Relishing the red dogs

With July 4th weekend upon us, take a moment to learn how one style of hot dog achieved its independence

Staff WriterJuly 1, 2009 

This holiday weekend, depending on where you live in North Carolina, the hot dog peeking out from under your mustard, chili and slaw is likely to be bright red.

Eastern North Carolinians, and especially folks in Johnston County, have an affinity for the cherry-red wieners over those tan national brands.

"It's the flavor and the tradition," Manly Turner, 51, said while eating lunch last week at Jones Lunch in downtown Clayton.

Johnston County is ground zero in North Carolina for the fire engine-red dogs. The county is home to two makers: Carolina Packers and Stevens Sausage Co.

Turner says "Johnstonians," like him, prefer Carolina Packers dogs, which are also called Packers dogs or Bright Leaf dogs. They are the only brand served at Jones Lunch, which sells, on average 2,000, a week. They are made with beef and pork, but no poultry, like many red hot dogs.

Let's be clear: We're not talking about red hots, the spicier, fatter and shorter cousin of the bright red hot dog.

The red dog not only has fans in North Carolina but throughout the Southeast. In Alabama, the Zeigler brand is preferred. Along Highway 11, also called the Lee Highway, in southwestern Virginia, hot dog shops and lunch counters serve the Valleydale brand.

"In certain areas in the Southeastern United States, red hot dogs sell as well as natural color hot dogs. ... I think it's more of a preference of what you grew up with, what mom bought at the store. And it happens to be rural areas and not necessarily the metropolitan areas that purchase this," says Ted Arven, vice president of sales and marketing for Valleydale Foods, in a new short film called "Red Hot Dog Digest."

The film, which documents the predilection for red hot dogs in southwestern Virginia, debuted this past weekend at a Southern Foodways Alliance event in Bristol, Tenn. It was made by Fred Sauceman, an associate professor of Appalachian studies at East Tennessee State University.

Red dog's early days

But why are the hot dogs dyed red?

What you probably don't know is all hot dogs used to be red, says Bruce Kraig, a professor at Roosevelt University in Chicago who just wrote "Hot Dog: A Global History." (Kraig recently did a taste test with about 150 people in New York. The crowd preferred Bright Leaf hot dogs over Oscar Meyer.)

In the 1960s, when concerns were raised about a commonly used red food dye possibly causing cancer, most hot dog companies stopped using red dye.

But in the South, hot dog makers switched to other red dyes to keep that scarlet color. Now the same dye used to color cough syrup and cherry soda is used in those dogs.

It was the same at Carolina Packers. "We started with the red. We continued with the red," says Jean Jones, president and CEO of Carolina Packers.

Jones' late husband, Buck, inherited the company from his father, John Jones Sr. The company has churned out hot dogs, smoked sausage, bologna and chili at its plant west of downtown Smithfield since 1941. John Jones Sr. brought the recipe when he moved from Savannah, Ga., to open a slaughterhouse.

Bright Leaf hot dogs have very loyal customers, says Jimmy Butler, Carolina Packers' marketing and sales manager.

Butler says not only do they ship Bright Leaf hot dogs all over the country to customers who have moved away, but local customers tell him that they rip into the bag of hot dogs on the way home from the store.

Bright Leaf hot dogs are sold at Food Lion, Wal-Mart Supercenter, IGA, Piggly Wiggly and other major grocery stores from Raleigh to the coast. They are also served at Char-Grill's four locations in Raleigh.

"It's like a cult," Butler says about their customers' loyalty. He later adds: "We're thankful. It's very difficult for a small company [like] us to compete against Ballpark, the Gwaltneys.

"What keeps us on the grocery shelves is our customers demand it."

Back at Jones Lunch, Wendell Norris, 69, is about to eat a Bright Leaf hot dog with mustard, onions and slaw. Asked about the red dog, Norris says, "I didn't know there was any other kind." His lunch mate, Charles Strickland, 50, of Clayton, says, "There is no other kind."

Norris adds: "I don't think I've ever eaten a brown one."

andrea.weigl@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4848

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