Dog’s Dinner


Our Correspondents

John Charles Dollman, Table d’Hote at a Dogs’ Home, 1879.


I eat dinner around six, and so do my dogs. I’d prefer to eat a bit later, but Cecil, my French bulldog, and Ivy, my shelter mutt, have invisible dinner bells installed in their brains, and at six the pacing and meaningful glances start. When I was married, I made multicourse dinners and ate at the table. Alone, I make what’s easy, and I often eat in front of the TV. I’ve noticed that Cecil and Ivy seem much more excited about dinner than I do. I began to see why when, a few weeks ago, I jotted down what they ate and what I ate:

Me: frozen Stouffer’s Welsh rarebit on toast
Dogs: Cesar Chicken and Cheddar Cheese Soufflé

Me: two slices of leftover pepperoni pizza
Dogs: Chef’s Choice Bistro Home-style Meatballs and Pasta with Real Beef in Tomato Sauce

Me: a hamburger and a baked potato
Dogs: Blue Wilderness Northwest Skillet with Salmon and Vegetables

Me: An apple and some Brie with crackers
Dogs: Holistic Brand Grilled New York Strip Steak with Redskin Potatoes and Summer Vegetables in Sauce

You get the idea. I look at the dog food—none of it cheaper than four bucks a can—and see the words Gluten Free, Grain Free, Organic, Holistic, and Flaxseed oil splashed with braggadocio across the labels. I look at what’s in my refrigerator and see a frozen Swanson chicken potpie, three bottles of Coke, a gnawed turkey leg and some hamburger meat that looks green around the edges. If I were Gwyneth Paltrow, I might be able to compete with my dogs, but judging by the boxes of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and discount ramen in my pantry, I can’t now. They’ve won.

I’m old enough to remember when dogs ate cans of mystery meat. The label on the can showed a happy cartoon dog, and it was best not to think who or what was inside. Dog food was the sweepings off the slaughterhouse floor. If what goes into a ballpark hot dog makes you ill, you really did not want to dwell on dog food. The saddest stories on the news were reports of old ladies so poor that they were reduced to eating Alpo.

Where there’s disposable income, luxe dog food is sure to follow. Traveling with Ivy last year, I stayed at a “dog-friendly” hotel in London, expecting a Holiday Inn with pee-stained carpets. Instead, when I opened the door to my suite there was a straw hamper filled with clever dog toys and fancy dog foods. There was a mahogany bowl to put the dog food in and, to put under the bowl, a linen mat with Ivy’s name embroidered on it.

Fancy dog food is poetically named. It conjures up images of silvery wilderness where wolves howl under lonesome pines; or the simmering warmth of an old-fashioned kitchen, where on the potbellied stove you’ll find Brauts and Tots, Grammy’s Pot Pie, Cowboy Cookout, Wing a Dings, and (for the holidays) turducken—all of these flavors available from Merrick Dog Food, and all beloved by Cecil and Ivy.

For dogs or for people?

Opening the can is a bit of a letdown. The brown glop inside does not, cannot live up to promises of perfectly crafted venison, stream-caught salmon, quinoa, and farm-to-table (er, can) vegetables on the label. But then again, how often have we humans swooned over menu prose only to have a plate of disappointment placed in front of us?

The promise of modern dog food reminds me of flying first class. The menu brags that celebrated chefs have conceived the meals, and everything does sound divine: artisanal this, small-batch that. Then the meal is served on weird little plates, atop a tray with polyester napkin and dwarf salt-and-pepper shakers, and you’re lucky if it tastes as good as a Hungry-Man TV dinner. (And I would know; I had one on Tuesday.)

Cecil and Ivy do not dream of being wolves in the arctic, or thrill to the mention that there’s flaxseed oil and organic kale in their dinner. They have never mentioned to me that they have celiac disease, so the gluten-free bonus means nothing to the three of us. They also don’t care if their dog bowl is mahogany and if the embroidered linen placemat was from Italy or France. (I checked: Italy.)

For this, they get more joy out of eating than most people ever will. They aren’t on diets. They have no food allergies. They aren’t afraid of salt, and they’re more … robust then Gwyneth Paltrow will ever be. They’re lifetime members of the clean-plate club; and as they say about horses, they are “easy keepers.” I will continue to feed them gourmet dog food although I know it’s silly. The labels, with their promise of home cooking and clean living, make me happy.

Jane Stern is the author of more than forty books, including Ambulance Girl: How I Saved Myself by Becoming an EMT. She is the canine editor of Departures. With Michael Stern, she coauthored the popular Roadfood guidebook series. The Jane and Michael Stern Collection, comprising forty years of their research materials, is on permanent display at the Smithsonian.