Richard Ocejo’s fantastic work on four occupations (butchers, bartenders, distillers and barbers) is an exploration of how symbolically intricate contemporary consumption has become and the role that producers are playing at the consumer frontier. His book will be out next month from Princeton. Here Richard asks us to think about the lowly hot dog, now a gourmet item in the circles he has studied.
I can’t resist adding my hot dog story. I went to summer camp with quite a few kids from the Handwerker family, whose grandfather founded Nathan’s hot dogs. So I have always been partial to that brand and loved the taste. In fact, a Nathan’s hot dog was the last meat I’ve eaten, a last hurrah as before adopting a vegetarian diet. That was thirty years ago. Enjoy this blog, it’s delicious!
– Juliet Schor
Lessons from Hot Dogs
By Richard Ocejo
I love talking about hot dogs with my students. I ask them to tell me about their favorite hot dog brand, how they like to eat theirs, and when and where they typically eat them. The responses are typical: some like Ballpark, some Hebrew, some Nathan’s, and some just get whatever the guy on the street sells (these are New York City students). Some like just mustard, some just ketchup, some both, and some relish. And some only eat them at sporting events and barbecues, and most only really eat them in the summer. I try to encourage some debate. I ask the Ballpark and Hebrew sides to defend their taste, and the mustard people to take on the ketchup people, but they’re not really invested in their preference to do so with any vigor. Some really defend Nathan’s hot dogs, especially at Coney Island (again, New York City), but when I press them to explain what makes them so good, they make a sentimental argument: they used to eat them at the beach when they were a kid, so it brings back nice memories.
What really gets them going is when I ask two questions: are hot dogs an elite food? And would you pay $5 for one at a lunch spot I know about? Then they get excited. No way is a hot dog an elite food, so how can it cost $5 (unless you’re at an overpriced sporting event)? Wait, if it costs $5, then there must be something about it. What’s up with that hot dog? I then tell them about Dickson’s Farmstand Meats, a whole-animal butcher shop where I conducted fieldwork as part of my research on traditionally low-status manual labor, service, and manufacturing jobs that have become “cool,” cultural taste-making jobs today. Along with the workers at Dickson’s and in other whole-animal shops, I also studied cocktail bartenders, craft distillers, and upscale men’s barbers. Whole-animal butcher shops all generally follow a set of principles: make sure the animals have been humanely raised and slaughtered, break them down in the shop in front of customers, and use as much of the whole animal as possible (most also source their meat from local farms). Because butchering whole animals leads to a lot of grindable, trimmed meat from the cuts, hot dogs are a great way for a shop to use it all. (I’ve also brought some of my classes to visit the shop. Non-meat-eaters usually wait outside.)
I tell my students that there are a lot of consumers out there who seek out these hot dogs because they have been made based on these principles. It’s how they feel hot dogs “should” be made. I say to them that ordinary foods like hot dogs and beef jerky, and weird cuts that Dickson’s sells (sierra steak, palomilla), with the ideas of “quality” behind them, are indeed discussed among culturally elite “foodie” circles as the standards of how meat “should” taste. For these reasons, and because those who consume in this manner tend to have disposable income, these folks have no problem paying $5 for a single hot dog (topped with a homemade kimchi relish) at a butcher shop’s food counter.
Some people who go to the shop, however, aren’t necessarily well-versed in these principles or the latest food trends happening in today’s city. They are as surprised as my students are by the price tag on the hot dog. (“Five dollars for a hot dog?” I would see their eyes say.) In those cases, the workers, who are very knowledgeable in meat and food in general and fully believe in the principles of the shop, explain what makes these hot dogs special: a rare mix of beef and pork, the animals are local and were humanely raised and slaughtered, the meat was butchered with artisanal techniques, and the hot dogs were hand-filled (and, they say, they’re delicious). Their information and enthusiasm often encouraged customers to try one. And they didn’t just justify expensive items to customers. They would also explain to them why the high-priced filet mignon—sacred among traditional elite food circles—is rather flavorless (in short: cows don’t use that muscle) and that they’d be better off with a far less expensive, and more interesting, cut of meat for their dinner. I saw such interactions in each of the occupations I studied: cocktail bartenders championed cheap bourbons and ryes over well-known brands of vodka and tequila, craft distillers praised heirloom varieties of ingredients to make spirits with unusual flavor profiles, and men’s barbers encouraged minimalist techniques and natural looks to achieve style. Consumers who were new to these businesses usually ate this information up.
These products and services represent a fascinating shift happening today in the stratification of taste, which we commonly call “cultural omnivorousness,” or when people’s tastes range from elite, middlebrow, and lowbrow forms of culture, rather than more narrowly within one of these strata. Research has shown that it’s mainly people who are high in economic, cultural, and social capital who are more likely to be cultural omnivores, and these folks work to ensure their choices in consuming lowbrow culture do not compromise their status as elites. Most of this research analyzes what shapes the meanings, attitudes, and motivations of consumers toward their own consumption, or the images and discourses of cultural products that get disseminated through the media. My forthcoming book looks at consumption from the angle of production, specifically the ongoing activities in high-end, niche workplaces of workers who create, shape, and classify taste and aesthetics. I argue that the aspirations and work practices of these unique cultural producers offer consumers new ways of refining their tastes and/or expanding their omnivorism. These new retail outlets (and even most craft distilleries offer tours, tastings, and retail sales) are a significant nexus for seeing these relationships between consumption, production, and taste. Hot dogs are just my favorite example.
Richard E. Ocejo is Associate Professor of Sociology at John Jay College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY). His latest book, Masters of Craft: Old Jobs in the New Urban Economy, will be published in May (Princeton University Press).