The Almighty Hot Dog

Hot dogs are awesome. They deliver pretty much everything that one can ask for in a meat-laden dish: salty, savory goodness and textural variety in the form of tender meat inside and the delicious snap of its outer casings. Combine that with its ease of cooking (Seared? Boiled? Deep-fried? Anything goes!) and you have a wonderful, spectacular mess of a food that has as many configurations as there are people eating them.

You can go pretty much anywhere in the world and get something that strongly represents the lay of the land, cast onto a delicious meaty canvas.

At its core, the idea of a cylindrical piece of extruded meat surrounded by a piece of bread is a very simple one.  Borne of pragmatism and efficiency, old-timey butchers took everything that was not tasty-unto-itself meat and heavily spiced and salted it, cramming it into an elastic edible casing to serve as a presentable product. And from that process sprung a whole myriad of different interpretations. Whether it’s the Chinese bao or a Chilean completo or the American white-hot, you can go pretty much anywhere in the world and get something that strongly represents the lay of the land cast on the same delicious meaty canvas.

In Iceland, the Reykjavik hot dog is a piece of national pride for these people, and is one of the first things you will be asked about as an American upon arrival there:

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Meaty goodness, also previously enjoyed by Bill Clinton and Charlie Sheen. (This is an actual selling point.)

Double onions? Madness!  I certainly wouldn’t have come up with that bunch of ingredients myself.

Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur (Icelandic for “best hot dogs in town”) is a small chain of stands around the city, all delivering the same culinary message: a veal/beef/pork sausage flanked by sweet mustard and remoulade, and sitting on top of a flat-out ingenious mixture of freshly diced white onions and crunchy fried onions. (Double onions? Madness!) I can definitely see why people heavily praise this interpretation globally – I certainly wouldn’t have come up with that bunch of ingredients myself, and the richness of all the component flavors really shines through.

Somewhere along the way, the hot dog cemented itself as an American institution, as working-class people could easily get their hands on them and eat them at, say, baseball games, without too much difficulty. Their eventual ubiquity in summer barbecues, stadium vendors, and street stands all over the place have given way to flat-out strange by-products, like an annual eating contest of the things on our nation’s birthday, a hot-dog-shaped van being one of the most iconic vehicles of the 1960’s and 1970’s, to people joking that in our borderline dystopian future that hot dog commercial jingles will be chart-topping music. No, really:

Weird, right? Pretty easy to see that hot dogs have entrenched themselves pretty deeply into American culture. (Even if Sylvester Stallone isn’t a fan.)

Even within the States, one can still see some pretty substantial variance in the en vogue style of hot dog, derived from whatever social customs and norms have taken hold. Consider, for instance, this monstrosity from my recent excursion to Chicago:

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Culinary delight? Or printer test page color sample? You be the judge.

With a huge bite-to-bite variance of flavors flying around, these dogs offer a fascinating hodge-podge of tastes.

Dubbed a “depression sandwich” and being “dragged through the garden” (sic) as reflected by its myriad collection of toppings, the Chicago style hot dog is known for its poppy seed bun, tomatoes, pickles, relish, hot peppers, yellow mustard, and celery salt. With a huge bite-to-bite variance of sweet, spicy, salty, and savory flavors flying around, these dogs offer a really fascinating hodge-podge of tastes in a way that truly cannot be replicated anywhere else. With all these ingredients in place, Chicagoans claim that this is the only correct way to eat a hot dog.

Of course, these people are also unequivocally wrong about their hot dog eating ways, but we will let them eat their weird tomato-y pickle weenies in peace. Now, the real deal is this place:

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Oh yes. Now we’re talking.

Gray’s Papaya (not to be confused with its many, many doppelgängers) has been a New York Institution for decades, providing millions of customers with a dubious onion-relish combination slathered onto borderline-charred crispy hot dogs. It’s a glorious experience. True to form, I had some of these in the most traditional fashion – as a completely questionable and/or unnecessary decision, as a duo paired with a equally questionable “coconut”-based drink. (This is called a Recession Special, and is a godsend for poor, drunk, or hungry New Yorkers year-round.)

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This is not a subtle meal. Like the city itself, the crass acidity of the relish punches you in the face with a no-nonsense first impression, which gives way to an unexpectedly complex char/caramel notes that spring up as the less pushy onions and meat flavors come up to the forefront. Or, if you please, you can just get these dogs straight up without any toppings, just to get a straightforward salty richness in your face as soon as possible.

Whatever the style, though, I think we can all agree that hot dogs are truly a magical experience – if you play your cards right, you can find yourself eating something different each time. Maybe don’t look too close at how the things themselves are made, though. You might be horrified at the kind of engineering shenanigans that take place there.

Until then, eat well and see you all again soon. Take care!

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