Taking a Stand for Hot Dog Culture
From the Print Edition:
Sharon Stone, July/Aug 2004
No diet soda. That was the rule when Gary Zemola opened Super Duper Weenie in 1992. "No diet soda," Zemola explains, giving a preview of his love of all things retro, "because Super Duper Weenie was old-fashioned, sort of a take from the '30s and '40s, and there was no such thing as diet soda then."
Zemola is a classically trained chef. He came out of the Culinary Institute of America in 1986 and went to work at Pasta Nostra, a top-notch Italian restaurant in South Norwalk, Connecticut. It was here that he reinforced his nature to be uncompromising about using the best ingredients and making everything, or mostly everything, fresh. Soon thereafter, says Zemola, "I adapted that to the level of the hot dog."
Along with partner John Pellegrino, Zemola is proud that Super Duper Weenie, which originally operated out of a truck parked off Exit 24 on Interstate 95 in Fairfield, Connecticut, serves freshly made condiments like hot-pepper relish, sweet-pickle relish and sautéed red-onion garnish. There's also chili and coleslaw, and the fries, cut fresh, inspire rhapsodic praise from customers. The hot dogs, which Super Duper splits and cooks on a griddle, are made by Miller's Provisions in nearby Stratford and contain a combination of beef and pork cuts. They are mildly spiced compared to a garlicky New York dog and have a natural casing.
"Some [food business] guys don't care and that pisses me off," Zemola says. "Most hot dogs around here [Connecticut, New York and New Jersey] are pig lips and assholes." In making that claim, Zemola includes some very famous landmarks that sell their hot dogs at very low prices compared to the $3.25 he pulls in for a Super Duper Weenie. Loaded of course. Zemola, you might have gathered, is passionate about his "art." "If a guy comes in and orders a hot dog with sweet relish and ketchup and I catch the ticket, I won't serve it. If you're covering it with ketchup, you're missing the point." Any question as to why Zemola is known as the "Hot Dog Nazi"?
Most hot doggeries around the United States are much more accommodating when it comes to serving you your dog your way. "What'll ya have? What'll ya have? What'll ya have?" is the signature cry of the workers at Atlanta's Varsity grill. At its 50-yard-long counter, The Varsity serves close to 20,000 dogs a day with toppings like pimento cheese and the ever-popular chili. The welcoming attitude of The Varsity is much more in line with the tradition that is the American tube steak, the wiener, the frank, the red hot. Call it what you want, it's become the food of the everyman in this country (industry surveys argue that 95 percent of Americans like hot dogs) and an icon of patriotism. In reality—and it's heresy to most hot dog aficionados—when it comes to dogs sold at most stands, one hot dog is pretty much like any other hot dog. The difference lies in the spicing, or "flavor profile."
Almost half of the more than 20 billion hot dogs consumed annually in the United States are store-bought. Most of them are skinless once they make it to the grocery aisles and many brands have little flavor. That's because children are the biggest consumers of these dogs that descend from the pork and veal sausage made in Vienna (Wien in German), Austria, that gave us the name "wiener." This wiener is generally mildly flavored with pepper, mace, nutmeg and a lot of salt. The true American hot dog culture, however, does not depend on these blander offerings. The standard here is set largely by the New York hot dog, created mostly by Russian and Polish Jews, with its garlic backbone, and the Chicago hot dog, founded on the Hungarian model and more reliant on a subtler, spicier mix of flavorings, among them paprika and coriander. The "quintessential" American dog, bought outside the supermarket, has common traits and, as the Hebrew National ad says, has to answer to a "higher authority."
"In my opinion," says Bruce Kraig, a culinary historian who specializes in food and culture, "a real hot dog is all beef. It's meaty, thick, juicy, it has snap and more flavor than the kid's hot dog. It's a wonderful, sensual mouthfeel on a really good hot dog. Texture and flavor put together."
The Web site of the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council puts it differently: "All hot dogs are cured and cooked sausages that consist of mainly pork, beef, chicken and turkey or a combination of meat and poultry. Meats used in hot dogs come from the muscle of the animal and looks [sic] much like what you buy in the grocer's case."
Josee Meehan, of the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, calls the hot dog a "center-of-plate protein." "The hot dog is a blank canvas," Meehan explains. "You can do just about anything with it."
One of the things the council does with it is to throw an annual hot dog party on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. It's a lobbying event where friends of the hot dog and meat industry (the council is part of the American Meat Institute) show their appreciation for campaign contributions and their love of what is a national symbol. Last year, during National Hot Dog Month in July, Congressmen Charles Stenholm (D-TX) and Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) were the official hosts and retired major league baseball players Jim Rice, Kent Tekulve and Greg Luzinski showed up to sign autographs and bolster the connection between baseball and the hot dog.
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