The Chicago-style hot dog has an odd, complex list of ingredients. It begins with the hot dog itself: Beef. Vienna beef, to be excruciatingly specific, like everything about the iconic food’s yum factor hinges on the ballpark sausage’s being not only beef, but Vienna beef! Also, the bun, which absolutely, positively must be a poppy seed bun. When the missing Dead Sea Scrolls are discovered, I’m quite certain this will be among the Lost Commandments. Once those are established, see if you can run down the rest of the toppings ten times fast: Tomatoes. Dill pickles. Sweet relish. Mustard. Celery salt. White onions. Chili peppers.
Got all that? That’s no hot dog, that’s a sausage salad on a bun. It’s practically vegetarian.
My first experience with the Chicago-style hot dog was a little bit confusing for me. It wasn’t because of the topping list; if you need a Chicago-style dog, just ask the vendors, because they’ll always know what they’re doing better than you do. My confusion stemmed more from the fact that I had no idea how to actually eat the damn thing, beyond the part where I put small chunks of it into my mouth, bite them off, chew them, and swallow. My parents raised me the right way, and pounded good manners into my head so that I conduct myself like a gentleman whenever I eat in public. Looking at the overfed frank, I asked myself, so is it acceptable to use a fork on this thing, like with the pizza? Or am I expected to just cram it into my mouth whole?
Chicago has managed to build an entire culture of food centered around this thing. Chicago boasts more hot dog vendors then McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Burger Kings put together. Yet, people in Chicago don’t see any problem leaving out any of that giant topping list when they want to cook their own hot dogs for the Independence Day barbeque. It’s almost as if they can’t actually remember what all the toppings are. I’m tempted to think they’re agreeing with me in secret by forgetting the toppings, and admitting this hot dog topping motherload is tedious and cumbersome.
If you’re able to somehow stuff a part of the Chicago-style hot dog into your mouth, what follows is an odd – but admittedly delicious – taste brew of the bitter, tangy, and sweet. Usually the pickles, tomatoes, and peppers aren’t a part of that brew in my case because I’ve already picked them off and eaten them individually, wondering all the while if I was robbing myself of the full Chicago-style hot dog experience by doing so. While Chicagoans swear by these toppings, I don’t know how many of them eat the dog in its complete form. Do they remove the bigger toppings too, or try to eat the entire thing as it’s presented? In the years I spent living in Chicago, I never figured out how to properly gorge myself on one of these things. While the Chicago-style hot dog has become an enduring symbol of Chicago’s food culture, to me it became my own personal symbol of the fact that I wasn’t from Chicago, no matter how much I established myself there.
The most grating aspect of devotion to this giant, cumbersome grab bag of hot dog toppings is the city’s attitude toward ketchup. Chicago people have trouble remembering all the toppings on their hot dogs and rarely have them all around for home cookouts, but they’re all convinced that of all the toppings, ketchup never, ever goes on top of a hot dog. One of my good friends in Chicago, Scott, joked that that’s how everyone would know I wasn’t a native – I put ketchup on my hot dog. I can’t comprehend my dogs without the stuff. I’m not talking about adding it to the salad the Chicago dog masquerades as, but ketchup on a hot dog, in any context. Even a lot of hot dog vendors in Chicago have bought into this foodie dictatorship and don’t even have ketchup available on the side.
Honestly, in a pinch, what the hell else am I supposed to use? Mayo? Olive oil? I’m not averse to avoiding ketchup when toppings are plentiful and I get to be choosy, but when I whip up a couple of beef dogs – Hebrew National, thank you very much – and have nothing on hand, am I expected to just take my dogs and bread the ten-hour Amtrak ride out to Chicago just to properly drench them in a fashion that drowns out the taste of the meat? Even merely removing the ketchup from the topping lineup means I’m faced with the viscous, bitter yellow semen known as mustard, one of the most insufferable substances to have ever been inflicted on this planet.
Tell you what: When I’m in Chicago and eating a hot dog, I’ll try to avoid disgusting you with ketchup as long as there’s enough acceptable toppings there as options. Don’t expect me to ruin my lunch by force-feeding mustard to a taste palate which violently rejects it if that’s all there is. And don’t expect me to not get disgusted if I have to watch you destroy your french fires by pouring loads of ketchup onto them instead of salt and vinegar, the way the gods intended for them to be eaten.