Rubin: Cool heads at the hot dog shop, even after scare

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

So far, the latest look at hot dogs has not decimated Carol Harlan’s business.

In fact, she said, the day the World Health Organization officially listed them as a carcinogen, “half a dozen people came in and said all that talk about hot dogs made them want a Coney.”

Harlan and her husband, Richard, own Red Hots Coney Island, a civic treasure on Victor Street in Highland Park. A few paces east of Woodward, his family has been dispensing chili and hot dogs since 1921.

Unmoved by health reports, Larry Snider of Southfield enjoys lunch at Red Hots Coney Island.

The original owners, his great-aunt and great-uncle, are dead. As the Harlans pointed out, that was going to happen whether they ran a Coney or became the first known Americans to eat kale.

It’s all about moderation, Carol said. And while no sane person would say it’s a good idea to eat more Slim Jims — except the manufacturer of Slim Jims, of course — it’s also about perspective and the fine print in the statistics.

In short: No, we don’t have to throw away our hot dogs and eat cigarettes instead.

Hot dogs, bacon, ham and various other processed meats from the list of things that make life worthwhile were anointed Monday as high-risk cancer causers, joining asbestos, formaldehyde and tobacco products in the top tier of menaces to human health.

Also in that category is mustard gas, which is not to be confused with mustard, which at Red Hots is applied directly to the hot dog rather than painted like a road stripe atop the Coney.

Putting the mustard there helps bring out the spices in the chili, Richard said.

Putting hot dogs on the Fear List brings out the spice in the customers.

Red hots owner Carol Harlan chats with customers in May. After Monday’s announcement, Harlan said, “half a dozen people came in and said all that talk about hot dogs made them want a Coney.”

About those percentages

Larry Snider of Southfield ordered a bowl of chili. Then he ordered a cheeseburger without ketchup, ketchup being the closest thing to a vegetable you’ll find at Red Hots beside diced onions and fried potatoes.

“If you’re telling me I’m gonna get three more years eating what they want me to,” he said, “I say go to hell.”

Then he ordered french fries, “for dessert.”

It was not lost on the regulars at Red Hots that 116-year-old Susannah Mushatt Jones of Brooklyn, New York, the world’s oldest person, eats four pieces of bacon every day.

It’s not lost on statisticians that anecdotal evidence is meaningless, but it’s still fun to digest after scientists put all-American meat products on the metaphorical griddle.

A more useful fact would be this: the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which did the compiling of various studies for the WHO, attributes 34,000 deaths per year to diets overloaded with processed meats.

That’s about the population of Novi, but it’s worldwide. Compare it to smoking (1 million) or drinking (600,000), and those Slim Jims almost start to look like health food.

A man eating the equivalent of two pieces of bacon a day boosts his chances of contracting colorectal cancer from 5 percent to 5.9 percent.

Whether that’s a lot or a little is in the eye of the beholder. And let’s face it, cutting back to two or three times a week wouldn’t kill him.

It’s good, then bad, then good...

As for health studies in general, Richard Harlan, 61, had a one-word response:


“It was bad for you,” he said, stepping out from behind the grill in a chili-stained apron. “Now one or two cups is a good thing.”

Carol, 57, recalled a similar revelation about eggs that took a big bite out of their breakfast business. “Now eggs are good for you again.”

At the counter, a hotel manager from Detroit was finishing his second slider, a juicier and meatier creation than sliders tend to be elsewhere.

Stuart Crane, 46, avoids fried oils, artificial sweeteners and GMOs. Coneys aren’t a problem: he had two the day before, and two the day before that.

“According to the FDA,” he said, “everything you can eat or drink causes cancer, except for broccoli.”

Fortunately, broccoli is good.

Unfortunately, more studies are coming.