Sunday, August 9, 2015

Ketchup: The Condiment of Controversy





     Having written, not even a year ago, about whether Chicagoans are permitted to put ketchup on a hot dog, the subject should be off the table, so to speak. There are more important issues.     
      But the Chicago History Museum is holding its 3rd annual Hot Dog Fest this weekend, and I could not resist sliding by at lunchtime Friday to hear Northwestern literature professor Bill Savage deliver a lecture entitled, "Ketchup: The Condiment of Controversy."
      "Why on earth do we take this seriously?" Savage asked a group of about 25 assembled on folding chairs at the southern tip of Lincoln Park.. "Sausages link—pun intended, by the way—to Chicago history in really profound and important ways." 
Bill Savage
      An expert in Chicago history, baseball, Nelson Algren (and, I should mention, the instigator and editor of my most recent book) Savage said the ketchup conundrum is "representative somehow of identity," tipping his hand in the process.
      "If you say upfront that if you put ketchup on your hot dog you're not a Chicagoan, that's like saying if you have certain beliefs you're not an American," he said, early in his talk. "It's a certain way of defining identity that I think we need to think about."
      And think about it we did, in one of those satisfying freeform thought exercises that start with something small and end knocking on the door of crucial questions. 
      Savage took a quick poll—the audience seemed evenly divided regarding ketchup on hot dogs, though most agreed that those who utilize the condiment lose the right to call themselves Chicagoans. Savage brought up an interesting question: how many felt it was okay, but only for kids? I've long suspected that my own inclination reflects a lingering childhood predilection, like a taste for those big squishy orange circus peanuts. Or maybe it had something to do with growing up a child of Eastern European Jews in Cleveland.
    "Food and food culture are intimately linked to different kinds of identity." said Savage. "Especially ethnic identity."
     He gave a brief history of Chicago's iconic Vienna Beef. "Two immigrant brothers came here and in 1893, at the World's Fair, had the brilliant idea to put a viener, a Viennese sausage, in a bun, and voila, the hot dog is born, or at least the Vienna Beef hot dog is born."
     Ohhh, Vienna. Wiener. of course. I never made the connection before. Learning that felt like finding a $20 bill on the ground.
     Judging who genuinely belongs here by what a person puts on his frank is one strange local custom.
     "The ketchup controversy, it's really anomalous," said Savage. "There's a lot of different Chicago fast foods and street foods where no one cares what condiments you put on it. No one cares what you put on your gyro. No one cares what you put on your Italian beef.  Nobody cares if you like sausage instead of pepperoni on your pizza. Or even deep dish versus thin crust. People may argue about it, but if you like deep dish, it's not like you're 'not a Chicagoan.' If you like thin crust, it's okay, who cares? Only ketchup on a hot dog is something where, if you like it, you're not a Chicagoan."
     He said there were many arguments against ketchup on a hot dog, and some of them "make a certain amount of sense." He cited Bob Schwartz, a Vienna executive who was in the audience, whose book on Chicago hot dog stands is called Never Put Ketchup on a Hot Dog —"Ketchup is basically sweet," Savage said. "It overwhelms other flavors, you don't want to do that." A philosophy I had heard when I attended Vienna's Hot Dog University
    But this isn't about balancing flavors. 
    "Far more often, people make moralistic arguments," he said, reading from a 1991 "Straight Dope" column where Cecil Adams. replies to a question about whether ketchup is proper on a hot dog: "This is like asking why Leonardo didn't paint the Mona Lisa on black velvet. Ketchup is destructive of all that is right and just about a properly assembled hot dog."
      Adams says that condiment tradition must be observed because: "Chicago is one of the hot dog's holy cities."
    "There's this insane religious rhetoric surrounding the no-ketchup-on-hot-dogs conversation," Savage said.  "When I did a hot dog tour for the History Museum a few months ago, I tweeted out, 'What do you people think about ketchup on hot dogs?' People responded [by] saying it was an abomination. It was blasphemy  it was unclean. All the rhetoric of religion and religious identity."     
     It's so over the top, you have to realize that it isn't the condiment being discussed, but the discussion itself that's important. It's self-perpetuating.
