If there is one thing I can consistently rely on while traveling, it is that no matter where I am I can no doubt find the comfort of meat sandwiched in bread. Usually it is “tube meat,” specifically sausage, more specifically a hot dog. Hot dog. Two words. Though depending on where I’ve had one, the enunciation clips it to one word (“hahdog”) or elongates it to three fluid, sforzando syllables (“hatta dahg”).
Living here, in the Capital Region, it is easy to take a good hot dog for granted. Their ubiquity and many forms means a classic of the genre is never far away. Have it with meat sauce, if you must, and in tiny form, a la Famous Lunch, Gus’s, or Hot Dog Charlie’s, but I like mine of normal length with just the right amounts of relish, onion, and mustard. Mike’s First Prize has never done me wrong -- how could it, with a statue of an anthropomorphic hot dog greeting me at the door? The many seasonal drive-ins and ice cream stands rarely disappoint, either, Jumpin’ Jacks and Pirate’s Lakeside Grill among them. At the ballpark, it’s not really a ValleyCats game unless I’ve procured a hot dog and a cold beer. (You can keep the peanuts.)
Even Stewart’s Shops makes a pretty decent hot dog.
A package of White Eagle classic frankfurters is always on hand in my house for quick lunches or late-night dinners. Sometimes I will splurge for a smoked hot dog from a local farm, like the all-beef natural casing hot dogs from Highland Hollow Farm in Schoharie (they have a snap that can’t be beat). In those instances, I skip the toasted bun altogether and eat with a fork and knife, generously served with spicy mustard and sauerkraut.
Generations before ours and generations hence have and will quarrel over the clear delineation of upstate and downstate New York. Where, exactly, does the North Country begin? And what about Western New York? The Southern Tier? Instead of arbitrary lines gerrymandered by the powers that be, a better idea might be to cast geographical identities based on gustatory tendencies, especially with hot dogs.
Western New York gets Zweigle’s, made in Rochester and prominently featured on the beloved “garbage plate.” Central New York is for those who enjoy Hoffmann “Snappy Grillers” and German Franks. Nathan’s and Hebrew National are reserved for the downstate lot, while points north and surrounding the Adirondacks can call Michigans, the steamed hot dogs with meat sauce and chopped white onion that are popular in Plattsburgh, their own.
(Here in the Capital Region, we’ll keep the minis for ourselves.)
For as much as I love a hot dog, I am always taken aback when I travel. After hours on the road or in the air, it is the salty succor of a hot dog that I crave, and I wonder why I don’t eat them on a more regular basis while home. (Sodium count, for one. Cholesterol monitoring, too, though I know many an elderly gentleman who eat armfuls of minis with meat sauce on a weekly basis and are prime examples of good health.)
In Alva, a small town outside of Stirling, Scotland, I had a fried hot dog in a chip shop. When I say fried, what I mean is the entire thing -- bun and all -- was squeezed together and dunked in a slurry of cornstarch and beer and then into a bubbling bath of hot oil until blistered and puckered. It was the one instance where eating a hot dog with ketchup seemed appropriate.
A quick day trip through Vermont found me sitting on a parking lot curb in Manchester, having just practiced my fly casting techniques at Orvis, then perusing the quaint shops that bring life to downtown streets. Of all the places to have a bite to eat, I was summoned by the lasting allure of a female street vendor and a hot dog cart, with turkey dogs! A welcomed treat.
Last summer brought me to Flo’s Hot Dogs, of Cape Neddick, Maine, a place that DownEaster lore is made of. Opened in 1959 and now in its third generation, Flo’s is more of an experience than just a roadside hot dog stand. The building itself is worth a visit, being slightly askew and not tall enough for most visitors to comfortably fit inside (at 5’9”, if I rocked onto the balls of my feet, the top of my head kissed the ceiling). The rules and ordering process are strict and specific (cash only, state a number for the amount of hot dogs you want, then call out toppings) but the line is usually long enough to grant you time to learn. Rule one: no ketchup over the age of 15. Rule two: be patient, as everything is cooked to order. Rule three: if you order a can of Moxie soda, all of the women working behind the counter will mock you and ask you if you are “man enough” to handle it.
The hot dog itself is nothing special at Flo’s. It is steamed, much like the split New England bun. Order the “house special,” a dog topped with celery salt, mayonnaise and Flo’s special relish made from peppers, tomato and onion. In fact, order two.
More recently, I was strolling along the water in Barcelona just before sunset, hoping to get an extensive preprandial stroll in before the customary 10 p.m. dinner I had grown to appreciate while traveling through Spain. Small touchstones of American culture were present throughout this highly cosmopolitan city (namely, McDonald’s and Starbucks) but I was stopped dead in my tracks upon seeing a hot dog stand (“super” hot dogs, as it were on the signage) which also served beer and churros for just a few euros. Of course I had to have one, paired with a cerveza that slowly dripped condensation down my sticky, sweaty legs as it sat nestled between my knees. (Pigeons in Barcelona are as aggressive as anywhere.)
Already riddled with delusions of moving to Spain permanently, the discovery of real, American hot dogs only strengthened those thoughts.
There is something uniquely American about a hot dog, and wherever I am when I eat one, I know I’m never far from home.
Deanna Fox is a food and agriculture journalist.