Food & Drink

Some frank talk

This is a meditation on one of the trashiest foods we eat. It’s been called a “nutritional nightmare”; it has been the secret repository of finely ground “lips, snouts and peckers”; it’s sometimes been desecrated, but more often glorified; and it was the iconic inspiration for old blues duo Butterbeans and Suzie’s classic number, “I Got a Hot Dog for Your Roll.”

This, in case you’ve missed it, is National Hot Dog Month. Every July, there’s a lot of waxing poetic about the “all-American” sandwich (by definition, that’s what it is), and its deeply embedded place in the American psyche and on and on. The simple point to it all is that people in this country love our tube steak, and I’m one of them. But you only need to know this:

This year’s projections are that more than 215 million wieners will be consumed with sales of more than $428 million in the top 10 consuming cities alone. You might be surprised to know that Detroit isn’t one of them, nor are our stadiums in the top 10 for scarfing dogs.

Given our pride in the Detroit-style Coney Island hot dog, I haven’t been able to find the prototype any closer than Jackson. George Todoroff, who owned hot dog franchises there, was inspired to include his chili with the basic stuff on the Coney Island (N.Y.)-style dog: yellow mustard and onions. And we rarely register on the national consciousness when the country’s signature franks are listed.

Hate to burst your home-folks bubble, but frankly (eee, doggies, that’s a knee-slapper!) I don’t care where they came from. There is nothing that can stand in for the coneys slung at the battling conjoined twins, American and Lafayette, downtown.

It should not discourage you that most of the meat in the chili — at American, anyway — is ground beef heart, with suet, black pepper and red, oregano, thyme and some other flavorings. (Personal aside: It’s a shame only family ever got to try Grandma Campbell’s thin-sliced, boiled beef heart, one of my all-time favorite lunchmeats.)

And if it’s any solace, American once served 3,000 people from a motivational speech at Cobo, who walked single file in the Lafayette Avenue door and out the Michigan Avenue side, each picking up two coneys, pop and a bag of chips.

It is without question my favorite hot dog. By strict definition, incidentally, the sausage alone is a frankfurter; a “hot dog” is the whole thing, bun and fixings.

But of all the other styles — some of them bizarre and, in the case of corn dogs and other on-a-stick versions, almost unholy — the true Chicago-style hot dog is right at the top.

This is tube steak with a side of salad – not really a side, but more like a smothering. The way you get them in Chi is like this, and only the tiniest variations are allowed:

Start with an oversized, almost pillow-soft poppyseed bun.

Lay in an all-beef Vienna hot dog in its natural casing. In the interest not of shock, but education, I have to say to those who don’t know that what gives both Detroit coneys and Chicagos their tender snap is a membrane from a sheep intestine.

Next, slop on a heavy smear of yellow mustard, then heavily scatter with chopped, sweet onion. So far, what’s the big deal?

It starts next. Now come ripe tomato slices, a Kosher dill spear (or cucumber), celery salt dealt with a heavy hand, and two or three “sport peppers,” as they’re called in Chicago.

Last is a heavy spoonful of sweet pickle relish, the likes of which I’ve never seen elsewhere. While the Chicago distributor insists its color is undoctored, it seems to cast off its own light in Day-Glo green.

You can approximate this yourself at home, although the right buns are hard to come by (by another definition, that’s a truism). “Sport peppers” are just pickled serrano chiles, a moderately hot variety.

But you can get the real thing at a great little joint called Hippo’s, on Rochester Road in Troy. It prides itself on offering most any style hot dog, as served where they rule — although I’ve caught them serving Chicago dogs with no-casing franks.

Last, so you don’t inadvertently shame yourself (if you care), here are a few tips from the American Meat Institute’s rules of hot dog etiquette:

Don’t take more than five bites to finish a hot dog, seven for a foot-long.

Fresh herbs on the same plate with hot dogs is a major culinary boner.

Don’t be so foolish as to put hot dog toppings between the dog and the bun. Always dress dog, not bun.

Never eat a hot dog with utensils, and whatever’s stuck to your hands when it’s gone should be licked off.

Never bring wine to a hot dog cookout, and never send a tasteful thank-you note after.

News flash: Nagano, Japan, native Takeru Kobayashi — a smallish 27-year-old — won his fifth consecutive hot-dog eating championship in New York on July 4 by inhaling 49 of them, with buns, knocking out 17 challengers, but still falling short of his personal best of 53-and-a-half. He did this in 12 minutes. The trick, they say, is to first eat the wienie, then soak the bun in water and “drink” it.

It’s perversely comforting to know that, with unmet hunger here and nearly everywhere else on earth, the grotesque “sport” of competitive eating is not uniquely American.

Ric Bohy is editor of Metro Times. Send comments to rbohy@metrotimes.com

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