Additional Thoughts on the Chicago Hot Dog

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March 19, 2012 at 9:52 am

A not so great photo of the world’s greatest hot dog

Do you know that the 3rd anniversary for the Local Beet came and went about a month ago.  I had plans for doing a bit of commemorating, but then one thing led to another, and, well, no press releases went out and we did not do some of the other things that we had in mind for the anniversary.  And this has to do with hot dogs?  Well, thinking of Chicago hot dogs makes me think of when we launched this site.  When we launched the Beet, we believed that local food was as much about regional food traditions as it was about food grown regionally.  Over the 3 years, we’ve addressed that area a bit, but we’ve mostly ceded the area to other bloggers and food sites.  We still love our food traditions. We also especially love the work these days being done at Serious Eats Chicago on Chicago food traditions.  Today they tackled the most traditional of Chicago food traditions, the Chicago hot dog.

Nick Kindelsperger addresses in depth today the fact that the Chicago hot dog tradition is in fact one of many traditions.  For instance, there is the tradition that says everything begins at mustard and does not end until the celery seed can has been shaken, and then there’s the tradition that holds all the condiments in a four bowls as they do at Gene n’ Judes.  Nick looks at the styles around, including several new schools from chef-y places like Hot Dougs and Frank’s n Dawgs.  I’ve been looking at Chicago hot dog traditions for a while too.

In the, my has time flied, vein, I cannot believe I blogged my “Chicago Hot Dog Primer” in 2004.  This was an update on what I had even earlier wrote on Chowhound.com.  I explained the Chicago dog

Strangers may think pizza the archetypical Chicago food (in its pan format), but locals know the true Chicago food is the hot dog. When asked, the local will describe the Chicago hot dog as thus: a chubby, beefy, slightly spicy sausage manufactured by the Vienna company, taunt from its natural skin, boiled, served on a steamed poppy seed bun and widely garnished with mustard (smooth, yellow, mild), relish (Halloween green), dill pickle spear, chopped onions, tomato, sneaky hot “sport” peppers and a shake of celery salt. The leading source for all things hot dog remains Hot Dog Chicago, a 1983 frank field expedition by two Loyola professors, Rich Bowen and Dick Fay. The fact that conventional wisdom is best represented in a twenty year old book demonstrates the current state of Chicago wieners. (Although in 2001, Rich Bowen claimed that 75% of the places reviewed still existed)

It is my contention that for all its connection to and glorification of, the Chicago hot dog is a fading star. The claim that Chicagoans do not seek dogs often can be epitomized by the fact that within the Loop, the central business district, where tens of thousands of workers need lunch daily, nary a decent hot dog can be found. Ten years ago, the Loop had fine standard bearers in Irving’s, U Dawg U, Michael’s and Little Louie’s. These are all gone. There remain a few outposts in places like Union Station, combined with a Popeye’s, and such, but nothing great. And it is not just central, a rather spontaneous hot dog survey produced a lot of so-so results (here and here ). Other reports of decline can be found here ( the mediocre Polk and Western). No one captured better possible state of the Chicago dog than Harry V’s take on the Bunny Hutch.

But let us not mourn the Chicago hot dog’s decline. Let us lead a revitalization. Let us eat hot dogs again! After all, we have been eating them since the 1893 Colombian Exposition when two immigrants offered a sausage with the flavors of Austrian Hungarian empire. A few years later, these brothers formed the Vienna Sausage Manufacturing company, named after their inspiring city. Today, Vienna claims that over 80% of Chicago’s hot dog stands serve their product. A heavy majority, but not a monopoly, GWiv points out some of the other hot dog brands, prompted by John Fox, a New Jersey hot dog freak who brings this topic up every so often. Interestingly, I’ve had a hard time getting specific information on the history of the other two definitive aspects of the Chicago dog. I do not know when or why Chicago dogs were served boiled and not griddled or charcoal grilled as you find most other dogs around the USA. In addition, for a long time, I did not necessarily know who started dressing Chicago dogs in the classic manner or why they did it as such. Still, as described below, I think I may have an answer to the dressing issue. The Chicago dog, of course, does not include ketchup or kraut (see here for some ketchup discussion). The Chicago hot dog vendor also does not operate from the street .

