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Dogged Pursuits

Taking a Stand for Hot Dog Culture
Alejandro Benes
From the Print Edition:
Sharon Stone, July/Aug 2004

(continued from page 2)

"The day's big news involved our concessions," Sam, the narrator, explains. "At a booth beside the clubhouse, the smells of hamburgers and hot dogs wafted over the grounds for the first time. A world premiere, so far as I knew. Johnny and I had brought in a small wagonload of supplies early that morning. While Helga unpacked our custom-baked round and long buns, we set up a grill and went to work.

"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.

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