As artisanal turns into a marketing buzzword and big business tries to cash in on our fascination with things handcrafted, it's reassuring to know that somewhere in America small family-run companies are quietly producing items of the quality that got everybody so fired up in the first place.
To find real artisanal spirit, there's no need to look beyond that humblest of foods, the hot dog. We discovered three families that produce the ideal frankfurter, bun and topping: the Usingers of Wisconsin, who have been making sausages since 1880; the Folkvords of Montana, longtime wheat farmers who now bake rolls with their own flour; and the Barhytes of Oregon, who make extraordinary mustard using an ancestral recipe.
Company Usinger's Famous Sausage of Milwaukee.
Background Check Fred Usinger emigrated from Germany in the 1870s with $400 and a collection of sausage recipes. He bought a small Milwaukee sausage shop from a German woman who was retiring, then closed the deal by marrying her niece.
Status Report Usinger's Famous Sausage is now run by Fred's great-great-great grandchildren. The family business has remained at the same location since its inception well over a century ago, but it's no longer a storefront--today it's a complex with offices and a factory.
The Goods Usinger's continues to handcraft more than 75 varieties of sausages, from German-style vealwurst to blood sausages. But the frankfurters, made with beef or pork, are what make Usinger's Famous famous. The juicy meat, delicately seasoned with nutmeg and other spices, is stuffed inside natural casings that seal in flavor and snap with every bite.
Buying Guide A six-pound gift box of wieners, tied together in old-fashioned links, costs $29.50. For retail locations or to order, call 800-558-9998.
Company Wheat Montana Farms & Bakery of Three Forks, Montana.
Background Check The Folkvords have been growing wheat for three generations. They began milling their wheat into flour and baking bread in 1990.
Strangest Achievement The family has earned itself a place in The Guinness Book of World Records 1998. In an incredible display of efficiency, the Folkvords produced 13 loaves from start to finish (from harvesting the wheat to baking the bread) in 8 minutes and 13.6 seconds.
The Goods The frankfurter buns from Wheat Montana have a wheaty flavor and an excellent airy texture (the better to soak up the meat juices and hold the hot dog toppings).
Buying Guide A package of eight buns costs $1.75. For retail locations or to order, call 877-535-2798.
Company Haus Barhyte of Pendleton, Oregon.
Background Check The Bar- hyte family had mustard in its genes long before it began bottling and selling the condiment. The recipe for its Sweet 'n Sour Mustard Sauce was concocted by an ancestor back in the 18th century.
Defining Moment The family, which had run a delicatessen for generations, decided to market its mustards in the late Seventies when more and more customers requested jars to take home.
The Goods The Barhytes now produce nearly two dozen types of mustard. The smoky garlic and amber ale varieties are the standouts.
Buying Guide Nine-ounce jars cost from $3.75 to $4.50. For retail locations or to order, call 800-BAR-HYTE.
On the Web
- Did you know July is National Hot Dog Month? For people who just can't get enough info about the hot dog and its classic accompaniments, here are some web selections:
Hot Dog Fact Page
- Here's the Wurst Story from Frankfurt, historic home of our beloved wienie.
- An article about the Mustard Museum in Mount Horeb, Wisconsin
- Some rantings on the well-known and insidious The Hot Dog Bun Conspiracy