Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Condiment Conundrum

Here’s to Tad Dorgan! His horrible inability to spell is the reason we eat “hotdogs” instead “dachshund sausages.” He was a sports cartoonist for Hearst, covering the polo matches in New York City when he drew the vendor selling dachshund sausages. He didn’t know how to spell dachshund so he called it a hotdog instead. Quaint little story straight from the pages of several nationally known hotdog companies. Nice little story. Funny thing is that it isn’t true. The term hotdog, in reference to a meat-like substance packed into another animal’s intestinal casing, has been around for centuries, and there is no such cartoon penned by Dorgan that shows a little dog on a bun. It’s a nice kitschy story, but like most too perfect fables, it just isn’t true.

Surprise, surprise. I eat a lot of hotdogs, regardless of who called them what first. A hotdog by any other name would still smell… well, it wouldn’t smell like a rose, that’s for sure. I like them; they’re the perfect lunch.

I know, it’s a random thought, an improbable topic of conversation and not something I’m too proud of, but if it weren’t for the leftover-meat-in-a-tube industry, I would have starved to death years ago. Since they’ve played such an important role in my diet (that and Big Macs, from which I’m a two-year survivor), my repertoire of preparation ranges from a made-up sandwich I learned from my dad to adapting the meal to the available materiel on hand. Though I am most satisfied with the traditional way—hotdog bun, relish, mustard and the hotdog microwaved for nearly a minute—I have branched out to other hotdog entrees. It won’t impress Emeril Lagasse (maybe it would Wolfgang Puck), but it fills the void. Several years ago, my preference was to split two hotdogs in half, lengthwise, and lay them between two pieces of bread bathed in mayonnaise with mustard squirted down the folds of the hotdogs. It was probably the most unhealthy sandwich I’ve ever eaten, but it was good. The mayonnaise helped; it always does. However, wrapped around a common slice of bread with mustard and relish is the usual fare (we constantly have a bun shortage around here), and I will polish off four of them and consider it a meal. Full? Yes. Satisfied? It’s rare that I push back the chair from the table, unbutton my pants, let out a sigh of satisfaction and say to myself, “That was a fine meal. A snifter of brandy would top this off perfectly.”

Out of bread? No problem, just dice them up on a plate and dip them in mustard like fondue, or throw them into a pot of Mac and Cheese if you’re desperate. Well, who am I to talk about desperation? Picture me in the kitchen in my underwear eating cold hotdogs straight from the package; the model of desperation, no plate, no fork, no sleeve to wipe my mouth on. It smacks of the bachelor life, but with both of us working and two young kids, the prospects of dinner on a weekday is a lightning-strikes-twice chance at best.

This weekend was a prime example. Saturday, Kara, the kids and I went over to a friends’ house to celebrate the second birthday of their son, and barbequed hotdogs were passed around like the collection plate at church. I had two, but don’t judge me yet until you learn that four cheeseburgers were also involved (I would have gone back for more, but tact is a great diet tool).

So, that began what is now known as The Weekend of the Hotdog.

The following day, I added three more to the mix at the Volkswagen show I attended (refer to yesterday’s post). They were only a dollar a piece and lorded over by a guy named “Hotdog Fred,” so who am I to turn down that opportunity? I mean, the guy’s named after his profession, so you think they’d be the best hotdogs ever. As it turns out, he’s famous for his bratwursts, but I have a tough time stomaching something that’s got the word “worst” right in the title…and “brat.” Sounds like I’m eating kids from an orphanage. Anyway, I returned home around one and, what do you know, I was hungry again. A quick scan of Mother Hubbard’s cupboard produced nothing (which is sadly what I expected), unless I wanted a salad or a can of soup, which gladly I didn’t. So, the good old standby, dogs, reared their heads again, and I was well into the third of four when I started to read the back of the French’s Mustard bottle. Do you ever just sit there at the dinner table and get so bored that you start reading the backs of the labels? I passed on perusing the hotdog package (I don’t need a reason not to eat them. It’s not Spam.), but found interest in the mustard bottle.

So, the French’s mustard label goes into excruciating detail on how to open the bottle, obviously designed for the raging idiot born before the product tampering scares of the late 80s (remember “End it all with Tylenol”?). This particular bottle claims that it is one of those no-spill caps that prevent that mustard crust that builds up on other types of bottles, so you get that little crusty dot of mustard when you first start to pour it out. One of the directions says, in very bold print “DO NOT pierce valve in cap.” It seems urgent, as if to say, piercing the valve renders this Chef’s Size bottle of America’s favorite classic yellow mustard a lethal weapon. Pierce and lob at enemy. What gives? Well, thanks to the confidence of Reckitt Benckiser Inc., of Wayne, NJ, they provide the following line: “Questions? Comments? Call (800) 841-1256” Convenient, as I had a question. So, let’s call.

