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Hot Dogs: A Tale of Two Cities, Part One

By: Scotty Harris

Nobody, I mean nobody, puts ketchup on a Hot Dog! -Inspector Harry Callahan.

So, let’s talk Hot Dogs.

Hot Dogs–the ignoble offspring of the sausage makers’ art. Call them weenies, franks, dogs, coneys, footlongs, or the ever-popular tube steaks; Americans spent 1.6 billion dollars on these puppies in 2009. Regional variations abound, each claiming to be the superior weenie. Here in Western New York, we have not one but two contenders to that title.

The sausage is an ancient food, thought to have been developed by the Sumerians around 3000 BCE. Records show a sausage of lamb and goat in China in 589 BCE. Homer mentions a type of blood sausage in The Odyssey Book XX, Verse 25:

rolling from side to side
as a cook turns a sausage, big with blood
and fat, at a scorching blaze, without a pause,
to broil it quick

The Roman, Apicius, has many sausage recipes in his de re Coquinaria, an early cookbook, using familiar ingredients, including pork, bacon, eggs, blood, brains, and grains such as spelt. It is to the Romans that we owe the word sausage. One of the earliest forms of meat preservation was to chop it and mix it with salt. The Latin word salsus means salted, and is the origin of the word “sausage”.  In fact the Latin root for salt gives us such diverse words as salsa, salad, salary and sauce. However, it seems it was not an effective means of preservation. The actual Latin term for sausage is botulus, the origin of the term “botulism”.

The sausage we know as a hot dog is an emulsified sausage, related to bologna (mortadella), brühwurst and weisswurst. The meat and seasonings are mixed with fat and ice water resulting in a colloidal puree. The result is fully cooked and/or smoked, and ready to eat. The origins of our particular dog seem tied to the sausages of two locations: Frankfurt am Main and Vienna (Wien), the former giving us the term frankfurter, and the latter, wiener. What is interesting is that those in the German-speaking world outside Austria tend to call this kind of sausage wieners, while those within Austria call them frankfurters. It’s kind of like the French calling syphilis the “Spanish Pox” and the Spanish calling it the “French Pox”. Poor little unappreciated doggy.

The story of the arrival of this sausage on our shores is frankly lost in the mists of time (pardon the pun). It was certainly a result of German immigrants in the latter portion of the 19th century. At some point the distinction between fact and legend become irrelevant. Was Charles Feltman selling hot dogs in a bun on Coney Island in 1870, or was Anton Feuchtwanger the first to put a dog in a bun in 1893 (or 1904)? We know that Feltman’s employee, Nathan Handwerker, opened a stand on Coney Island undercutting the price of his former employer and becoming “famous”, but was cartoonist Tad Dorgan so unable to spell “dachshund” that he dubbed it a hot “dog”?

Whatever its pedigree, the hot dog has become as American as apple pie and pizza–adapted, but not native–and much beloved. Before we get to the point of this musing (and there is one), I should mention that it is technically possible to make emulsified sausages in a commercial kitchen, or at home, but my only attempt ended up in a pebbly mess. It was certainly my fault, and not that of sausage master Bruce Aidells, whose recipes invariably work. 

Charcuterie-Ruhlman.jpgA more recent recipe appears in the masterful work Charcuterie by the well respected food writer Michael Ruhlman and Chef Brian Polcyn. This book covers everything the home cook, or the professional cook, needs to understand to set out on the path to mastering the art of salting and preserving meat. There are, however, two caveats regarding their recipe for a hot dog: One, like Bruce Aidells, they focus on the Chicago hot dog as the pinnacle of the tube steak world. The Chicago all beef dog is good, up there with a Nathan’s or Hebrew National, but it’s obvious that these writers have never spent time in Western New York and tried our offerings. The second problem is that they have updated the recipe. Those of us who ran out to buy a first edition of Charcuterie based on Ruhlman and Polcyn’s reps don’t have the newest version. You need to make sure you get a 5th edition or later. Bastards!

So, now we get two the Tale of Two Cities, in this case Buffalo and Rochester. Twin sons of different mothers. A mere sixty miles apart as the Thruway runs. Blue Collar vs. White Collar. “The” 290 vs. 390. Bethlehem Steel and auto parts vs. Xerox and Kodak. NHL vs. AHL. NFL vs. Semi-pro. Bisons vs. Red Wings. These distinctions have blurred over the years as the fate that afflicted Buffalo’s Blue Collar industries has hit Rochester’s White Collar firms. The Amerks were a farm team of the Sabres, and the Bills hold training camp not far from my former high school in suburban Pittsford.

