Today is National Hot Dog Day, a holiday I refuse to celebrate because holidays shouldn’t be designations made by marketers. Instead, I’ll use it as an excuse to write about the significant role hot dogs have always played in my life as a fourth-generation Chicagoan.
Saturday lunch meant three things when I was growing up: grease-stained paper bags, piping hot sleeves of hand-cut fries, and the almighty Chicago-style hot dog. They came from places with names like Uncle Freddy’s or Weiner Take All or Cravings. My dad would leave to go pick up our bounty and we would scramble to set the table just before he got back, fighting about whose job it was to put ice in cups. No matter what, there was always a massive side order of pickles and, if we were lucky, a cup of molten cheddar for dipping our fries. Without fail, the multitude of paper wraps and foil and anything else would be shoved back into the bag from whence it came and, inevitably, poppy seeds would wind up all over the table. This was Saturday lunch and Saturday lunch was sacred.
My order was pretty much the same every time, despite the fact that I was committing an Illinois Governor-level sin every time. Ketchup, mustard, and grilled onions made the dog complete for me. A steamed poppy seed bun (S. Rosen, of course) wrapped around the Vienna beef dog like a puffy jacket in winter — squeezable to the touch, but strong enough to keep everything protected inside. Hot dogs have always been at the top of my favorite food list and not just because they’re absolutely delicious. No, hot dogs mean so much more to me. They’re my heritage. My birthright. They’re what connects me to my family and my friends. Hot dogs live inside my bones and that makes for a rare medical condition, indeed.
For almost anyone that grows up in Chicagoland (as the suburbs are sometimes affectionately known), hot dogs are a big deal. California has its tacos. The South has its barbeque stands. We have hot dogs. They’re emblematic of the city itself: a tube-shaped history of a metropolis that made its mark as the nation’s stockyards and continues to cobble together a world-class city from some of the most diverse neighborhoods you’ll ever find right next to each other. Hot dogs are Chicago and the Windy City is one big metaphoric hot dog; odds and ends mixed with cultural seasonings and toppings, then stuffed into one big casing to form the greatest place on Earth (some exclusions apply, not valid from November through March — unless the Bears win the Super Bowl).
To this day, I wake up on Saturdays and crave hot dogs. There aren’t that many options in my adopted home of Los Angeles, but once in a while, I’ll take a drive down to Orange County where Chicago chain Portillo’s has inexplicably opened an outpost of their beloved brand and I’ll rip open the grease-stained paper bag to find a hot dog, fries, and a side of pickles. All it takes it one bite to send me right back home.
Photo via Portillo’s, one of my favorite hot dogs around.