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."
"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."
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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 direct 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.