Thursday, February 10, 2011

Tour of the Vienna Beef Factory-Wednesday 10am

Adventuring out for tours in Chicago can be a great way to fill days that would otherwise be empty. In Chicago, we are lucky to be able to tour the Vienna Beef Factory. Their tour is at the most inconvenient time for 9-5’ers; 10am Wednesdays, but for the many lucky people in the food and bar world in Chicago, it is perfect.

Only 3 people total were on this tour to look beyond the bun and see what really goes into making one of Chicago’s best known hot dogs. Tom, head of Customer Service greeted us and told us Vienna does not do tours like other factories. No glass walled walkways above gleaming stainless steel and immigrant workers. He led us into the great unknown. Were we going to see lips and assholes being ground into a delicious wiener? Skeptics will say, “I don’t know what goes into a hot dog and I will never eat one.”

After donning a white lab coat and matching hairnet, we walk right onto the refrigerated production floor. Bins filled with mountains of beef and men in lab coats with hooks and knives are working quickly at a conveyor line. Tom tells us how one side is working at carving out meat from the brisket cut of beef. Brisket is the part from the top of the rib cage, down to the belly. About 16 men are carving out the meat from in-between the ribs, some are cleaning the fat from the belly to remove the briskets. Other things besides hot dogs are made here, brisket, corned beef, and pastrami. Scraps of all this meat are tossed regularly onto a conveyor belt and end up in big metal bins. They are making quick work of their loads of meat, half are working on a pay by production rate, others are hourly. Still, no lips, no assholes.

We head up a small metal staircase leading to the top of the grinding and mixing part of production. Vienna is all about small batch production. Overlooking 3-12 foot metal bins of ground meat, one is full of bull meat, 90% lean, 10%fat. The other 2 bins are ground scrap meat, all this meat is from the carving line below. A man oversees the separate grinding below of the bull meat and fatty ground scrap meat to create a perfect blend of fat and meat that is tumbled into a small 4 foot metal bin. From above the production floor we see the magic that is behind making the hot dog.

2 large 6 foot food processors shaped like spaceships grind the meat into an oatmeal consistency. Watching a disc slide into each spaceship, the pureed meat is waved into metal bins in 2-3 batches. Walking down the stairs and onto the 3rd part of the production floor, we walk among small bins filled with pureed tan meat. I am feeling good about eating hot dogs at this point because we walk up to the casing prep area, where a woman works over several bowls of hot dog casings thawing in running water. She slides each casing onto a metal rod quickly and then after getting about 6 rods complete she walks over to the stuffing line.

Ahh, the stuffing line. Not only does Vienna use natural casing, they also use plastic casing to shape their hot dogs. So if the idea of intestines shaping your meal into form stops you from eating hot dogs, you can opt for the small batch, largely produced plastic shaped casing hot dog commonly found in packs of 8 at your local grocer. At this point in the tour I am smiling constantly because of the fast hot dog making action coming out of the escaser line; namely, one man, holding casings to a tube and filling it perfectly with meat. A machine that portions the hot dogs into perfect links was pulling each meat tube to the waiting hands of working women. These women hung the links in strands on racks 10 high. Imagine a box with walls shaped by hanging strands of hot dogs. Off to a smoker, where Crystal, the floor manager assured me, fires have happened in the smoker. Finally, after 2+ hours in the smoker the hot dogs are cooled and then packaged.

It was meat! An all meat (and fat) hot dog. No one said hot dogs are healthy, but the myth that you are eating lips and assholes has hopefully gone away. At 100 calories and 10g of fat for a nitrogen free casing free dog, you can close your eyes and eat, tubular pate on a poppy seed bun.