Food & Drink

How Maine’s Red Snapper Hot Dogs Got Their Vibrant Hue

And what's the deal with the name?

Maine red snapper hot dogs
Photo: Portland Press Herald; Illustration: Maitane Romagosa/Thrillist

If you see a red snapper listed on a menu, it probably elicits images of a gamey red fish swirling in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. But a little further north, the menu item is a fire engine red hot dog grilled to smoky perfection and nestled inside a New England-style bun split right down the center.

Red snappers are more common in Maine than the brown equivalent and locals will turn out in droves to defend and celebrate the state’s iconic dish. In fact, they do just that at a Maine Red Hot Dog Festival complete with hot dog stands, eating contests, and plenty of hot dog hat-wearing attendees every year.

“Mainers stick up for that red hot dog, as you know,” Sean Smith, the director of sales and marketing at the red hot dog purveyor W.A. Bean and Sons, said. “It’s a real source of regional pride.”

But it seems that Mainers, like myself, chomp down on the hot dogs at backyard barbecues and high school sporting events without really knowing much about the history of the dish. After polling my born-and-raised Maine family about the tradition to little success, I set out to find out where the name came from, how this seemingly normal hot dog has become such a regional stronghold, and my own personal million dollar question: Why the hell did they ever start dying them red?

I figured I’d start with the name because while the nomenclature of this particular cased meat rightfully confuses some, the origin is actually quite simple. There are vibrant red hot dogs in other parts of the world, but Maine’s version was dubbed a red snapper because of its texture.

W.A. Bean and Sons is the last butcher left in the state making red snappers, so they were my only life line when I went looking for the answer to why the hot dogs were dyed red in the first place.

W.A. Bean and Sons has been making red snappers for more than 150 years and the fifth-generation family company hasn’t changed up its methodology since. The links are handmade and quite literally snap when you take a bite into them because they’re sealed the old-fashioned way, using lamb casing that’s naturally packed with collagen rather than the artificial casing that most modern purveyors use.

W.A. Bean and Sons is the last butcher left in the state making red snappers, so they were my only life line when I went looking for the answer to why the hot dogs were dyed red in the first place.

This question haunted me as I grew up in Maine. We were strictly a brown hot dog family and to be honest, the nearly neon color really turned me off. But as I got older and freely pumped my body with red dyes three through 40, I finally tried one and loved the taste, but I still needed to know why it was necessary to turn them such a violent shade of red.

When I asked Smith about the origin of the color, he brushed it off as simply “a marketing tactic” from the company to stand out on the shelves of regional groceries like Hannaford and Shaw’s. “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,” Smith said.

But he did mention that the practice started in the 1930s when a German butcher joined the ranks at W.A. Bean and Sons, so I went digging to find out where else red hot dogs appear around the world. Within the United States, Kayem, based in Massachusetts, and Cloverdale, based in North Dakota, both sell similar bright red hot dogs to those consumed in Maine and have an equally strong fan base. Kayem calls them “a New England tradition” and Cloverdale’s website and other forums have comment sections with dozens of entries filled with people seeking out the red dogs they can only find here and there in North Dakota.

These brands all use various methods to achieve that bright red hue -- red dye #40, red dye #3, or sodium nitrite -- but none come right out and say why they started dying them red in the first place. In the states, they chalk it up to making their product stand out, but abroad things are a little more transparent.

Hot dog carts are synonymous with the city of Copenhagen and the rød pølse is an iconic order. It’s similar to Maine’s red snapper in color, but it’s a little longer and spices like nutmeg, allspice, and cardamom give the dog a distinctly different flavor. According to Taste Atlas, Itanari, and even an industry handbook on dyed food, this red dyed tradition dates back to the 1920s when vendors would dye older sausages and sell them at a slightly lower price. Aha! So the dye was a bright, all encompassing clearance sticker!

Aha! So the dye was a bright, all encompassing clearance sticker!

It seems likely that Maine’s red snapper tradition stemmed from the European practice of dying older dogs red, but these days, the bright red color is no longer a warning that you might be eating older-than-normal meat. It’s actually one of the easiest ways to confirm you’re eating one of the best hot dogs on the market: one that’s not packed with mysterious interior ingredients or coated in artificial casings like some hot dogs out there. The unique style of hot dog is as much a part of Maine’s culture as the state’s famous red crustaceans, and now we can all freely eat them without wondering what possessed someone to dump a bunch of red dye in as they were made.

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Liz Provencher is a native Mainer, a red hot dog eater, and an editorial assistant at Thrillist. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.