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The Hot Dog Holiday

Russell Baker has observed that eating hot dogs seems like the patriotic thing to do on the 4th of July, despite the fact that hot dogs aren’t any good--and probably never were.

I feel his pain. I have eaten a lot of bad hot dogs on this holiday. And it’s true that the vast majority of hot dogs we eat suck--except in Chicago. (New York dogs are overrated.) After spending a couple of days eating spectacular hot dogs in the Windy City for a food and travel story, I asked a sales executive at Vienna Beef what the secret was.

He introduced me to Vienna Beef’s “hot dog stand in a box” which I bought by mail order for a while, but then I noticed they were shipping “skinless” hot dogs to us poor schmucks in the provinces--nobody in Chicago eats anything that doesn’t have a natural casing. That’s the difference between the James Coney Island version and a real Chicago hot dog as well--JCI uses skinless Vienna Beef wieners. The natural casing makes a world of difference.

These days, I make spectacular hot dogs with ingredients that are easy to find in Houston. I always start with Boar’s Head natural casing beef hot dogs--they are as good or better than Vienna Beef’s. Don’t look for them in the cold cut case with the other hot dogs, as they are only sold in the deli section. Steamed is okay, grilled is better. Sometimes I top them with Tex-Mex chili and American cheese, sometimes I go Latino with avocado, tomatoes, mayonnaise and pico de gallo, but for the 4th of July weekend, I like to do the Chicago-style thing.

I am flexible about mustard. Plochman’s is the Chicago standard and I like it fine--but I also like Dijon, hot Russian mustard, and lots of others. Likewise, any good sweet relish will do. I use Italian pepperoncini instead of the smaller sport peppers--sometimes I go with jalapeno slices if the crowd can take the heat. I like a standard white onion for the stronger flavor--not a wimpy sweet onion. Nice to use homegrown tomatoes, if you can get them. PLEASE, NO KETCHUP!

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The bun is critical. I loved Wish Bakery’s challah hot dog bun, but they went out of biz. Central Market bakery makes a good roll, so does Fuddrucker’s--yes they sell them retail. But lately, I have been using the HEB bakery’s hot dog buns and I like them just fine. Although, I wish they made them with poppy seeds, like the ones in Chicago.

Hamburger rolls are grilled, but hot dog buns are steamed. To really do it right, you put a cake rack in a frying pan with a little water in the bottom and cover them for a couple of minutes. This makes the bun squishy so it doesn’t fall apart. A hot dog bun is a vessel that has to hold a lot of stuff--if its stale or dry, it splits in two and then you have a hot dog salad plate that people have to eat with a knife and fork.

Mustard and relish go inside the split steamed bun, then the dog, then on top goes the chopped raw onion, half tomato slices and peppers. Last comes the all important celery salt. Just a sprinkle will do. Eat three of these 4th of July hot dogs with a cold pilsner and you may find your eyes welling up with patriotic tears--or it could be the raw onions. -- Robb Walsh

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