.” I was one of the hot dog girls, and you, like, wear a little outfit and just give away hot dogs and try to get [customers] to pay too much for hockey tickets. It was truly a one-week gig and I didn’t think they’d be monitoring my social media. But they were. And so I tweeted “fuck hot dogs” on my first day and I got fired.
TO: And now you’ve written this whole book about hot dogs. So of course you care about hot dogs, at least in a sense. But it also seems true, finishing the book, that you might still have that sentiment about hot dogs. It feels like it could be both. “I love hot dogs” and “fuck hot dogs.”
JL: Yeah, I feel for some reason compelled to show up for hot dogs. But I reserve the right to be pissed off when I get there.