One subtext of the Chicago hot dog that is seldom spoken out loud is that the Chicago hot dog is Jew food. The Vienna dog is not kosher, but it is all beef, “kosher style.” For many years, Vienna’s chief rival was the Kosher Zion hot dog produced by David Berg. (For a while, Vienna owned their rival, but David Berg as a competitor is alive and well). No hot dog stand stands more for Jewishness of the Chicago dog than Fluky’s, a Jewish owned establishment serving food to Jewish customers in the very Jewish neighborhood around Maxwell St. Fluky’s followed the Jews south, Blackstone and 63rd, west (Roosevelt and Central Park) and finally north (Western and Pratt). My hunch is that Fluky’s created the MRPOTPCS configuration. When I first start researching this, I could not confirm this, but via a link by the ever astute ReneG, I found an article by Leah Zeldes. In this article, she claims that Fluky’s did in fact start dressing the dogs the Chicago way:

The “banquet on a bun” had its origins in the Great Depression, when greengrocer Abe Drexler decided his 18-year-old son, local sports hero Jake “Fluky” Drexler, needed an occupation. That was in 1929, when jobs were hard to find, so Drexler converted the family’s Maxwell Street vegetable cart into a hot-dog stand, and began offering the “Depression Sandwich,” which sold for a nickel. “He built it like a vegetable cart would do it,” says Fluky’s son, Jack. (Also called Fluky, he likes to say he was “born in a bun” and is today proprietor of three North Side and suburban stands.) “It was an instant success.” The only change since 1929 has been the relish, which turned its distinctive “nuclear green” color in the 1970s.

The Jewish connection can also be seen in the fact that good hot dogs remain in the Jewish suburb, Skokie. [links omitted as they are mostly dead]

For me, back then, the Chicago hot dog could be divided three ways. You were Jewish or not or you were actually in between.  Jew, you ate a Vienna beef dog. Gentile, you ate a Leon’s dog, what I learned from Bowen and Fay was the “Hastee” school of dogs.  They named it that for a once popular hot dog stand called Tast-ee Hast-ee on Milwaukee on Chicago’s northwest side. I made my dichotomy because growing up in Niles, it seemed we went to the Jewish owned Booby’s (a Jew who also sold ribs!) and ate Vienna dogs. Many others on our block, a block with only a few other Jews, went for hot dogs to Tommy’s or Tasty Hut, Leon places. Nick called the Gentile dog, the “cucumber” dog. He is probably un-aware of this once strong contra-dog because very few Hastee places exist. There is still, however, Famous Bowser on Irving Park, carrying out this tradition as I described in 2004

The tastee dog differed firstly by the base and then secondly by the toppings. The meat in the tastee sausage comes from Leon’s Sausage Co., a dog both squishier yet spicier than the Vienna hot dog. The soft base supported a full garnish. More than the usual topping: lettuce, green pepper, cucumber with the other toppings, called a garden on a bun.

The third school I recognized in 2004 was the Maxwell Street school. There, a style came that transitioned with the neighborhood itself. The Vienna dog gave way to a spicy pork-beef “Polish” sausage and the Fluky condiments spared down to the soulful combo of cooked onions and mustard. I did not really see my favorite dog, Gene n’ Judes, as a distinct genre, even as I found it the world’s greatest (a call since supported by various other media! cf).

Today, especially with the demise of the Tastee stands, hot dog afficianados often classify their dogs as miminal or not. They are done like Jimmy’s or Gene n’ Judes, with a small dog and plain bun or they are done as Fluky did, with a bigger dog and a poppy-seed bun. Looking at these variations led me to believe that one could look at competing hot dog types not just on religion but on neighborhoods or even more likely, as “family trees”. The “depression” style dog, as far as I can tell, originates in the Taylor Street section of Chicago and especially at the intersection of Polk and Western. From those hot dog stands, grew others who learned there.  They migrated out to places like Grand and Pulaski and Grand and River Road. On the other hand, there was those who learned from Fluky and followed him to places like Roger’s Park and Skokie. And some where, lost in history, a school emerged on the Northwest side of Chicago and went Northwest from there. That was then.

Now, new school operators pick and choose. Places like Gold Coast chose the Fluky style but liked it grilled not steamed dog. A Hot Doug, an Edzo, Gus from Wiener and Still Champion, they take from various Chicago hot dog stand traditions. Nick and Serious Eats did a great job saying what it’s like today. I’ve just added a few thoughts on how it got that way.

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