Why Some Hot Dogs In Maine Are Bright Red

It is hard to think of a food more synonymous with summer in the United States than the classic hot dog. They are not exactly fancy, but that is a big part of the food's appeal. Portable, savory, and perfect for grilling, this low-maintenance meat has long been a staple of backyard barbecues, baseball games, camping bonfires, and Fourth of July cookouts. Most hot dogs and franks – whether they are made with Kosher all-beef, a more mysterious meat product blend, or even a vegan meat-substitute — are easily identified by their oblong sausage shape and standard brownish color. 

However, while these are probably the dogs you're most likely to find at stores and stadiums across the U.S., you might be a bit surprised if you visit Hannaford or Shaw's, or attend a sporting event in our most northern state on the east coast. There, one type of hot dog stands out from the rest: Maine's famous Red Snapper hot dogs, which are immediately recognizable due to their distinct fire engine red color.

Red Snappers are a 'source of regional pride' for locals

These unique Red Snapper hot dogs are found almost exclusively in Maine, where they are considered a beloved regional staple. (The colorful dogs have also been known to pop up in other areas of New England and parts of North Dakota on occasion, per Thrillist.) They get their signature bright, vibrant red color from a dyes like red #40, red #3, or sodium nitrite, and are made with an all-natural lamb casing rather than synthetic ones, which delivers a pleasant "snapping" sensation when the hot dogs are bitten into, according to New England Today. Red snappers are frequently served on warm top-split New England hot dog buns for a truly authentic Maine experience.

Sean Smith, the director of sales and marketing at W.A. Bean and Sons, a Maine-based, family-run butcher shop, calls the hot dogs "a real source of regional pride" for Mainers, per Thrillist – and Smith would know. W.A. Bean and Sons has been producing hot dogs since 1912, according to the company website. They are now the only butcher shop left in the state manufacturing and distributing the regional favorite, making them the de facto authority on the topic.

Dying the sausages red is an effective marketing technique

While these hot dogs are popular for their savory flavor and satisfying "snap," the red coloring seems to be a bit of a mystery. Although fans of the brand see the color as simply a fun way to set these Maine dogs apart from the rest, not many seem to know where the tradition came from, or exactly why they are dyed such a distinctive hue to begin with. 

Sean Smith explained that the addition of red dye to the Red Snapper hot dogs was simply "a marketing tactic" meant to attract customers' attention towards their product and away from their competitors. "I wish I could hang my hat on something a little higher than that, but it really was just a marketing technique that became synonymous with this region," the director of sales and marketing explained to Thrillist. But Maine isn't the only place you're likely to see this clever marketing trick. In fact, it seems that dying sausages red to help them stand out in a crowd can be traced back to 1920s Europe.

Red sausages are also popular in Denmark

The Red Snapper's roots can possibly be traced to the Danish "rød pølse," or red sausage (via Thrillist). These sausages were smoked and stuffed with pork meat and a variety of spices, including nutmeg, allspice, and cardamom. According to Taste Atlas, butchers would dye their old sausages a bright red color to alert customers that these meats were being sold at a discount. Soon, the cheap red sausages were flying off the shelves, and today, rød pølses, which are served on a hot dog bun and topped with ketchup, mustard, Danish rémoulade, onions, and sliced pickles, are a popular street food in Denmark.

Although it is no longer an indication that the meat on sale is stale, the tradition of dying sausages red eventually made its way to the Northeastern United States. And while its signature bright red color certainly helps the dogs stand out on supermarket shelves today, W.A. Bean and Sons no longer need to rely on marketing gimmicks to sell the product. These Red Snapper hot dogs have been a beloved Maine staple for decades now, and they don't appear to be going away anytime soon.