‘What’s in a name?’ mused Juliet Capulet whilst loitering with intent on a Veronese balcony. ‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.’
Brings a tear to the eye, doesn’t it? Shakespeare at his finest. Except Shakespeare didn’t write it. Well, not strictly. The words were craftily stitched together by a lawyer two centuries after the bard had penned – or quilled – them. There were two subtly different versions of Romeo & Juliet doing the rounds in the 18th century and both phrased Juliet’s famous line differently. The lawyer in question, Edmond Malone (who liked to do literary investigations on the side, like a bookish Perry Mason), took the two differing Shakespeare texts (one from 1597, the other from 1599) and performed what I believe today’s youngsters might call a ‘mash-up’. He took the following lines from the 1597 edition:
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
And these from the 1599 edition:
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet.
And thriftily morphed them into:
What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
Malone’s edit is the one history has been kindest to and is, therefore, the one we know best and quote most often. Yet William Shakespeare gets all the credit. The git.
(Malone’s other major contribution to Shakespeare’s legacy was to make the first serious attempt at a biography of him. Up until Malone, incredibly, very few people had bothered to do so. Neither, frustratingly, had any of those prior Shakespeare scholars thought it wise to interview the bard’s children or grandchildren, thus forever denying the world a flash of private insight into the great man. Malone was also to make a valiant attempt at arranging the plays in the order in which they were actually written, rather than accepting that they all just be lumped together lazily as either Histories, Comedies or Tragedies.)
As lovely as the line is, I’ve often wondered whether I agree with it. Are names important? I tend to think they are. For example, I’m not sure I’d fancy Zooey Deschanel half as much if her name was Hairy Splodge. Likewise, how many wall calendars do you think Ryan Gosling would shift if his parents had christened him Arse Boy? How many doe-eyed romantics would wish to wander the night streets of Paris if the city was suddenly renamed Blockbuster Video Storage Facility? Would aspiring young academics remain as keen to apply to study at King’s College Cambridge if it changed its name to Degrees 4 U? Would all these roses really smell as sweet?
The reason I started with the quote from Romeo & Juliet is that it is particularly apt for today’s subject: hotdogs. Unlike some of the things listed above, you really could call a hotdog by any other name and its appeal would not wane. I mean, it helps that the name is already pretty grim; we’re so used to it now that I suspect we barely pause to reflect on its shady etymology (if you’re interested, they’re named after their resemblance to daschunds). You could rename hotdogs whatever you liked – hot frogs, mild geese, chilled ferrets – and I’d still fancy one. It’s only recently I’ve begun to question why.
Just so we’re clear, I’m not talking about locally sourced pork sausages covered in homemade relish and sunk deep in white powdery rolls. I’m talking about the absolute rotters. Weiners. Frankfurters. Whatever you want to call them. Those chewy light brown pipes made from chicken beaks and excess pig. I’m now craving them with enough regularity to make me worry. It doesn’t matter what terrible things I find out about them, their appeal stands fast. Just as a smoker will puff away, knowing full well that their cigarette is loaded with carcinogens, so I’ll gnaw away at a hotdog sausage, knowing full well that it consists of scraps a butcher wouldn’t give to his bulldog.
I picked up a tin of them in Sainsbury’s last week. It cost fifty pence. Fifty pence for eight sausages; this is at a time, bear in mind, when even tinned corned beef is seldom priced under the £3 mark. Fifty bloody pee. That’s cheaper than the Daily Mirror. Cheaper than a Milky Bar. Half the price of the bread rolls you need to put them in. The picture on the tin was of eight sweaty sausages stacked atop one another like moist timber round the back of Jewsons. The sausage-stack was decorated with a little garnish, as though this serving suggestion could be the ideal focal point of one’s next candlelit soiree. The company’s name stood proud atop the tin: KINGSFOOD. Here were the ingredients:
Mechanically separated chicken (always reassuring to know precisely how your chicken has been separated), potato starch, chicken skin, beef collagen casing, water, bay leaves, pork meat (the use of the word meat concerned me), smoke flavouring (flavouring – they can’t even be bothered to actually smoke them), and, of course, salt.
Call me cynical, but I don’t think this is the sort of FOOD that KINGS would eat. I’d expect a rat to think twice.
Later that day, inspired by the picture, I watched a video about how hotdogs are made. It isn’t a pretty operation. In terms of care and attention, it’s no rival to Edmond Malone’s work on the Shakespeare texts. The process starts with cheap meats from an assortment of animals – chicken, cows, pigs, unicorns, badgers – being tossed into a metallic vat. By this stage, regardless of its origins, all the meat looks the same: bright white and goose-pimply. (Although it’s a dead heap of tissue, it still quivers somehow, as though electric pulses are still present.) The heap is then forced through an industrial grinder and blended together whilst factory operatives – protectively clothed like Hollywood extras in a film about a worldwide pandemic – pour red powdered flavourings in from cement-like bags. The resulting lumpy meat pate is hosed with water and corn syrup and blended further. In the words of the video’s American narrator, the machine ‘purees the meat batter’ until it resembles ‘a fine emulsion and then vacuums out any air’.
Next, the meat-flavoured goo is encased in plastic sausage-shaped sheaths and sent through a harrowing liquid smoke shower before being whipped through a machine – the Townsend 2600, no less – where the sheaths are stripped off. The video ends with the narrator joking that the factory really does ‘churn them out like sausages’ before the final shot of a ‘mouthwatering meal’ of a hotdog in a butter-less white roll on a white paper plate, with plain crisps either side.
As if this ‘making-of’ documentary ought not to be off-putting enough, hotdog eaters should also be aware how dangerous these sausages are. Unheated, straight from the tin/jar/pack, they can contain bacteria which is harmful to infants and pregnant women (the viral strain can even be transferred to the baby in utero); little wonder the factory staff in the video were dressed as though handling chemical weapons. As well as bacterial threats, hotdogs pose a seriously unfunny choking hazard, particularly to children. In the US, one in five child asphyxiations are caused by hotdogs. This is aside from the threat of their high salt content, a contributing factor to heart attacks in males.
In a nutshell then, hotdogs can choke children, poison mothers and cause fathers to keel over on the patio, clutching their left arms. And there’s more: a 2015 study found that around 2% of hotdogs contain human DNA. The report assured consumers that it wasn’t human meat in the sausages but ‘spit, dandruff or traces of skin’. So, no problems there. Amazingly, none of these facts have affected the hotdog’s popularity. One estimate suggests that the average American still eats approximately seventy per year. And I’ve estimated, in a shameful private study, that I eat a similar amount. Just what the hell is wrong with me?
The trouble with junk food is that not only do you crave it, but it seldom satisfies. I feel such an overwhelming sense of bloated failure when I’ve eaten hotdogs that I find it hard to look another human in the eye for a day or two. Naturally, I make a vow not to eat them again. Never never never. But every couple of months the strange craving for dandruff and mechanically separated chicken kicks in and I do eat them. Again and again.
I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s only a matter of time before the hotdogs have their terrible way with me. You will come and visit me in the hospital, won’t you? Those places scare me. The word hospital alone sends a shiver up my spine. But, oh, I hear you cry, what’s in a name?…