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Comedian Jamie Loftus's book 'Raw Dog' chronicles her hot-dog eating travels

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Is there anything so American as a hot dog? They are surrounded by legends, steeped in history outside the kitchen, and they put everybody in their feelings about their hometown's favorite toppings. Comedian Jamie Loftus set out to try them all. She documented her journey and the less than savory side of the hot dog in her new book, "Raw Dog." She joins us now. Welcome to the program.

JAMIE LOFTUS: Hey, so happy to be here.

RASCOE: First off, I think the most obvious question that people may ask is, why hot dogs? Did you have a deep affinity for hot dogs before this? Like, was this something that you ate a lot of?

LOFTUS: Yes. I grew up eating boiled hot dogs in New England, which I wouldn't do to my child, but that is what my parents made for us. It was like a very, like, quick, fun, low-income meal, which it's been forever. And then as I got older, it was, like, my cheap college food. I worked at a hotdog truck. I just have a lot of hot dog lore.

RASCOE: You go pretty deep in the book on, like, the labor conditions for meatpackers, which are not great, and the realities of slaughterhouses. What do you want the reader to take away from that?

LOFTUS: It's up to the reader, but I hope that people who read this book, if they're still eating hot dogs at the end - which I very much still am, I can't pass any judgment there - but that they have more context for why the hot dog is considered a national symbol. And I feel like we're kind of told it's for these, like, sweetie-pie, like, Fourth of July reasons. But the more I learned about it, I think the most American things about hot dogs are that it's a result of a pretty disingenuous marketing campaign, and it relies on a lot of labor exploitation. And we can still have hot dogs and not have that be true.

RASCOE: When you go into it, I mean, like, when you describe, like, hot dogs are made, which I think most people would imagine is pretty nasty stuff, did your research make you consider giving up hot dogs or meat? You say you still eat them, but did you think about it?

LOFTUS: I definitely - I mean, I still feel conflicted about it. But what I did learn is, like, if I am going to be a meat consumer, because I have not kicked the habit successfully, there are more ethical ways to do that than how I was doing that. And so learning about especially particular meatpacking companies that, the summer I was researching, in 2021, were just not protecting their employees from COVID at all. And so I sort of landed on a middle ground of if I'm going to continue to consume meat, I have to do it as ethically as possible.

RASCOE: So what were you looking for in the hot dogs?

LOFTUS: I guess, like, from region to region, what was considered good. There's places that are really fixated on chili recipes. There's areas that are really fixated on a very special relish that is kind of gray-looking, but tastes great.

RASCOE: Yeah, because you can do anything. Like, the hot dog is really a vehicle. So I grew up in North Carolina. And so in North Carolina...

LOFTUS: So many good hot dogs there.

RASCOE: Yes, we eat it with chili and coleslaw and mustard, and we'll put ketchup on it. But a lot of places - well, the ketchup is optional. I know in the book you would talk about places you went, and the buns would be coming out of just, like, a pack of Wonder Bread. I love that. That means it's really good.

LOFTUS: Yeah.

RASCOE: And they slap in that good chili that they done made and the coleslaw - oh, you about to eat good.

LOFTUS: I love that that's your hot dog.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

LOFTUS: I love hearing what people's hot dogs are. Because people get so - like, that was, like, one of my favorite things, is people get so excited talking about their hot dog.

RASCOE: (Laughter) Yes.

LOFTUS: Everyone has a really strong opinion on this, and no one knows why.

RASCOE: But I mean, you also talk about in the book how there are class dynamics of hot dogs. Like, what do hot dogs have to say about class?

LOFTUS: Oh, so much. I - so hot dogs were popularized in the U.S. by immigrants, mostly Greek, Polish and German immigrants. And the businesses started to really take off during the Great Depression, and the whole appeal of them and still the appeal of a lot of kind of classic hot dog recipes are that it is a cheap way to be full for a while. And you see that with the Chicago hot dog, which advertised itself as two meals in one, the salad on top of the hot dog. You see it in Baltimore where they deep fry a piece of baloney and wrap it around a hot dog. And then you don't need to eat for, like, seven days after that. But it started as a food made by the poor for the poor.

RASCOE: But even dealing with, like, those class issues and the issues with the slaughterhouses and the meatpacking plants, there is some darkness in that side of the hot dog. But what about the joy that you found along the way in the communities that you visited?

LOFTUS: I mean, some of it is just, like, kind of weird and funny. Like, I tailed the Wienermobile for a while because I was like, what's going on in here? Do Wienermobile drivers, like, hook up with each other? And the answer is yes.

RASCOE: Oh, my goodness. What? No.

LOFTUS: (Laughter).

RASCOE: We talked to a Wienermobile driver. They did not tell us any of that. They did not say that.

LOFTUS: It was a long...

RASCOE: Really?

LOFTUS: It was a long con. The Wienermobile drivers I talked to...

RASCOE: (Laughter).

LOFTUS: ...They're like, we're not together, but we are in the minority.

RASCOE: A lot of times when people travel the country, they write a book, they can come out with a big message about the meaning of America or, you know, hope for the future. Like, did you learn some sort of big truth? Or do you feel like this is not that kind of book?

LOFTUS: I did not learn the meaning of America (laughter) I would say. I mean, what I learned - I learned so much about the context of what the symbols we kind of interact with every day stand for and what they mean and how they affect different people differently. And I really love to find ones that seem innocuous and aren't because I hope that it just means that anyone can kind of approach a book like this and have their own, you know, experiences and assumptions and then see how they feel at the end.

RASCOE: That's Jamie Loftus. Her book is called "Raw Dog." Thank you so much for joining us.

LOFTUS: Oh, thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.