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Who Determined the Exact Parameters of the Cocktail Wiener?

Where is the line drawn between a bona-fide cocktail weenie and a little-ass sausage?

Forget Thanksgiving. The most gluttonous day of the year is Super Bowl Sunday, where bowl after bowl and paper plate after paper plate is filled with finger-food bacchanalia that would make even the mad genius responsible for the TGI Friday’s appetizer selection blush (and certainly the ancient Romans). And so, all week leading up to game day, we’ll be offering up our own menu of scientific investigations, origin stories and majestic feats of snacking that not even the biggest sporting event of the year can top. Read all of the stories here.

A cocktail wiener is really one of two things: 1) something delicious to chomp on; or 2) something to be unfavorably compared to. It’s the cute little scamp of the sausage world, the one where you can eat as many as you want because it’s too adorable to count, the one you needn’t feel bad about casually eating 30 of without even looking.

But where is the line drawn between a cocktail wiener and just, like, “a quite small sausage”? Could you have a big-ass cocktail sausage? If you sold a porky foot-long as a cocktail wiener, would the long meaty arm of the law grasp you roughly? 

Eric Mittenthal is Vice President of Sustainability at the North American Meat Institute and President of the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council. He’s also known, more snappily, as the Hot Dog Top Dog. Few know more about the wide, weird, wild and wacky world of wieners than him. “The USDA has standards of identity for a variety of sausages, but not specifically cocktail sausages,” he says. “There are definitions listed for Vienna sausages and Little Smokies, but it’s mostly confirming those as ‘small’ sausages. The USDA would likely question the use of ‘cocktail’ on a product that was larger than ‘bite-size,’ which is what I believe the agency would view cocktail as meaning.”

The USDA doesn’t fart about. Their Labeling Policy Book is the home of ultra-specific rules — for instance, on a corn dog made from poultry meat, the type of meat has to be made clear in “type size at least one-third as large as the largest letter in the coined name.” It’s a dense, detailed document, 188 pages of regulations specifying all kinds of stuff. Anyone planning on selling canned chorizos in lard needs to pay heed to the rule that, if they’re not thermally processed, they need to have a moisture protein ratio of 1.8:1 and a pH of not more than 5.5. Don’t even think about selling canned chorizos in lard with an errant moisture protein ratio or a pH of 5.7, you absolute motherfucker.

“Here’s the general definition for cooked sausage and/or smoked sausage,” says Mittenthal. “‘These products are chopped or ground, seasoned, cooked and/or smoked. Added water is limited to 10 percent of the finished product. Meat byproducts may be used when permitted by standard. Cure is required for particular sausages, e.g., wieners or Polish sausage. These sausages come in various shapes and sizes, e.g., short, thin, long and chub. Cotto salami, liver sausage and cooked weisswurst are included in this category. Wieners, bologna, knockwurst, etc., are also in this class but are further distinguished by a fat and moisture limitation.’”

There are distinctions for many common varieties of sausage, but all pertain to the content of the sausage rather than its dimensions. It’s not the size that counts, but the ratio of pork-derived products to water. “We deal almost entirely with German sausage, which tends toward the larger side of the spectrum,” says Joshua Grocott, Marketing Director of the U.K.-based colossal sausage company The Sausage Man. “But would a cocktail sausage not be any sausage you could serve on a cocktail stick?”

Perhaps, like a cocktail stick itself, he has a point. In the absence of any hard-and-fast rule, the ability to be held on a cocktail stick — the toothpick-like pointy wooden one an olive or cherry hangs out on, rather than a cocktail stirrer or swizzle stick — seems as good a definition as any. 

So maybe, just as anything sweet on a stick is a lollipop, and anything edible between two slices of bread is a sandwich, anything wienery that’s plausibly handed out on cocktail sticks is a cocktail wiener. And, as Grocott explains, with a knife involved, anything can happen. “We sell ‘mini’ sausages that are 8-centimeters long, which could plausibly be served with a cocktail stick, although might be a little unwieldy,” he tells me. “But whenever we serve up free samples of our sausage, we usually slice the regular-sized sausage — 10 to 12 inches long — into smaller pieces to serve on paper plates with a cocktail stick. So in this way, all sausage could potentially be cocktail sausage if you cut it small enough.”

Maybe the rules of a cocktail wiener are more along the lines of “we’re all the same height in the dark,” “first class and economy arrive at the same time” and “if you’re wearing a Hawaiian shirt, it’s a party” than rigid government-mandated specifications. More of a vibe thing. Do you think it’s a cocktail wiener? Do you want it to be a cocktail wiener? It’s a cocktail wiener. 

Eat 30 and take a long nap afterward!