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A gas station hog dog in its not-so-natural habitat. Photo by Jay Bouchard

In Praise of the Gas Station Hot Dog

For one 5280 editor, all it takes is a low-grade beef frank to feel the comfort of home.

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This story, and my stance on processed meat, is not for everyone. If you’ve ever referred to yourself as a “foodie,” you might want to click away. If you maintain a diet of farmers’ market produce, artisanal bread made from heirloom grains, and locally sourced proteins, and perhaps made it past the headline thinking I was being ironic, this one’s definitely not for you.

In fact, when I pitched this story to 5280’s food editor, Denise Mickelsen, she replied: “Jay, as a mother and a human, I’m worried about you.” I get that. I have a mother and grandmother of my own, and both of them worry about the way I pursue preservative-filled, previously frozen foodstuffs like a scavenger. And I’ve heard it all, from friends and family and strangers at rest stops: That’s disgusting. You eat like a rodent. Dude, didn’t you ever read the Jungle?

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But the fact remains: I love gas station hot dogs.

I don’t remember eating my first, but I like to think it went something like this: It was a hot summer day in New Hampshire circa 1997, and my dad—it had to have been my dad, as my mother never would have let it happen—pulled over at the local Mobile station to fill up his 1985 Buick Century. We walked inside to pay and my eyes locked onto the hotdog roller like a raccoon eyeing a freshly tipped trash bin. I imagine my dad said no at first. But it was a hot summer day, and I was a good kid. He relented.

I’m not sure if it was love at first bite, but whatever mystery meat I tasted that day has kept me coming back for two decades. I know, I know… such meat is low—okay, the lowest—quality and sodium-packed enough to kill a slug. But there’s something special (and sure, potentially dangerous) about a beautifully bronzed frank that’s been rolling and rolling and rolling under a 140-degree heat lamp for several hours. I’m such an aficionado, I usually take my dogs neat. No condiments required.

Beyond the clearly subjective matter of taste, there is a logical reason for my love for the GSHD: the price. A mere twenty dimes scrounged from the bottom of your cup holder gets you two piping hot specimens stuffed into warm blankets of squishy white bread (with relish and other toppings, if that’s your thing).

But more importantly, the GSHD has been an omnipresent beacon of hope and comfort as I’ve traversed this country, living in five different states over the past seven years. Each time I moved—from New Hampshire to Montana to Illinois to New Mexico to Colorado—I drove. A healthier road tripper might have packed nutritious snacks for the ride. But for me, a frugal, fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants driver, I knew I could count on a hot dog waiting for me at each and every service stop.

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When I crossed the border from Raton Pass last summer, it was a slow spinning “sausage” at a Shell station that welcomed me. On weekend ski trips up I-70 this past winter, I found solace and warmth in off-highway dogs. Just one bite, potently seasoned with nostalgia, brings me back to my dad’s old Buick and those summer days in New Hampshire. So, I’ll be leaving the better-for-you, organic, grass-fed versions to the foodies. No matter how far I’ve traveled or where I may be in the world, grabbing a pair of plastic tongs on a wire and smelling the aroma of cheap meat takes me home.

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