A Hot Dog Program – A Movie Review

This is not a typical movie review because this is not a typical movie.  And even more unusual, this is a PBS production, which normally would repel me as wolfsbane does Dracula.  But not this time.  This movie is a celebration of one of the great American institutions, the hot dog.

A guy named Rick Sebak from Pittsburgh makes documentaries about Americana and this particular one travels around the United States looking at the multitude of ways that people make and enjoy hot dogs.  Of course, he goes to Coney Island, in Brooklyn, New York to discuss the reputed birthplace of the hot dog and while there he highlights the Fourth of July hot dog eating contest at Nathan’s, a truly disgusting spectacle.  Then he visits several hot dog lovers in Manhattan who try to pick between their favorite hot dog and papaya juice restaurants.  From there he goes to Chicago and listens to the Windy City residents declare their variety of hot dog to be the adult version of this American food.  And afterwards he brings us to Georgia, the Carolinas, Ohio, New Jersey and even Alaska where reindeer hot dogs are the standard.

Along the way you’ll meet the mom and pop shops and the industrial scale restaurants and the owners, cooks, waiters and customers who swear by the goodness and special character of whichever local variant they enjoy.  They’ll be boiled, roasted, deep fried or encased in a corn dog.  They’ll be covered in relish, sauerkraut, onions, coleslaw, peppers or baked beans.  They’ll be slathered in yellow mustard, brown mustard, ketchup, barbecue sauce or horse radish.  They can be with or without skin and in Las Vegas you can even get one that’s half a pound and sixteen inches long.

This movie was made in 1999 and what struck me was that the people were from all walks of life and all ethnicities but they all agreed that the hot dog was the American food.  Not German American because it was brought here from Frankfurt or even just white Americans.  Every place they went all kinds of people loved the hot dogs and shared space enjoying them.  I was struck that the scene where the hot dogs were being sold at the Cleveland Indians game probably couldn’t get on PBS anymore because they consider the team name racist.

So, this show is a bit of Americana from before the woke movement would declare hot dogs some form of exploitation of everyone involved.  The movie highlighted the manufacturing of hot dogs and almost glories in the mystery meat status of its ingredients and the unappetizing appearance of the meat paste that makes them up.  And the bizarre sight of hot dogs being shot at high speed out of a machine that strips the temporary skins that the dogs wear while being cooked adds to their allure as a product of industrial age melting pot America.

Of course, all those mom and pop shops and even the big restaurants have now been driven out of business by COVID and the rioters.  And the various ethnicities are at each other’s throats.  And the millennials are all vegan and wouldn’t touch a hot dog if they were starving.  But this movie hearkens back to a happier time in America and celebrates the real diversity, hot dog diversity.  It celebrates the local cultures that all can embrace and enhance something as simple and wonderful as the hot dog.  You can probably rent this from a local library that carries PBS videos.  I rented it from Netflix DVD.  I’ll probably buy a DVD just because I like watching it with my kids and grandkids who have enjoyed it over the years when I had an old VHS copy.