Jul 14, 2014

Ode to a Chicago Hot Dog

For the last few months, I’ve have the privilege of writing for Food Riot, an irreverent food blog, thereby living out one of my secret dreams of being a food writer. Unfortunately, Food Riot has decided to close. Over the next several weeks, I will be reposting my Food Riot articles here for posterity’s sake. This week’s article originally appeared here on June 3, 2014.

Ode to a Chicago Hot DogThey were a family tradition long before I knew they were a Chicago tradition. I’d order “a cheese dog with everything but mustard, onions, and peppers. And no celery salt.” My dad said that you can’t call it “everything” if it’s actually missing four ingredients, but that logic didn’t trump the coolness of that “with everything.”

Over the years, my tastes matured and I slowly added more ingredients to my hot dog, until I could order the traditional “everything”: sesame seed bun, Vienna sausage, onion, tomato, cucumber, bright green relish, mustard, celery salt, a pickle spear, pickled sport peppers, and, occasionally, melted American cheese.

(You could also substitute a Maxwell Street Polish [strong vowels on that, please, like you were born here: MAx-wel Street PO-lish SA-sich], the Chicago dog’s near cousin, slightly spicier, with grilled onions, mustard, and maybe some sport peppers. That would be acceptable. But that is not what we are talking about today.)

You’ve probably noticed something missing from the ingredient list. Can we talk about ketchup? And why it doesn’t belong on a Chicago hot dog? Is it because we have some sort of anti-Heinz vendetta? No. It’s because ketchup is mostly sugar, and sugar is a flavor killer. (This is why so many little kids put ketchup on everything: it dulls the taste of whatever it is they’re uncomfortable eating.) The Chicago dog is a symphony of vinegar (see: relish, pickles, mustard, sport peppers). The high sugar levels in ketchup dull the vinegar in the ketchup itself, and it would kill the beautiful balance of the dog.

You may use ketchup on your fries.

A Chicago hot dog can come from a chain restaurant (Portillo’s always works), but it should come from a humid hole in the wall named “Frank’s Red Hots” or “George’s Hot Dogs” or “Tony’s Steamers.” A proper dog is steamed, not grilled, and the process, combined with the sticky Chicago summer, should make the restaurant feel like a sauna. I suggest you eat outside.

I would argue that the steam is what makes this food feel like Chicago. We built our city on a swamp, and now we nearly drown in humidity when it gets warm. The steamed hot dogs and buns are the wonderful, terrible heat, and the fresh vegetables and bright vinegar are what get us through. The land and the lake. For me, they’re a tie to the city and the suburbs I grew up in. A chance to exercise my accent. A reminder of Sunday drives with my family. For me, a Chicago hot dog is a Chicago summer.




1 Comment

  • Jesse,
    I did not realize that about Ketchup so I will watch how I use it as I don’t want the flavors of things I eat blocked. I’m craving a hot dog right now.

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