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Dogged Pursuits, page three

Posted: July 2, 2009

"The sausages' skins were a bit too tough, but they tasted right. We'd had the beef ground that morning. Ketchup didn't exist, but we had some of the finest German mustard I'd ever tasted, lots of pickle relish, and chopped sweet onions."

Brock explains that he tried not to cheat too much when it came to representing things as they were in 1869, but that he really cheated with the invention of the hot dog. "Baseball has always connected America and patriotism with the game," he says. "Because of the connection, the hot dog is as American as it gets. Football doesn't do that, basketball doesn't either. The hot dog and baseball go together. The hot dog ties right in to the nostalgia." That might be why Nathan's brags about being the official hot dog of the New York Yankees through 2006.

If Charles Feltman never gets credit for putting the weenie in the bun, he will always have an association with hot dog royalty. One of Feltman's employees was Nathan Handwerker. When Handwerker left Feltman's at Coney Island, he opened his own stand in 1916 on the corner of Surf and Stillwell. He called it Nathan's and sold his dogs for a nickel.

"Our founder, Nathan Handwerker, borrowed $300 from Eddie Cantor and Jimmy Durante," Wayne Norbitz, the president and chief operating officer of Nathan's Famous Inc., explained to the crowd at the 2003 hot dog eating bacchanal outside the Coney Island store on July 4, a highly patriotic and highly publicized event won by a Japanese contestant the past three years. "He put in his life savings and he and his wife, Ida, opened up a small hot dog stand that has become a New York and U.S. tradition."

Nathan's Famous is now much more than a hot dog stand. Nathan's owns the brands and franchise operations for Kenny Rogers Roasters and Miami Subs, and the right to co-brand Arthur Treacher's Fish & Chips. That means more than 350 restaurants and 2,200 branded-product points of distribution (allowing other food service operators to sell Nathan's products) in 42 states, the District of Columbia and 16 foreign countries.

The story of how Nathan's began is typical of how a number of the well-known hot dog companies and vendors got their start. Hot dog carts in New York still provide an avenue to many immigrants looking to start their own businesses or make a living. The carts, if not unique to New York City, are certainly most prevalent there. They might have taken off in Chicago were it not for a 1904 ordinance, lobbied for by restaurant owners who feared competition, that prevented vendors from selling dogs outdoors in the Loop, ostensibly out of concern for hygiene. So instead of carts, an art form was born: the Chicago hot dog stand.

Kraig, who teaches history at Roosevelt University in Chicago, favors the flavor profile defined and dominated by the city's Vienna Beef hot dogs. He orders his "dragged through the garden," the Chicago phrase for loading up the dog with yellow mustard, raw chopped onions, tomatoes, a pickle spear, sport peppers and celery salt, but leaves off the sort of neon-green relish common to Chicago hot dog stands. The Chicago classic is usually steamed, but has the desired "snap" because of a natural sheep-intestine casing and because, if properly prepared, the proteins in the dog rise to form a crunchy coating. (If you order a dog from, say, a New York cart and it comes out mushy, it's either because the dog contains very little protein or has sat in the "dirty" hot-water bath too long.) Some Chicago stands prepare their dogs on an open grill, which makes possible the "char-dog," and they come out tasting considerably different from the steamed variety.

"Some stands are better than others and it depends on who owns the stand and the care they take in making the hot dogs," says Kraig on the issue of quality. "I routinely start arguments in classes by asking, 'What's the best hot dog stand in Chicago?' It gets to blows as the students argue about which is the best. It does make a difference, even though the hot dog's the same and the stuff on it is the same, generally."

Arguments abound, but if there is a representative hot dog stand in Chicago, it might be Superdawg on Milwaukee and Devon. This is not because it necessarily has the best hot dog in Chicago—it's served with fries on top of the sandwich in a red cardboard box with a picture of a hot dog in repose—though its customers would make the case. Superdawg is known far and wide because Maurie and Flaurie stand atop the stand. They are statues of hot dogs named after the owners, Maurie and Florence Berman.

Given all the history and all the seriousness with which New York and Chicago take their hot dog culture, many would be surprised to learn that the cities ranked second and fourth, respectively, among the "Top Ten Hot Dog Eating American Cities" in 2003. The rankings are based on the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council's figures of supermarket sales by pounds. New York ate 35,214,010 pounds last year, with Chicago chowing down 19,593,140. The number one city in hot dog consumption, not counting those sold at stands, is Los Angeles, with 44,723,360 pounds. Mild weather year-round and the love of grilling out might explain L.A.'s lead. (The Dallas/Ft. Worth metropolitan area placed third on the 2003 list, with 21,452,530 pounds consumed.)

If Nathan's at Coney Island is the traditional Mecca of hot dog lovers, and if Chicago's stands form the epicenter of modern hot dog culture in the United States, then Pink's in L.A. is the hot dog stand made for the mass media.

Typical of the immigrant experience, Paul Pink's parents, Isidore and Anna Pinkowitz, came through Ellis Island in 1908 from Romania. The family settled in L.A., and in 1939 Paul rented a piece of land near the corner of what is now Melrose and La Brea for $15 a month. That's where he sold hot dogs for 10 cents apiece from a pushcart among the "weeds, rolling hills and open spaces" before the streets were put in, says Richard Pink, Paul's son, whose wife Gloria now runs the stand. Paul had to run an extension cord into an adjacent drugstore to power the cart the first two years.