We have a passion for sausages here in Buffalo. The debate over who makes the best Italian sausage rivals the debate over who makes the best wings, best beef on weck or who has the best fish fry (an oxymoron if I ever heard one). We also have two important sausage resources in the area. Spar’s European Sausage on Amherst Street gives you a taste of what sausage is supposed to taste like. And no book on sausages worth its salt fails to mention The Sausage Maker, Inc. located in the Clinton Bailey market. They provide supplies and advice to both the amateur and professional.

The Buffalo dog is epitomized by Ted’s. The other contenders–Louie’s, Louie’s Foot Long, Reid’s (more about them later)–and others don’t hold a candle to Ted’s in my opinion. You think of a Buffalo dog, you think of Ted’s.

Rochester is a bit more egalitarian. The longest lasting is Nick Tahoe’s (and its illegitimate offspring Steve T’s), home of the Garbage Plate–a delight at 4 a.m. when the patrons consist of cops, hookers and ambulance drivers. Tahoe’s was also recently voted the fattiest food in New York State by Health Magazine. There are also the various Wahl’s. The empire that is Bill Gray’s has been around since 1938, and although they extol their burger, they make a fine Rochester dog. They also feature Abbott’s Custard at many locations, but I digress.

For me, it was always Don and Bob’s. Not the original location near the Sea Breeze Amusement Park, but the one on Monroe Avenue in Brighton. The place where one could dangle one’s legs while enjoying lunch just enough to solemnly swear that you ate lunch on the grounds of your high school. It was here that I ate my first pork hot dog. It was here that I began a journey that taught me that while the laws of Kashrut might be Rabbinically correct, they prevent one from enjoying some really tasty stuff. 

It’s gone now–a bank now stands on its site (that seems to happen to me a lot. See also
, Rootie’s home of the best wings in town!). It lives on as Don’s Original. In a strange twist, Don’s stands in building that once housed a Burger King. Before that it was a Carroll’s, where in 1974 I got my first cooking job.

In Buffalo, we like our hot dogs red. In Rochester, they are white. And it’s not just an issue of color. The flavor and texture are different, as are the modes of preparation. The Buffalo “Red Hot” is generally a locally made dog: Wardynski’s or Sahlen’s. Both are quite good. I can recall, in the days of my youth, one Rochester “White Hot” being a Tobin’s First Prize. Tim Herzog of Flying Bison Brewery recalls the same. Tobin’s was then an Albany company (it was purchased by John Morrell, itself a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, Inc.–the less you know about their practices the better). But the king of Rochester White’s these days is the locally made Zweigel’s.

The Sahlen’s hot dog is made of pork, water, beef, salt, corn syrup, flavorings, dextrose, hydrolyzed soy and corn protein, oleoresin of paprika, monosodium glutamate, sodium erythorbate, sodium nitrite, in a collagen casing. A standard dog is 70 grams, with 180 calories, 140 of them from fat. It has 45 mg. of cholesterol and 660 mg. of sodium. A Zwiegel’s hot dog weighs in at 76 grams and is composed of pork, water, beef, veal, nonfat dry milk, salt, and contains 2% or less of: sodium lactate, corn syrup, dextrose, flavorings, and sodium phosphates.  It has 160 calories, 130 from fat, 40 mg. of cholesterol and also sports 660 mg. of sodium.

In Rochester the dog is split and cooked on a Mel Fry® coated flattop. Buffalo-style dogs are cooked over an open charcoal fire, carefully poked with a fork to prevent splitting. In both places the bun is a standard bun. In either locale you can ask for your bun toasted. Don’t do it in a Rochester-style place. A bun toasted over charcoal is a thing of beauty, but a bun toasted in Mel Fry® tastes like the worst “grilled” cheese sandwich you ever had in a school cafeteria.

In Buffalo it’s a Loganberry and in Rochester it’s a shake. (Though Trish, my wife, prefers chocolate milk at the former, and I, root beer at the latter.) The condiments are similar, mustard, relish, onion, a faux dill pickle, and yeah that other stuff that belongs on fries and not dogs (see the quote at the stop of the story).

Tomorrow we’ll move on and talk about hot dog sauces, still a tale of two cities.

—-

Scotty Harris is a recovering
attorney, occasional caterer, food blogger and full time dad.  He has
cooked at DACC’S, Warren’s and Fredi. None of them are still open. You
can find him at cookingintheory.blogspot.com

 

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