Friday, July 4, 2008

Hot Diggity Dog

My mom never served hot dogs. Growing up there were plenty of backyard barbecues to be sure but for the most part they were all about burgers. I wasn’t prohibited from eating them, unlike wearing blue jeans. Hot dogs were just another one of her food prejudices … my mother’s list of foods she wouldn’t eat was very long. Perhaps that’s why my own taste is so eclectic?

When my parents were away and we were left in the care of a babysitter, my sister and I would cook hot dogs. Back then they were an improbable red color and hued their boiling water a bright cerise—my sister would refer to this byproduct as weenie water soup.
I cannot recall my childhood without thinking about trips to the dime store …

S.S. Kresge and F.W. Woolworth. I can still smell the hot dogs loaded with chopped onions and pickle relish featured at their lunch counters and snack bars. I also remember my Baptist grandmother calling them wieners, pronouncing the word in such a way that clearly implied disapproval. Our next door neighbor called them franks and, yes, served them with bean straight from the can. My first dabbling at gourmet cooking was stuffing hot dogs with olives and cubes of Velveeta cheese.

As I grew older I discovered the chili dog and literally would blackmail my sister’s high school boyfriend into taking me to the Dog n Suds. He’d buy me a Coney dog and frosty mug of orange drink (a better paring than root beer), then I’d turn over the Polaroids of him and my sister kissing on the couch, drinking my dad’s beer or something else that was considered licentious in the 1950s.

When my parents took me to a restaurant, I rarely ordered hot dogs since I gravitated to the high end of the menu. On road trips, however, it seems sooner or later we ended up at Howard Johnson’s. Back then, they proliferated along highways like the Pennsylvania Turnpike. I would always have the HoJo dog which came on a peculiar bun formed from a bent and toasted piece of bread. Later I would learn these were called Snuggles. The real attraction for me was the little brown pot of beans that came with the sandwich, beans that were quite unremarkable and only appealing because of their marketing.

As I matured, so did my taste in hot dogs. On a trip to New York I discovered the kosher frankfurter. Clearly here was a superior product, made from beef; bigger and juicier. In New York, the brand of choice—Hebrew National All-Beef Kosher Franks— is available at most of the city’s delis, grilled flat and smothered with sauerkraut and brown mustard, preferably Gulden’s. But they’re also sold from carts on the street.

It was in Chicago that I discovered all a hot dog could be. Here the Red Hot rocks and Vienna Beef rules. In Chicago a hot dog has to be served on a poppy seed roll, but what it should be topped with is up for grabs. Dogs “dragged through the garden” include yellow mustard, sweet relish and chopped onions and preferably even hot peppers, tomato and pickle wedges as well. A dash of celery salt is a Windy City hallmark. One thing you won’t find on a real Chicago hot dog is ketchup.

I’m sure I’ll be risking life and limb by putting forth my own favorite Chicago dog house. Admittedly, there are dozens deserving of praise. Murphy's Red Hots (1211 W. Belmont Ave., Lakeview; 773 935-2882) is special for me because I use to live in this neighborhood. Not only do they serve the quidessential Chicago-style hot dog with existential condiments, the hand cut fries are delightfully greasy and exceptional.

If you can’t make it down to Chicago, head over to Mad Dog’s Chicago-Style Eatery in Madison (309 Henry St., 608 251-0934). Their dogs should please the persnickety and purist alike.

Coney Island Chili Sauce

1 pound ground beef
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 cup water
1 6-ounce can tomato paste
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon yellow mustard
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 teaspoon Worcestershire
1 teaspoon onion powder
½ teaspoon celery seed
½ teaspoon ground cumin

In a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, cook the ground beef using a spatula to break the meat into small pieces. Drain off any excess fat and season with salt and pepper. Add the water, tomato paste, sugar, yellow mustard, chili powder, Worcestershire, onion powder, celery seed and cumin. Bring to a boil, stirring. Reduce heat and simmer 30 minutes or until the mixture thickens.

Enough for 4 jumbo size hot dogs.

No comments: