Sunday, August 24, 2014

The REAL Chicago style: Eat your hot dog however you please

     Last week the Chicago Sun-Times, the newspaper where I have worked for 27 years, ran an editorial, on the fallout from an interview I published with former Park District Superintendent Ed Kelly. At end of the piece, he tees off on Rahm Emanuel, callling him, most woundingly, "not a Chicagoan." 
     I did pause before passing along that slur, given that it is hurled toward me from time to time, simply because I was born in Cleveland and live in the suburbs, which is so unfair. But I am not a social service, as I like to say, nor a monument to justice. I knew it would get people talking, so I let 'er rip.
     It did cause a ripple. Enough that my esteemed colleague Fran Spielman asked the mayor about it — he claimed it untrue, spooling out his bona fides as Congressman, his cop uncle, blah blah blah.  To be honest, the whole question is the kind of politics of exclusion that Chicagoans and non-Chicagoans alike have supposedly inched away from.
     On Wednesday, the Sun-Times ran a thoughtful editorial on who is a real Chicagoan? Well, thoughtful until it came to this: 
    On Facebook last month, a new meme popped up: “I’m so Chicago…” A typical completion of the sentence: “I’m so Chicago I did nuthin, saw nuthin, said nuthin, was nowhere.” And somebody, of course, offered the usual cliche that he was so Chicago he “never puts ketchup on a hotdog.’’ Then again, that’s true. Ketchup on a hot dog is wrong.
     Ahem. I like ketchup on my hot dog. To which, the guy who wrote the editorial sneered, "Yeah, but you're from Cleveland!" Maybe so, but I am also a graduate of Hot Dog University at Vienna Beef, which is as Chicago as it gets, and have the diploma to prove it. 
      Seven years ago, when the ketchup issue was last raised, I gave the matter a full exploration:

     One lunchtime, 40 years ago, in the small cafeteria at Fairwood School, I saw a fellow child fish a steaming hot dog out of his Thermos, which his mother had ingeniously filled with boiling water. He placed it into a waiting bun.
     Such complex luxury was, of course, beyond my mother, and I gazed at the steaming frank, the way a shivering ape would eye a group of toasty Neanderthals lazing around their fire. Despite being myself deprived, I passed the concept on to my wife, who sometimes varies the usual soups and ravioli with a hot frank.
     She was preparing just such a meal, last week, tucking in the wee packets of condiments.
     "Do you want ketchup for your hot dog?" my wife asked our younger boy.
     "Ketchup on hot dogs is a disgrace . . . to Chicago," he said, unexpectedly channeling the soul of the late Mike Royko. The boy and my wife smiled, turning to regard me with no small degree of mockery.
     "Dad isn't from Chicago," said the boy, 10. "So it doesn't apply to him."
     "Be nice to your father," my wife said. "He's lived here most of his life."
     Twenty-nine years, to be exact. Not that it matters. I'll always be an outlander.
     That's how Chicagoans are. Anything to push somebody outside the circle. Even scorning ketchup on hot dogs, a curious artifact started by Royko — as far as I can tell — and propagated by his imitators.
     What was his beef against ketchup? I delved into the archives. Royko cited three reasons — first, hot dogs weren't served with ketchup when he was growing up.
     Second, Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry character scorned ketchup on hot dogs. And third, and perhaps most importantly, ketchup on hot dogs is decadent, "another symptom of the general decline of standards in our society." Ketchup on hot dogs, Royko wrote, "is wrong because it is not right. Would you put whipped cream on a pizza? Would you put mayo on pancakes or salt on ice cream or pour milk on french fries? Remember, the Romans started putting ketchup on their hot dogs, and look what happened to their empire."

     Maybe we should all eat our hot dogs with ketchup. The Roman empire lasted 500 years. We should be so lucky.
I revisited the issue later in the month:
     It's a mystery that demands attention — why ketchup? We don't demonize people who, oh, put mayonnaise on bologna. Why care about this? How did it start?
     It was reading Bob Schwartz's fulsome praise of the Chicago dog [in his book, "Never Put Ketchup on a Hot Dog"] as "a banquet on a bun" that a plausible answer popped up. It is a theory, a thought experiment, but so was relativity, at first. I am confident I have solved the puzzle of ketchup and hot dogs.

     Think back to 1940s humor, to Bugs Bunny cartoons. What was the standard culinary joke? The rube goes to the fancy French restaurant and does what? He asks for ketchup, he slathers the fine French food with ketchup, shockingly, causing the enraged chef to emerge from the kitchen and chase him with a cleaver. You've seen it a thousand times. The no-ketchup-on-hot-dogs rule must be a variant of that, a winking half joke intended — once upon a time — to emphasize the quality of the dogs, to put them in the same league with haute cuisine, a bit of threadbare Vaudeville, perhaps intensified by the mustard-centric German culture that created sausages in the first place.
     People sincerely protesting the use of ketchup are playing the role of the irate French chef. That's got to be it. It's a joke, unmoored from its origins and now loose in the land.
     Remember that, next time you're sneering at someone — me, maybe — for putting ketchup on a hot dog. You're recycling an old joke, a bit of Euro-centric mockery that once tried to make us ashamed of our tastes.
     Sure, it is a small thing. But like the cracked windows theory of law enforcement, sometimes small things add up. Reject those who put ketchup on hot dogs and next you're rejecting nobodies who nobody sent or potential employees of the wrong color — also a true and genuine Chicago traditions. So you think that a real Chicagoan doesn't put ketchup on his hot dog? Well, buddy, my reply is that a real Chicagoan puts whatever he goddamn pleases on his hot dog without looking around to see what some kind of self-appointed taste maven thinks of it. Who would be so base as to diminish his own enjoyment by cravenly caving in to some local folk condiment preference? You can't kill an urban legend like the no-ketchup-on-hot-dogs canard. But that doesn't mean we can't fight against it. I ordered the hot dog above at the Gold Coast Dogs outlet hidden in Union Station.
    "With everything?" the guy behind the counter asked.
    "No," I said. "Just ketchup."
     He didn't blink. I ate the whole thing in about minute. It was delicious. 


  1. Born at Montrose and Clarendon in Uptown, I hate mustard and love Ketchup. I eat my dogs the way I want. And I am Chicago!

  2. Good thing you didn't try that at Superdawg. Putting ketchup which is sweet on a Chicago style dog misses the point. It's supposed to be a spicy dish. Not a sweet one. Why do you think that neon relish has nothing to do with the sweet relish found almost everywhere else. You can put ketchup on it of course but you are eating a different dish. Kind of like the difference between a kugel and lasagna. Jara

    1. Having eaten at SuperDawg more times than I can count, they dont give a shit what you put on your hot dog. I tell people this, the day you start buying my food is the day you can tell me what I can and cant eat.

  3. Among the many sillinesses perpetrated by Mike Royko was the rule in his all-male household that everything in the refrigerator had to be consumed before buying food was allowed. I bet he had to eat his pizza with whip cream on top from time to time. One of his virtues was his unintended irony, not to say his transparent hypocrisy.


  4. I've asked three African-American friends (all Chicago residents) about this "no ketchup on a hot dog" thing and all of them looked at me like I was crazy.

    1. All 3? Wow, how inclusive are you. . . .

    2. Read for comprehension: 1) 3 asked doesn't equal 3 total, 2) 3 in Chicago doesn't equal 3 total. As Neil's collegue Joe Cowley would say, "thanks for playing."

  5. The editorial states: "...we believe every real Chicagoan knows that Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, blamed for the Great Chicago Fire, got a bum rap." I don't believe that every real Chicagoan knows that, by a long shot. When looking for qualities that pertain to the essence of "the Chicagoan," being well-informed is certainly not a crucial one, IMHO and I'm sorry to say.

    I think that you may be right, Neil, about the idea that the anti-ketchup sentiment is related to the cartoonish snootiness that you refer to. Though it's odd that the vast blue-collar populace of this metropolis, whom Royko certainly seemed to court, should adopt "the role of the irate French chef" in this analogy. You'd think we peons would identify more with the rube in the fancy French restaurant. But you hit on what I believe to be the correct rationale as to why ketchup is a curious choice for a hot dog. You don't see ketchup being offered to accompany any other German sausages. Like you, I grew up elsewhere and always put ketchup on a dog when I was little. These days, not so much, and not because of any "sneering," but because I've come to appreciate mustard much more than I did when I was younger.

    You write: "my reply is that a real Chicagoan puts whatever he goddamn pleases on his hot dog without looking around to see what some kind of self-appointed taste maven thinks of it." You certainly seems to write about and defend your opinion about this a fair amount for somebody who doesn't care what anybody else thinks! ; ) I've lived here just about as long as you have and consider myself pretty much of "a Chicagoan" at this point, but I have no problem admitting that my early tastes were formed elsewhere and that that might account for differences between my version of Chicagoan and a more stereotypical one.

  6. Why not ask an expert?
    Nah, this stuff isn't getting to me, the shootings, the knifings, the beatings, old ladies being bashed in the head for their social security checks... Nah, that doesn't bother me. But you know what does bother me? You know what makes me really sick to my stomach? It's watching you stuff your face with those hotdogs. Nobody, I mean nobody puts ketchup on a hot dog." – Clint Eastwood as “Dirty Harry” Callahan in the movie “Sudden Impact”.

  7. Mr. S's statements are true, but it isn't a "joke." It is analogous to going to a fine French restaurant and slathering it in ketchup, catsup, or whatever it is. A fine Chicago Hot Dog is meant to be served as it is. Tomato, relish, onion, sport pepper, mustard, celery salt, all on a steamed poppy seed bun.
    You can and should be allowed to eat as you wish, but why would anyone order a fine Vienna Beef Frank and cover it in ketchup? It is equal to ordering steak frites and slathering it in ketchup.
    An Oscar Meyer weiner with ketchup is ok, but a Vienna Hot Dog or a SuperDawg are not the equals of a cheap hot dog.


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