|It's hard to miss the dogs at Skeeter's in Wytheville, Va. Photo: Hanna Raskin|
Southwest Virginia's enduring affection for stoplight-red weenies is the subject of Fred Sauceman's new documentary, "Red Hot Dog Digest," which premiered at a Southern Foodways Alliance event last week in Bristol, Tenn. While many cancer-fearing hot-dog makers started shunning red dye in the 1960s and 70s, when the FDA singled out certain dyes for study, Bristol's Valleydale Packers stuck to the (government-approved) recipe that by 1958 was responsible for more than $100 million in gross annual sales.
Valleydale, now a subsidiary of Smithdale Foods, still spikes its dogs with the same dye used to make cough syrup cherry red. As the film makes clear, residents of the Lee Highway red dog corridor won't tolerate anything else.
Blake Griffith, owner of Dude's Drive-In in Christiansburg, Va. – one of four red dog purveyors spotlighted in the palate-whetting doc -- once tried serving undyed dogs.
"We thought we were doing it for their health benefits and ours, but it turned out the flavor just wasn't the same," says Griffith, who had to contend with patrons returning their neutral-colored weenies, claiming they were undercooked. "That red hot dog is still the best flavored hot dog on the market."
The apotheosis of red dog dining is the Dip Dog Stand in Marion, Va., which is closed this week for its yearly July Fourth vacation. The Halls, who run the eatery, sound like they need the break: On Friday nights, Pam Hall tells Sauceman, so many folks line up for their battered dogs that customers who place call-in orders can't find a parking spot within a block of the restaurant.
"It's something you think about 50 miles before you get here," dip dog fan Kimball Sterling says.
Even Valleydale's marketing VP describes their product as mild and cheap, acknowledging a bun costs more than the red dog in it. But the most important adjective folks attribute to dyed hot dogs -- at least along the Lee Highway -- is most certainly "beloved."