Eating Frankly

The average American reportedly consumes 70 hot dogs per year--and John's more than doing his part

In the past 30 months, I have shared a lot of personal stories, and I've given up a bundle of intimate secrets, some of which might have been better left unwritten. Ahhh well, call it exploration or therapy--one and the same, to be sure--or personal style; it will continue. Today, I share with you one of my darker sides.

If you are like me, in some respects anyway, you often pause at food-consumption stats, wondering whom they could possibly represent. You know what I mean: "In 1997, we each annually consumed ... "

111 pounds of beef, 65 of chicken, 14.5 of fish; 239 eggs; 580 pounds of dairy products; 295 pounds of fruit; 16.2 pounds of ice cream; 48 pounds of potatoes; 23.5 gallons of coffee; 7.4 gallons of tea; 53 gallons of soft drinks; 22 gallons of beer; and so on and on and on ...

I read these and feel like I should be waddling more than I do--and certainly that I haven't been doing my part. There is, however, one statistic that I do fully feel responsible for, and that's today's dirty little secret: I am an overachiever in the U.S. per-capita annual consumption of 70 hot dogs. I'm one of those thoughtful people who help the rest of you underachievers come up to par in this category.

There you have it: I am a huge fan of hot dogs in almost all their variants: kosher and plain franks, boudin, andouille, Greek and Italian sweet and hot sausages, chorizo and seasoned brats, loaded up or served in utter simplicity. I work around the corner from the Jewish Community Center, and the "Café at the J" is so accustomed to my lunch order that my friend Asher, who runs the place with his wife, Gwen, sometimes tallies how many 'dogs I've consumed in a week.

I'm a big fan of the messy chili/peppers dogs at Luke's and the village-size offerings at Pat's. I like the Sonoran-style 'dogs at various mobile stands around town, have had some great ones at Sushi Saga (go figure!) and prefer a Nathan's to a Puck's at any airport.

For years, my late friend David and I used to feast on brats and purpled cabbage, and the summer his granddaughter--my goddaughter--graduated from high school in Minneapolis was memorable in part because the parties her peers' parents had all seemed to feature lots of different brats on the grill. I remember scooping them up from backyard to backyard as we made the rounds.

My fave is as comforting as it is simple: A broiled Hebrew National 'dog nestled in a lightly toasted potato-flour bun, slathered with Beaver's Sweet Hot Mustard. Damn! I want a couple of them right now as I write this.

Some historical perspective is always appropriate.

Linda Stradley, in her invaluable 2004 "History of Hot Dogs", chronicles that the term "hot dog" was first created in 1902 when a concessionaire at a Giants game made a quick decision to sell hot sausages in a bun when he saw his ice cream and soda sales bottom-lining in the cold April weather. "Tad" Dorgan, a cartoonist for the New York Evening Journal, was at the stadium, heard the vendors offering the "red hots," and "drew a cartoon of a frankfurter with a tail, legs and a head, so that it looked like a dachshund." But, notes Stradley, he didn't know how to spell "dachshund," so he wrote "hot dog." The Dave "it's a dry heat" Fitzsimmons of his day also gave us the phrases "the cat's meow," "for crying out loud!" and "hard-boiled," among others.

Here's another piece of wiener lore: In 1916, Eddie Cantor and his accompanist, pianist Jimmy Durante, reputedly loaned Nathan Handwerker $320 to start his own hot dog business when Handwerker's then-employer irked them by raising the cost of a 'dog to a dime. Handwerker, in turn, hired Clara Bowtinelli, a comely teen, to sell hot dogs. Handwerker thus founded Nathan's Famous, and Bowtinelli was "discovered" and became Clara Bow, the actress icon of the '20s. Cantor and Durante continued to do quite well themselves. Almost a quarter-century later, in 1939, the king and queen of England had their first Nathan's at a homey Hyde Park picnic with the Franklin D. Roosevelts. King George VI liked it so much, he asked for seconds.

The National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, which provided the above-referenced figure of 70 'dogs per person, reports that 764 million packages of hot dogs were sold in 2005, and that doesn't include Wal-Mart stats, which probably adds a couple trillion more. Wal-Mart doesn't report such things. And if the estimated 7 billion hot dogs sold this summer were laid out in a row, that row would circle the equator 27 times.

Today, one of the very best 'dogs in town is up at the J-Bar at Janos at the Westin La Paloma. Yes, I know. You hot dog purists are getting huffy about now, muttering about the world going to yuppie hell in a baby boomer handbasket. Slow down, now. Just because J. Wilder is one of the country's best-known chefs doesn't mean he doesn't know his way around a 'dog and a bun. It's all about what you do with it, remember? And what he does is a very fine Janos-style thing with J-Bar casualness. He takes a fluffy bun (shop South Tucson bakeries, thank you), layers it with chile-soaked black beans, inserts a Big City Red Hot dog and tops it with whole-grain mustard, smoked poblano cream, smoked tomato catsup, nopalitos and red onions. You won't know how good it is until you get it in your mouth.