Dogged Pursuits

Taking a Stand for Hot Dog Culture
| By Alejandro Benes | From 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.

What goes into that "center-of-plate protein" is the stuff of legend. The U.S. government's Food Safety and Inspection Service guidelines say hot dogs can "consist of not less than 15 percent of one or more kinds of raw skeletal muscle meat with raw meat by-products. The by-products (heart, kidney or liver, for example) must be named with the derived species and be individually named in the ingredient statement." The dog can contain no more than 30 percent fat "or no more than 10 percent water, or a combination of 40 percent fat and added water. Up to 3.5 percent nonmeat binders and extenders or 2 percent isolated soy protein may be used, but must be shown in the ingredients statement on the product's label by its common name." You've been warned.

The process by which hot dogs are made is what distinguishes them from other sausages. Hot dogs are emulsified. That means that the ingredients are "comminuted"—reduced to minute particles—in huge vats that create a paste. Emulsification technically means that the molecules of different substances are combined into one. That's how all the major makers manufacture their hot dogs, irrespective of what's in them. In the manufacturing process, the hot dogs all have casings into which the paste is pushed. Those that are to be sold as skinless have a cellulose or plastic casing that is removed at the end of the mechanized line before they are packaged. That's how the Vienna Beef company of Chicago does it.

Chicago, some calculate, has more independent hot dog stands than there are McDonald's and Wendy's in the city's metropolitan area. Most of the stands buy their dogs from Vienna Beef, founded in 1894 or 1895 by immigrants Emil Reichel and Samuel Ladanyi. The story goes that the "canonical" Chicago dog, as Kraig calls it, was created at Vienna Beef (then Vienna Sausage) in the 1920s when a Hungarian sausage maker, whose name is not remembered by history, brought his recipe with him and started working there. While the founders chose Vienna as the name of their company in an effort to associate with the Austrian capital's reputation for high-quality cuisine, the sausage that actually became the prototype for the hot dog of the Windy City finds its origins in Frankfurt, Germany. The Viennese sausage, known in Austria as wienerwurst, contained at least 30 percent veal. Wieners, as they came to be known, were also finer, longer sausages. Frankfurters, the German sausages, were all beef. The canonical Chicago and New York dogs are all beef these days and the names "frankfurter" and "wiener" are interchangeable in common usage, though the names do apply to different sausages.

The name "hot dog," which came into common usage in the 1920s, is also interchangeable and there is much dispute about the name's origins. The popular myth goes that in 1901, a concessionaire at the Polo Grounds in New York City, home of the baseball Giants, decided to sell "dachshund" sausages, small links that earned their name in Germany because of their resemblance to the torso of the canine in question, which is also commonly referred to as a "weiner (sic) dog." The hawkers would yell something that indicated the sausages were "red hot" and from that, a local sports cartoonist for the now defunct New York Journal drew a picture of barking dachshunds nestled in buns. He purportedly tagged them "hot dogs."

Baloney, say historians. No such cartoon has ever been found, though others drawn later by the same artist exist with similar images of dogs barking in buns. According to researchers Barry Popick and David Shulman, the phrase "hot dog" shows up in the 1890s in Yale and Princeton University magazines in reference to a sausage wagon called the Kennel Club with the name "hot dog" used. The term was a joke about the shape of the sausages and speculation as to what was in them.

How the hot dog became a sandwich is equally hotly debated. In the nineteenth century, sausages were already popular in the United States thanks to heavy immigration from Europe. The modern hot dog has its strongest "links" to Eastern European and German sausage styles. Sausages were sold from pushcarts and in stores in Chicago and New York as early as the 1860s. In 1871, Charles Feltman, a German immigrant, opened a sausage stand at Coney Island. In the style of his homeland, he served his sausages with a roll, but not necessarily in the roll. Most serious culinary historians believe that the Germans probably established the practice of putting sausages in a roll at some point or that the dog migrated into the bun in a sort of natural evolution in the latter part of the nineteenth century when the sandwich had become popular in America. The term "hot dog sandwich" came into use around the late 1800s.

In 1893, the Columbian Exposition in Chicago attracted thousands of visitors. They ate copious amounts of sausage, including those sold by Oscar Mayer. He had founded his company 10 years earlier. In 1904, at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri, a legend was formed about the hot dog marrying the bun. Anton Feuchtwanger, a Bavarian sausage maker, was a vendor at the expo and, as the story goes, would lend a white glove to his customers so that they would not soil their hand while eating the sausage. Finding that the gloves were not being returned, Feuchtwanger asked a relative who happened to be a baker to make a long, rounded bun into which his "red hots," as he called them, would fit. Perhaps it was luck that the hot dog somehow eluded becoming the Feuchtwanger. The "wanger?"

In 1893, also in St. Louis—where claims are laid to the invention of the hamburger and also peanut butter—Chris Von der Ahe, the owner of a bar and the St. Louis Browns baseball club, reportedly began the tradition of selling hot dogs at ball games by putting the pup into a bun. This tale is as believable and as fanciful as any of the others, including those that are admittedly fictional. In his novel, If I Never Get Back (1989, Plume Books) Darryl Brock, who is ever in search of the perfect chili dog, tells the story of time-traveling Sam Fowler, who was riding on a modern-day Amtrak train. When he gets off in Cleveland, Sam finds himself in the year 1869.

"Bewildered at first," the explanation goes on the back cover of the book, "Sam soon meets up with the Cincinnati Red Stockings, baseball's first all-professional team, and begins to ride the rails with them on their first national tour across post-Civil War America. He encounters a political conspiracy, a get-rich-quick scheme with Mark Twain, and through it all, the shaky-legged beginnings of America's favorite pastime...before it ever was!"

During his travels, Sam puts to good use his knowledge of how baseball fed its fans in the twentieth century. After realizing the lack of concessions of the time, he eventually introduces hot dogs to the hungry customers watching the games. A few pages later, everything new was old again. Or something like that.

"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.

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.