As a passionate hot-dog devotee, I know that whatever kind of regional Labor Day food fest I might be invited to, be it a clam bake in New England, a cochon-du-lait on the Gulf Coast, a luau in Hawaii or a deviled egg, fried chicken, hamburger and potato salad picnic in a state park, none would seem sufficiently festive to me without at least two of those sputtering, crackling, juicy tube steaks.
Enjoy what you will, but from Memorial Day, through the Fourth of July and on to Labor Day, the hot dog is the most acknowledged holiday food in the United States—and for the best of reasons.
Undoubtedly my addiction can be traced to a Brooklyn childhood during which jaunts to Coney Island offered two options: The still-up-and-thriving Nathan’s Famous and the bygone Feltman’s, where the original owner, Charles Feltman, a German immigrant from Frankfurt, noticed that people burned their fingers trying to eat the sputtery beefy wursts hot off the grill and began to slide them into rolls. That is still the style I crave: An all-beef wurst with enough fat to beguile the palate, in a natural casing that provides the snappy sputter, served in a soft roll and slathered with cheap, yellow deli mustard and, if possible, topped with sauerkraut that is at the very least warm, if not hot. Please hold the ketchup, the revoltingly sweet pickle relish, the onions, and maybe, above all, the tomatoes and the lettuce. No offense, Chicago, but when I want a salad, I’ll order one.
Fortunately, the hot dog version created at Feltman’s appealed to a young waiter, Nathan Handwerker, who was inspired to open a place of his own and the rest is delectable history. Similarly, and happily, since I have been living in Manhattan for the past 71 years, I’ve been getting my fix at Katz’s Deli on the Lower East Side, which keeps me happy. And it is at Katz’s that I buy a dozen or so slender uncooked dogs to keep in my freezer as a bulwark against the unpredictable.
With the current rage for the healthful, the sustainable, the responsible and the natural, haute hot dogs are intermittently touted, such as the Niman Ranch variety commendably composed of the artisanally raised, organic, non-antibiotic fed, lean, everything-perfect beef. Even more moralistic perhaps are others made of chicken, fish or vegetables. But even though the Niman Ranch frankfurters are of “higher quality” than my favorites, I find them pallid and, most of all, I miss the illicit thrill of the Nathan/Katz originals which, delightfully, are supposed to be bad for me.
Although loyal to New York, several times I have gone around the country seeking out regional variations on the street hot dog. The findings of these research expeditions were included in my book, 1000 Foods to Eat Before You Die. Thus I did experience the considerable joys of the chili-heaped Lucky Dogs from carts in the French Quarter of New Orleans, the stinging zap of Barkers Red Hots in Atlanta, the slim tenderness of Chicago’s Vienna wieners at the teasingly tawdry Wiener’s Circle. I found the most dazzling array of wursts at Miller Park, home to the Milwaukee Brewers, a city with a strong German heritage that includes a rainbow of sausage producers, the best produced by Usinger’s which can also, fortunately, be ordered online.
Northern Europe, of course, offers myriad satisfactions for street hot dogs. Among the most intriguing is Berlin’s iconic curry wurst, a late-night hangover preventative that is now beginning to gain converts in U.S. beer gardens and, most recently, at the Chelsea Market in New York.
If the one hot dog offshoot that I dislike is the greasy crust-coated lollipop of a corn dog, the one variation I adore is a pig in a blanket, with the tiniest of wieners crisply encased in crust and just enough of a meat tip to dip into mustard. Pigs in the blanket, in fact, now seem to be essential menu items for cocktail parties before events posh or plebeian.
Given how much I like hot dogs and indulge in them, I am often warned about health dangers. But, having reached 90, I can only quote former prime minister of Israel Golda Meir who, in her later years, was advised to stop smoking and answered, “At least I won’t die young from it.”