     "The reason why we talk about not having ketchup on hot dogs is because we talk about not having ketchup on hot dogs"  Savage said. "The fancy way of putting this, if you've got a PhD, is 'discursive reasoning.'  People keep saying you can't have ketchup on your hot dog so you can't have ketchup on your hot dog because people keep saying that, and that's the only reason." 
     So it isn't avoiding ketchup on hot dogs that's the distinctly Chicago tradition, the tradition is browbeating people for putting ketchup on hot dogs. Enter Mike Royko.
     Savage cited a 1993 column by the great Chicago columnist, quoting a scene in "Sudden Impact" where Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry character expresses disgust with ketchup on hot dogs: "Nobody, I mean nobody, puts ketchup on a hot dog," says Inspector Harry Callahan. 
     But where did that idea come from? Here he mentioned a theory I've been developing.
     "Neil Steinberg ....has traced this gag back to '40s- and '50s-era cartoons where the buffoonish American, whether its Yogi Bear or Bugs Bunny, gets a nice steak at a French restaurant and then covers it with ketchup," Savage said. "The irate chef comes out with a cleaver and chases him down the street. Ketchup is a gag. It meant you were unsophisticated, meant all you want to do is cover stuff in red sauce because you don't have a palate. Of course Chicagoans, we all have palates. We all want to have taste."
   So the debate is a symptom of Midwestern cultural insecurity. Like recent immigrants hectoring their fresh-off-the-boat brethren to quiet down, behave, dress properly and stop embarrassing them so much, Chicagoans remind each other not to use ketchup so the swells in New York City won't look down their noses at us more than they already do. Thus the passion, the embarrassed intensity.  
    Savage concluded his talk by remarking on those who view ketchup as "inherently evil." and "using it is inherently bad and marks you as somebody who is not worthy."  This is the thinking behind hot dog stands that either don't offer ketchup, not even for fries, out of fear it might migrate to the hot dog, or warn their customers about using ketchup, a stance Savage called "fast food fascism." 
Fatso's Last Stand lectures its customers. 
   "Are we a free people?" he asked. "For me, the hot dog stand is the ultimate democratic space: Everybody is equal. Everybody gets in line. Everybody orders what they want.  You pay. You get it. It's cheap. It's fast. You eat it. You go. When you're in line you're not better or worse than anybody else and nobody is better or worse than you. All men are created equal in the hot dog stand. So when there are hot dog stands where certain kinds of identities are imposed rather than embraced, I get my back up a bit. This is about formation of identity. There are always a negative and a positive way to go about this. The positive way is to emphasize what we share, what we have in common, and in Chicago this is related to neighborhood identity. The other side of that is the negative definition: you're not like us so we push you away. Do we emphasize the things that connect us, or the things that divide us? I wonder sometimes if it's possible for people to create a positive identity without also having a negative identity. But I do think it's possible to emphasize the things that unite us rather than the things that divide us. That's a decision. You decide to do that."
     He didn't quite say it, but, like any good lecturer, Savage led me to a realization based on all that had gone before. During the question and answer session after his talk, I stuck up my hand.
    Could the ketchup question be a parody of the actual animus that Chicagoans have for each other? "It's like a mimicry of the real hatred we have... in a mock way, like kids with toy swords."
     That makes sense to me. It's so hard to condemn your neighbors nowadays. Race, religion, sexuality, all out the window, for the most part. The ketchup eaters are safe villains, however, permitting us to exercise our deep desire to be better than somebody else, in our own estimations, and then to let them know about it in a direction fashion.  Savage allowed that the ketchup kerfuffle might permit us to channel our scorn by "sublimating it into something tamer."
     After more questions and hearty applause, Savage—who leads a hot dog tour for the History Museum at the end of October—and I went off to Frankie's Beef for lunch. And though Bill prefers his hot dogs with mustard and onions, and I almost always opt for the simple, soft purity of just mustard and ketchup, we both, in honor of our surroundings, went for the classic Chicago Hot Dog with all the trimmings: mustard, onions, neon green relish, pickle, tomatoes, celery salt. I even got the sport pepper. It seemed the thing to do, a tribute to the wonderful diversity of this city and its hot dogs, The Frankie's dog was quite good, despite a certain lack of ketchup.

