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 hot-dog.org), 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."
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