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CLAUDIA KOUSOULAS
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Our Hot Dog Odyssey


Inspired by a PBS series of  films on American icons (ice cream, amusement parks, and hot dogs) we have embarked and nearly completed our own hot dog odyssey, following in the steps of the filmmakers and striking out on our own.

It is a journey that has forced us to look at a debased classic in a new light. You have to respect the passion and regional loyalties that purveyors and diners invest in this most American of meals. And at a time when we are thinking  about being American, rather than taking it for granted, a hot dog is a comforting place to start.

Our hot dog odyssey has also made us look at our journeys. While describing to a friend a recent vacation that was a litany of eating experiences, he interrupted. "Do you realize that most people plan a vacation because they want to go somewhere and then they eat when they get there?" Yes, yes, I nodded and continued on with my description of donuts, fried oysters, and boiled peanuts.

I thought about what he said, somewhat defensively. We're not overweight and we do go places, museums, and beaches, and hikes. We just don't want to eat at Outback and Denny's. There's too much real food out there to waste a single meal. 

So what began with a sidetrack, getting off the Jersey Turnpike an exit early, has become a full-fledged obsession, driving hundreds of miles off our usual path to visit the Varsity in Atlanta. (and Stone Mountain.)

Rutts Hutt (Clifton, New Jersey) can be a cold place on an autumn Sunday afternoon, but it offers a good hot dog (deep fried to various degrees of destruction) and good relish. The tile floored restaurant sits in a parking lot big enough to accommodate all kinds of Saturday night automotive posturing. Windows overlook the Passaic River and the big room is divided by a long counter top for eating standing up.We had chili dogs and found a five dollar bill in the parking lot. Karma strikes again.

Swanky Frank's ( ,Connecticut) has nothing swanky about it, but that's why you have to love it. Perched along Route One, coming, going, and parking can be scary, especially when battling beach-bound SUVs. Franks is a Jane and Michael Stern find and is also noted for deep-frying its hot dogs. Good and nasty.

Willies Weenie Wagon (Brunswick, Georgia) is a jolly little place across from a community college. We bet it hops when school is in session. You can eat inside in a minuscule dining room, or at picnic tables under an awning and practically in the street. The slaw dog was sweet for my northern taste buds but I was glad I tried it, and was delighted to get a kepi cap with their slogan-   "We relish your bun."

Super Duper Weenie (Fairfield, Connecticut) The chef's training (the owner studied at the Culinary Institute of America) and attention to detail pays off  in this neat as a pin restaurant. The hot dogs, buns, relish--every element is created and excellent. Unlike the other spots, this is a considered place, and is set apart by its self-awareness. But this guy loves hot dogs, and serves them without irony, however it is suspiciously clean.The place is so popular that on summer afternoons, there is a line out the door and people park at the shopping mall across the street and dodge cars to get to these dogs. They are dished up in regional variations so a Chicagoan, New Yorker, New Englander, and Southerner can all feel at home and an adventurous eater can do some serious gastric damage. I am considering renewing my marriage vows just as an excuse to bring the Super Duper Weenie Wagon to my house.

The Beacon (Spartanburg, South Carolina) is off the town's main drag (we finally asked at the post office) and in the middle of a patched parking lot. It's a kind of complicated place that has the patina of system and technology. Tile floors, swinging doors, and steel counters run along a backhouse of steamers, grills, vats of iced tea and bug juice, and massive quantities of food. This place can serve tour buses, football teams, and the garden club all at once. They serve hot dogs, chicken, and hamburgers as big as your face. They also sell excellent souvenirs: pencils, postcards, and key rings.

The Varsity (Atlanta, Georgia) is perched on a hill, hard by the Georgia Tech stadium and must be the only hot dog stand in the world with a two-level parking garage. The Art Deco building has sky bridges, ramps, and  flags whipping along the curved cornice. A vertical sign spells out Varsity in neon. This is exuberance, this is the place. On game days it must be a scene, but on a Tuesday evening in August, there were a few hurried business people and some tourists, like us. It is quiet, like a church after services are over. We were tipped by locals ("We don't get down there very often, maybe once a month.") to order a slaw dog and an iced chocolate milk. It was good: bittersweet slaw, sweet milk, salty, warm dog, all packed up in a white and orange box that we carefully folded and kept as a souvenir, along with the pencils and key rings from the stand.

Gray's Papaya (Manhattan, 77 and Broadway) is plastered with signs touting the superiority of its dogs and healthful properties of its juices, but it is clearly an imitator of the original, Papaya King. However, there is still something great about getting a meal for a couple of bucks and standing at the counter to watch Manhattan go by.

Papaya King (Manhattan,86 and Third Avenue) is a center of eccentricity. The hot dog stand was created by a Greek-American entrepreneur to serve the German population of the Yorkville neighborhood. He added the papaya juice after a visit to Miami. It's a weird and wonderful combination, not a bad place to start when looking for something to eat. The hot dogs come with sauerkraut, tropical relish (bright yellow, with chunks, and tangy), the New York vendor classic of tomato and onions, and a long list of others. They also come in combinations with fries, multiple dogs, and juice. Papaya King also serves other food, but why bother when they offer "the filet mignon of hot dogs?" The upper east side moms with Italian strollers, the bicycle messengers, and the businessmen with briefcases all know a good thing when they see it.

Nathans (Coney Island, NY)
is the obvious mecca for hot dog eaters (and gorgers at the Annual July 4 hot dog eating contest). It's been years since we've been there. After the long subway ride its hard to resist the Russian exotica of Brighton Beach. I do remember the fun of eating outside, near the beach, in a huge city. Worth a trip, if only to round out the list.

O'Hare Airport Sky Dog (Chicago, IL) This was before we knew we were on an odyssey, but we couldn't believe how many hot dog stands there were throughout the city, and how good they were; even the ones on the rotisserie warmer at the airport. I still think about that spicy flavor.

Our next stop will be New York System (Warwick, RI) while visiting family, who will indulge, but not really get, this kind of silliness.

We're hardly world travelers, and this list barely covers the east coast, but its not bad for two working people and one enthusiastic boy who are juggling real lives and can't fully live as food obsessives. And while I wrote that this odyssey is nearly complete, I wonder if it ever will be. It has the potential for a particular type of American existentialism, a Zen search for perfection. But can any single dog ever be perfect, and would we ever really want to find it? what would be the fun in that?
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