    

33 comments:

  1. I learned "Vienna/Wiener" from old Deutsche Grammophon records of symphonies. Fun fact: the Vienna Philharmonic, one of the world's greatest orchestras, is called the Wiener Philharmoniker in German.

    If one can't acknowledge that the dog pictured above is a thing of beauty and the one shown atop last year's column is a grotesque caricature of a dog, what hope is there for peace in the world. ; )

    Still, someone who enjoys ketchup on hot dogs may or may not be a Chicagoan. Someone who enjoys "those big squishy orange circus peanuts" is certifiably deranged...

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  2. I agree that the classic Chicago dog has it hands down over the ketchup-slathered dog. Visually. But in the mouth it has all that crunchy stuff...

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    1. Bah. I've never understood the appeal of the so-called "classic Chicago dog." For one thing, all those vegetables have to be chilled and they rob the hot dog of its warmth, leaving it clammy.

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  3. Oh that photo of the hot dog has me drooling.

    By the way, circus peanuts are good. Some stores still carry them.

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  4. Of course he'd imply it's ok to put ketchup on a hot dog. He's wearing a Cubs hat.

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    1. ah ha, good one anon at 7:35

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    2. Now, now, I'm sure there's more south side mouth breathers that put ketchup on dogs than Cubs fans. We have much better taste than that.

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    3. Don't stereotype, Nikki. ;) Times have changed.

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    4. To the extent that I care at all, which is ever-diminishing, I'm a Cubs fan. But I'd have to say, absent evidence of any kind, that there would probably be more Cubs fans using ketchup, because so many more Cubs fans are transplants, while White Sox fans tend to be more home-grown, from what I've observed, and would have been raised in the Chicago hot dog tradition. Not that a "mouth breather" cheap shot is not invigorating, of course...

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  5. The best part about Chicago is how we embrace people with differences, giving groups their own neighborhoods. I have never understood the ketchup debate. I was born and raised in the city, and I love a Chicago dog with all the trimmings, and ketchup too. I am and always will be a Chicagoan.

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  6. This sort of relates to your palate theory, when I was a waitress and someone would order a "fill it mig non" (hard g), I would always ask if they wanted ketchup w it. A bit of me died each time they said yes.

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  7. I like ketchup on a hot dog, but that's not why I'm not a Chicagoan. I stopped being a Chicagoan when I moved from a 606 ZIP to a 600 ZIP.

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    1. Mark, try getting a good hot dog in a 604 zip

      Some say Babe's hot dogs is good but it doesn't compare.

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    2. in 604? Ricobene's, Portillo's, Pop's. Just for starters.

      Lefty

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  8. The problem is that most tomatoes used for toppings are not ripe and tasteless. That's why ketchup was created.

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  9. I think suburbanites can still count as Chicagoans, especially where hot dogs are concerned, Mark. Also, when one travels and they say where from, one answers Chicago area. Everyone has heard of the city.

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  10. Of course, we politically correct people wouldn't think of having a hot dog with our catsup.

    John

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  11. I'm agnostic on the subject at hand, even though my opinion, as someone apt to wash down his helping of fish with a nice glass of red wine, can have no standing with the gourmands reading here.. My palate, not any association with our fair city, does tell me it should be one or the other.

    Both you and Mr. Savage seem apologetic about devoting space to a mere comestible, but are after all, discussing one of the major food groups. And you do have at least one major antecedent beyond Mike Royco. Charles Lamb once wrote a quite wonderful dissertation on roast pig in which he recounted the happy accident that spared mankind from decimation through trichinosis, touched on ethical questions concerning the manner in which the good porkers are made ready for their part in the feast, and, as Chicagoans are, ended up being dogmatic on the matter of dressing. "Decidedly a few bread crumbs done up with his liver and brains, and a dash of mild sage. But banish, dear cook, the whole onion tribe."

    On the matter of identity, I live in the suburbs but went to school in the city, and so don't mind identifying my self as a Chicagoan. Except to people who happen to know of our city as the home of deep dish pizza: an abomination and symbol of all that is excessive in the American way of life!

    Tom Evans.

