With only twenty games left in the regular season for the World Champion Chicago Cubs (I’ve never had the occasion to type that phrase before; it feels pretty good), it is clearly time to think about hot dogs.
There are many people who believe there’s nothing to think about when it comes to hot dogs. They are wrong.
First, there is the dog itself and the myriad ways to cook them. Okay, there are three ways. Then there are the buns to consider. Finally, there are the condiments. A whole chapter could be written about ketchup and the little-known fact that it started life as a Chinese fish sauce; another about why the more commonly known tomato ketchup should never even be in the same room as a hot dog; a third about why only Evangelicals from the Deep South still call it “catsup.” Another chapter or two could be used to discuss the relative merits of yellow and brown mustards. And please, let’s not even get started on relish.
I like hot dogs a lot and I’ve had at least one in every major league ballpark I’ve visited—seventeen at last count. While the quality of the dogs, as well as how they are served, varies from park to park, the reality is that hot dogs always taste best at a ballpark, even minor league ballparks. Farmer John’s makes the hot dogs served at Dodger Stadium and packages them for grocery stores. A grilled Dodger Dog with brown mustard and chopped onions at Chavez Ravine is a thing of extraordinary beauty; that same dog at a backyard picnic is not. This summer I had a delicious hot dog with cream cheese and caramelized onions at a minor league game in Bellingham, Washington. One exception to the ballpark-rule might be Cincinnati, where, on Opening Day in 1999, my son and I discovered that the reason their hot dogs were the cheapest in all of baseball was because they were the clearly the worst. Never before had I met a hot dog I couldn’t finish. You get what you pay for.
Hot dogs should not be eaten indoors, unless you’re watching baseball on television or your picnic got rained out. They should never be served on fine china. They don’t need utensils. Hot dogs are most comfortable wrapped in deli paper, paper-lined foil or set on a flimsy paper plate. Hot dogs should be allowed to maintain their integrity and therefore they should not be sliced and added to baked beans, macaroni-and-cheese or any other casserole. They simply do not belong in a covered dish at a New England church supper. I once saw a hot dog tucked inside a California roll with avocado and cucumber. That was just wrong. Corndogs should only be consumed by whiny children at county fairs. I do not understand chili dogs.
When most properly prepared, and by this I mean in the Chicago “dragged-through-the-garden” style, a hot dog does not need any side dishes.
There are reasons that eclipse the preparation, however. Most of us have only two hands. One is for the hot dog, the other is for the beer. A bag of chips or a basket of fries is merely an encumbrance.
But back to the hot dog. I like an all-beef kosher dog. This has nothing to do with my religion and everything to do with my belief that an all-beef kosher dog has fewer strange things in it than might be found in those dogs that are always on sale for 49¢ for a package of eight. This is saying a lot coming from a guy who will willingly eat headcheese. Besides, no single food item should cost only 6.1¢. A cracker costs more than that.
My preferred brand of hot dog is Vienna, a brand you don’t readily find in Montana. I like Hebrew National, but am frustrated by that company’s seven-dog packaging. What the hell good is one leftover hot dog bun? Nathan’s is what I usually buy.
I was born and raised in Chicago and think that a Chicago-style hot dog is the way to go. Chicagoans take street food seriously. (If you’ve never had an Italian beef sandwich from Al’s #1 Italian Beef, put it on your bucket list. And, while we’re on the subject, deep-dish pizza is not Chicago-style pizza; it’s merely deep-dish pizza.) There are more hot dog joints in metropolitan Chicago than McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s combined. No other American city can say that. Perhaps few would want to.
To make a Chicago-style hot dog you should steam, simmer or charbroil an all-beef frankfurter. When sufficiently cooked, place the dog in a poppy seed bun and let the fun begin. Top the dog with yellow mustard, chopped white onions, sweet pickle relish (the neon-colored relish is something we didn’t have when I was learning to eat hot dogs), a dill pickle spear, some chopped or sliced fresh tomato and sport peppers (sport peppers are hard to find in many places; a reasonable substitute would be peperoncini). Shake on a dash or two of celery salt, pop open an Old Style and you’ve got yourself a meal.