Here’s a little known fact to whet your holiday appetite: on the Fourth of July, Americans will chow down on a whopping 150 million hot dogs. In a single day.
Placed end to end, that’s enough to stretch from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles five times, according to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, which tracks such things and wisely chose July to celebrate National Hot Dog Month.
USA Today ranks West Virginia the 21st state in annual hot dog consumption — but dig deeper and it gets a little crazy.
That ranking of 21 comes from comparing our largely rural borders to mega-population states like California, Texas and Florida.
Per capita, though, we come in first, based on data from Google Trends, the U.S. Census Bureau, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. All together, the 1.8 million or so people who live here eat an estimated 481 dogs each every year.
So if there’s a hot dog in your future — say, on Thursday, maybe — we’d like to help make it a “top dog” celebration.
For that, we turned to Jason Myer, hot dog connoisseur and owner of downtown Charleston’s Super Weenie.
“First of all, start with the quality hot dog,” he said. “Get an all-beef dog, or if you don’t eat beef, get a turkey dog, or if you don’t eat meat get a high-quality veggie dog.”
What you don’t want, said Myer, is a mixed meat hot dog, with chicken, pork, turkey, beef and a bunch of filler.
“There’s a huge difference in an all-beef hot dog and a hot dog that has four different types of meat in it. That is literally the scraps. And you can taste the difference.”
The man knows his dogs.
Unless you’re feeding the six-and-under crowd, the dog itself is not where you want to skimp, Myer said. He recommends getting a name brand, all-beef dog like Nathan’s, Hebrew National or Boar’s Head.
Then, ahem, decide on the culinary experience you’re going for.
“You can go to almost any region of our country and find that there is an affinity for a hot dog prepared a very specific way. And it’s always very specific. There’ll be a few things that if you don’t get it right, you’re going to get mocked for it or derided as being a joke,” he said.
It is part of a cultural identity that in West Virginia calls for four ingredients.
“There’s four toppings for a West Virginia hot dog done the traditional way, only four. It’s yellow mustard, chopped onions, chili and slaw,” he said.
But there’s some room for interpretation there. Some people like a sweeter slaw. Others prefer a yellow slaw. Myer said his is not yellow, not overly sweet, handmade and very finely chopped.
As for the chili? No beans, ever.
“No one wants beans in their chili on a hot dog around here. There are places in the country where they do serve chili with beans in it and it’s standard issue. This is not one of those places,” he said.
However you cook ‘em — Myer recommends steaming — he said there’s no need to overcook. No blistering, no sticking them right on top of the fire. And be sure they reach 165 degrees, “so you don’t poison your whole family. Yes, it’s fully cooked, but it’s meant to be cooked by you before you eat it.”
The thing about hot dogs, perhaps the very reason for their place as an American staple, is their sheer diversity. You might start with just ketchup as a child. But from there, the variety and options are endless, according to the National Hot Dog and Sausage folks.
“Today, there are hot dogs for everyone with millions of different possible hot dog and topping combinations that meet a broad spectrum of nutrition needs, tastes, budgets and personal preferences,” said the council’s “top dog” Eric Mittenthal.
Myer offers 40 regular toppings on his menu, plus a whole host of add-ons: a pretty high standard for most backyard cooks to meet.
So how do you offer enough variety for everyone without spending all day in the kitchen? Check out Myer’s recommended toppings above, then add the special choices your family and friends will want — so each person can have their very own culinary delight.