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    1. Tom,

      Speaking of "all that is excessive", this morning I had a scone from a yuppie bakery that was the size of a softball, larded with chocolate chips and covered in chocolate, too. I'm sure you'd have been outraged. : )

      Nothing wrong with deep dish pizza in my book, I'm afraid, but a pizza without pepperoni is like a day without sunshine. (Today, for instance...)

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    2. I wish you hadn't told me. I'll keep the news from my wife, who grew up in Scotland.

      Tom

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  12. Exactly, pizza wasn't meant to be deep dish!

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  13. "Of course Chicagoans, we all have palates. We all want to have taste." I feel compelled to take issue with this idea, whatever its merits, as I did last year. The idea that a true Grabowski, "DA BEARSSSS", "over by there" blue-collar Chicagoan would identify with the French chef in the cartoon analogy, rather than Yogi or Bugs does not ring true to me. I thought the standard generalization is that "real Americans" despise the snooty, surrender-monkey, Grey Poupon-packing Frenchies. And that the classic Chicagoan don't apologize to nobody for nothin'. The idea that a regular Chicago guy is going to dress his hot dog so as to not appear provincial to New Yorkers just doesn't fit, IMHO. The idea that our hot dog is superior seems independent to me of "cultural insecurity" and is more a simple matter of us vs. them, as is referred to later.

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    1. Not consciously, of course -- hence the religious overtone, the "blasphemy," etc. We PRETEND we don't care how we appear. But it's a lie. Or so the theory goes.

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  14. Just like in that Bud commercial some years back, they were making fun of those who watch ball games from a/c , private glass rooms at the park.

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    1. Or was it Miller? Well anyway a dig to those who like the rare, craft beers.

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  15. I want ketchup on my hot dog A- because it tastes good to me, and B- because mocking control freaks who want to impose their tastes on me makes me want it even more.

    If you don't want ketchup on your hot dog, don't put ketchup on your hot dog.

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  16. For household purpose, I don't recommend Hebrew National as a kosher dog. It's just greasy, even the low fat version.

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  17. I get that a "Chicago Style" hot dog doesn't include ketchup. I can take it or leave it (at home, I do a Steinberg: mustard AND ketchup only, no veggies) but I respect what "Chicago Style" is. No chili, no cheese, boiled not fried. I always suspected there was, initially, a culinary reason for it, something to do with the mixing of flavors, but it's now blown all out of proportion and I salute Mr. Steinberg and Mr. Savage for spinning it out for us, finally. It CERTAINLY isn't about culinary concerns anymore; it's territorial, parochial (and often gets ludicrous). At least the veggies are (mostly) fresh, compared to the pizza.

    I buy into Geoffrey Baer's take on "Chicago Style" across the board: peasant food, developed in the neighborhoods where folks were poor and had to make the most out of ingredients (e.g. Italian Beef: THICK French bread, thinly sliced beef to make a side go further, peppers and au jus for more flavor). It's about satisfaction, not nutrition. Sweet v. hot peppers isn't nearly as loaded as the ketchup issue, right? As I recall, at Wrigley, in the stands, you'd get a plain dog and a packet of mustard, but there was ketchup if you wanted to walk for it.

    I grew up in Naperville and we'd drive to Lemont to Boza's for the best dogs. Frankly, can't remember if it was strictly "Chicago Style" or not, didn't care back then.

    When the issue isn't for laughs anymore, it's gone wrong. Thanks again Bill & Neil.

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  18. If I order a "Chicago Hot Dog", I expect the standard toppings offered, sans ketchup. If I order a regular hot dog, I can put anything I want on top. I'm glad I don't live in Chicago, because I think it's ridiculous that ketchup is a pariah for this selection. If I were English, would I have to eschew ketchup and use vinegar on my fries, er, chips?

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  19. That was Dan Savage's brother, right?

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  20. You can blame Mike Royko, and then wannabe hacks like John Kass, for this whole stupid meme.

    (I'm a mustard-and-onions man myself, if anyone cares, and I don't know why anyone would.)

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    1. Don't say that, Scribe; I care. I go for ketchup, mustard, and onion. I never buy them to make at home, but I've gotten some good ones as part of an Omaha Steaks gift package.

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