Everything but the Moo? A Tour of the Vienna Beef Factory

I wasn’t expecting “The Jungle,” so much, at my tour of the Vienna Beef factory this morning, but I was expecting to feel at least a little bit of bile at the back of my throat, at some point. I mean, it is a hot dog factory, and we all know that that’s the kind of food you eat and don’t think about. It’s basically a smoked slurry, after all, an animal byproduct bouillabaisse. Albeit, a delicious one.

That’s what I thought before going to the Vienna Beef factory. The tour, which is a new feature, recently opened to the public (it’s only offered on Wednesdays at 10 a.m., limited to six per tour, and there’s a waiting list, but sign up here if you can). But now, I’ve changed my mind. Not only are hot dogs edible….their processing is even thinkable.

We started out signing an agreement about confidentiality (On that note, I’m not writing about any process, trade secret, equipment or otherwise here, and since the tour is open to the public, I’m not outing anything you couldn’t just go see for yourself). We donned hair nets, beard nets and white frocks and headed into the chilly processing room. We walked through the large, refrigerated room, watching men in white coats (which matched ours) cut the fat off briskets and send it along an assembly line. The lean beef is then used for pastrami and corned beef. The sliced, chopped fat is taken by conveyor belt into a large machine, where it’s mixed with bull meat (yes, bull meat, which as more of a “snap” than cow meat), and blended with a brown batter of spices. Then, it’s shot into casings, some of which are plastic, others are made of sheep or cow. The little guy who handled the hot dog slurry shooter was my favorite. He simply placed a tube of plastic on a chute, and, machine gun style, it was filled by the batter blaster and hung high, while awaiting the smoking process.

One thing I didn’t realize about Vienna Beef, before today, is how many food products they make. We saw the salty brine that’s injected into the beef and pastrami. We watched a giant vat drip out chunks of chili. We stared at bag after bag of gravy zipped by on a conveyor belt. We gazed at the equipment they use to make a number of bagged soups, usually sold to restaurants. We learned about the pickle plants they run in California and Florida. While we only saw cuts of cow and bull (and not the hanging sides of cows, stray hooves and rocky mountain oysters I associate with houses of meat), they’re really innovative about how they use all parts of it. And yet, until now I just associated then with hot dogs.

The last stop on the tour was the tasting room. Here, they had a heap of hot dogs, sausages, vats of chili, lunch meat and other items out for tasting. They said they do this every day for quality assurance purposes, and invited us to take part in it. Hello, hot lunch.

The five other people on the tour waited in line and filled their Styrofoam bowls with meaty, beany chili. I followed suit (it was pretty darn good). Then, the links were sliced, and they invited us to sample as many of those as we wanted. I did so, comparing the encased frank (snappy!) to the non-encased frank (less snappy!), trying a polish here, a portillo there, averting my eyes when it came time to try the lunch meat (which may have had pimentos in it, but I can’t be certain).

We chatted about beef and red hots and Vienna, and as we did so I noticed a number of people on the tour going back for seconds on a small piece of chicken sausage. I thought about trying it, but opted against it because it wasn’t cut up, like the dogs. If you were in for a penny you were in for a pound.

Then the tour guide took yet another one of these bronze meats, and I just had to know what I was missing. I snatched a piece up, quickly realizing that it was, uh oh, cold. (I’m guessing the plate next to it had the heated sausages on it.) Now that I’d touched it, I had to do something–I certainly couldn’t put it back.

I took a bite. Cold, mushy and filled with spices that are meant to be consumed hot, I swallowed, actually wishing for a hot dog or even chili dog palate cleanser. But I was stuck with this chilled hunk of encased meat. The trash can, to my left, was at the other end of the table, and it was surrounded by the Vienna Beef tasting executives. To my right was the tour guide/Vienna Beef executive along with other tour members, who were enthusiastically downing the sausages. I was the only one with a suddenly pale, frozen face. Faced with a slit-second decision, I did the only thing that seemed logical. I slipped it into my white lab coat pocket, and pretended it never happened.

When we got to the end of the tour, there were bins to place our coats in. Thankful that I got to place it in the bin, myself, I gingerly folded it and tucked it into the giant station, careful not to let the sausage fall out of the pocket. I felt badly for being sneaky, and I felt worse for the laundry people, but, at the same time, I’m certain that the Vienna Beef factory laundry room has seen far, far worse than a little piece of cold chicken sausage.

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