While we’re waiting on hold, just a few facts about the mustard we all know and love: Surprisingly enough, French’s is neither French nor American. They’re Brits. Yeah, the U.K. kind, and you’d think that mustard products would be paired up with other things of its kind, but Reckitt Benckiser has been in business (under a variety of names) since 1823 and their primary focus all these years has been industrial chemicals, Lysol and the like, as the food division of the company only represents six percent of the company’s net revenues. Yes, you’re now a better person for knowing that (despite the massive run-on sentence).

Oh wait, the customer service rep is back… nope, false alarm, I’m back on hold. Ah, an instrumental rendition of Van Halen’s “Panama,” and I’m at ease.

It says it is the original recipe since 1904 (first introduced at the St. Louis World’s Fair), but I discovered an interesting fact about the mustard world. For starters, you don’t have to refrigerate it. No fooling. According to the good people at www.frenchsfood.com, there are no ingredients in the top secret mustard formula that will spoil. Also, I’ve learned that this bottle of mustard next to me is one of the oldest food products in my kitchen, and I don’t mean traditionally. On the bottom of all French’s mustard containers is a secret code known only to me…and millions of others that stumbled upon their website. On the bottom of my bottle is M03093 (yours will vary). The M is the location it was produced, in this case, Rochester, N.Y., and the 03 indicates 2003. 2003! That’s right, my mustard is over three-years old! The 093 is the day of the year, April 3 that it was made. So, on April 3, 2003, when I was sitting around wondering what I was going to get Kara for her birthday the following day, this very bottle of mustard was emerging from the production line. This mustard is older than Natalie!

It’s not like I bought it three years ago and was saving it for a special occasion. Well honey, the Pope isn’t coming; we’d better open the mustard without him. No, it was just a bottle of mustard like any other… In my house, a jar of mustard doesn’t sit for long: I mean, really, a guy that eats nine hotdogs in a 24-hour period doesn’t skimp on the mustard.

She’s back; here we go. Before I could get into my urgent question, I had to give her the UPC symbol number on the bottle so she knew what product I was asking about.

Me: What are the dire consequences of piercing the valve on the cap? Will it explode?

CSR (her fake laugh says “you’re an idiot” more than if she had just come out and said it): Can I put you on hold for a minute?

Me: Sure.

She came back on the phone quicker than I thought, and without doubt, she had to ask someone else… but who? Is there a guy sitting there that knows everything there is to know about yellow mustard, just waiting for people like me to challenge them? Did they find him at a county fair in the late 70s, maybe at the hotdog eating contest, wowing the crowd with his skills at mustard trivia. “Did you know,” he liked to boast. “That the ingredients in mustard are all under four syllables and pronounceable by an average person?” The CSR probably said to herself, “I got him this time. He won’t know the answer to this one and then I get the toaster.” Sure enough, he rolled his eyes with a yawn half way through the answer, as the CSR did sound a little dejected when she returned. No toast for you.

CSR: Apparently, when you puncture the valve, it causes the mustard to come out erratic.

Somewhat anti-climatic, isn’t it? I was hoping that the answer would be as frantic as the message on the bottle: “What? Oh God! You didn’t!?! You didn’t puncture the valve!?! God no!” She would cover the phone with her hand but I would still hear her muffled voice: “We got a Code Yellow! Repeat: Code Yellow!! Hello sir? Are you still with us? What ever you do, don’t touch that bottle, but quickly and calmly get behind something solid… and sir? If you’ve got ‘em, smoke ‘em. We’ll be there as soon as we can. God speed.”

But erratic mustard delivery sounds pretty cool too. I now have an image of mustard spraying all over the kitchen like a severed artery. While I had her attention, I asked her about the three-year-old production date on the bottom of the bottle, to which she replied: “There’s probably nothing in there that will kill you, but it just won’t taste as good as a fresh jar.”

I love it when corporations use the word “probably” when discussing my life span and the freshness of my food. And all I wanted was a hotdog!

1 comment:

Grant's Mom said...

You have an amazing ability to write!! I have enjoyed every story so far. Keep procrastinating! I can now visualize the mustard spraying over the kitchen, too.


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