"The landlord raised the rent in 1941 to $25," remembers Richard Pink, who co-owns the business with his sister, Beverly Pink Wolfe. "My mother [Betty] said, 'There's no way I'm gonna pay $25 a month in rent. That's highway robbery.' She went to the bank and raised the money to buy the property." It cost $3,500. Don't even ask what it's worth now.

"The cart turned into the little building next door and then we outgrew that building," Richard says. The current building was constructed in 1946. Because of later health ordinances, few over-the-counter food establishments are left in L.A. But because Pink's is a landmark, the stand stands.

Bobby Flay featured Pink's on the Food Network (to be fair, many other hot doggeries have appeared on that cable channel as well), and on any given day, you might stand in line during the lunch hour and see a Korean, Japanese, Mexican or other TV crew interviewing the owners and the customers. The line at Pink's has 30 people in it at noon and it doesn't get smaller quickly. At lunch, they are mostly workers from the film studios in the neighborhood. At night—Pink's is open until 2 a.m. during the week and 3 a.m. on the weekends—the crowd is from the clubs all around Hollywood. At any hour, celebrities come by. Martha Stewart's been there and now has a dog named after her (it's a 10-inch "stretch dog": mustard, relish, onions, bacon, chopped tomatoes, sauerkraut and sour cream); the honor came after Pink got mentioned on Stewart's TV segment. Bill Cosby is a regular and Cuba Gooding Jr. went for his birthday. Comedienne Ruth Buzzi drove by one day and got on a PBS hot dog-umentary, and head shots of stars and wannabes cover the wall of Pink's seating area.

Pink's is more in the tradition of the Chicago stands in that the toppings for the hot dog are many and the combinations make it hard to get your mouth, not to mention your mind, around some of the special dogs. The Lord of the Rings dog, for example, is a 10-inch stretch dog, with sweet barbecue sauce, laced through five deep-fried onion rings. Pink's also has a Baja Veggie Dog topped with guacamole, chopped tomatoes and raw onions, and a turkey dog. Hey, it's L.A. The Matrix Reloaded, once known as the Lakers Three-Peat dog, is three hot dogs wrapped in a giant tortilla with three slices of cheese and three slices of bacon, with chili and onions.

If Kobe Bryant and his team are out of luck on this score, Kobe beef is picking up the slack at the Old Homestead Steak House in New York City's meat-packing district. The 136-year-old restaurant now serves an 11-ounce, nearly foot-long "hot dog" made of 100 percent American Kobe beef. Marc Sherry, the owner of the Old Homestead, will not reveal the spices in the dog, though the flavor is in the range of a beefier-tasting New York dog. (Nathan, the bartender, recommends having it with a glass of Cabernet.) Sherry will not tell which ranch in Texas makes the $19 Kobe dog for the restaurant to its specifications, snap and all.

"The response is absolutely overwhelming," Sherry says, two months after he began selling the dish "We sold 1,200 in the first month. What I like about the hot dog is that I get a clean taste to it. Since I know exactly what goes into it, I feel good about eating it." The dog is served on a bun with chopped onions and red peppers, a truffle-infused Dijon mustard and house-made Kobe chili, with Cheshire cheddar cheese sauce on the side. Alongside are tater tots.

Kraig has enjoyed the Old Homestead's Kobe dog and says it's really a frankfurter because the meat inside the natural casing is "finely chopped, not emulsified." But that's not Sherry's point.

"For me, it was a thrill to put this hot dog in my restaurant," says Sherry, a native New Yorker. "I grew up at Nathan's. I love Sabrett's. I'm a Brooklyn boy. The Kobe beef line [there's also a best-selling $41 burger and $95 steak on the menu] has brought the Old Homestead to the highest level among steak houses in New York."

Ultimately, the hot dog culture in the United States is as much about the best hot dog—always the one you like—and about place. Where you ate your first hot dog with your family is often the place you remember as being the best, or at least your favorite. Maybe it's The Original in Pittsburgh or Nu-Way Weiners in Macon, Georgia, established in 1916, the same year Nathan's was opened. Perhaps it's Rutt's Hut in Clifton, New Jersey, which serves "in-and-outers," "rippers" and "cremators," the names reflecting the length of time the dog is left in the deep fryer and the resulting appearance. You'll read all the postcards at world-famous Walter's in Mamaroneck, New York, and relish the special mustard at this roadside stand that's been around since 1919. You might love the slaw dogs, a Southern classic, at Frank's in Columbia, South Carolina, or want to roll the dice on the half-pounder at Slots A Fun in Las Vegas. It costs 99 cents and is used to attract gamblers who might go to other casinos on the Strip. In Van Nuys, California, you can go to Law Dogs and on Wednesday nights get free legal advice from one of the lawyer-owners. The fact that the attorney has a piece of the hot dog stand builds a special kind of trust, customers admitted. What about an Alaskan reindeer dog sold to you by Michael Anderson from his cart in Anchorage? Whichever dog you think is best, you have plenty of company who think they have the right answer as well.

Back in Fairfield, Connecticut, Gary Zemola and John Pellegrino have had to compromise with success. In 2000, they traded in the Super Duper Weenie truck for "a little old house and opened a hot dog stand."

"Now the landlord says that I have to serve diet soda," Zemola explains, saying that he serves Boylan's, a boutique brand made in New Jersey. "He's diabetic and it's a condition of the lease."

And what about ordering ketchup on the dog? "If it's a kid, I'll let it slide."

Alejandro Benes's favorite hot dog is the "pig in a blanket" with deli mustard.

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