Hot Dog Chicago: Ketchup, Maxwell Street, Yellow Signage and Democracy

Guest author Bill Savage teaches Chicago literature and history at Northwestern University and the Newberry Library of Chicago. His scholarship and research focus on Nelson Algren, but also extend to urban food and drink history culture. His annotated edition of George Ade’s The Old-Time Saloon will be out from the University of Chicago Press this fall. His views on ketchup are his own and not necessarily the views of the 3CR staff. 3CR-perfectChicagoDog Classic Chicago dog. Photo courtesy Vienna Beef. Among the more ridiculous storylines in Chicago street-food culture is the idea that anyone who puts ketchup on a hot dog is not a real Chicagoan. That’s the mild version of the common attitude: more extreme no-ketchup zealots suggest hellfire and damnation await anyone who violates this Condiment Commandment. This idea exhibits the Logical Fallacy of the True Scotsman, which goes like this: Someone claims that a True Scotsman is brave. Angus over there has lived in Glasgow all his life, and he’s a widely known and self-confessed coward. Well, then, he might be a Scotsman, but he’s not a TRUE Scotsman. So, picture someone who’s never set foot outside of 606 (the zip code, not the bike path), a White Sox season ticket holder, a city worker, a registered Democrat who’s never missed a primary, much less a general election. Despite all of these defining Chicago credentials, if she puts ketchup on her hot dog, she’s no more a TRUE Chicagoan than some New Yorker with her dirty-water sauerkraut or an Angeleno with his Sonoran dog, which has mayo on it for the love of God. This myth gets promoted by people whose work I vastly respect, like Bob Schwartz of Vienna Beef, who titled his book of hot dog stand history Never Put Ketchup on a Hot Dog. Then there are the masses: want to light up your Twitter feed? Do as I did when leading a Hot Dog Chicago Tour for the Chicago History Museum: Spend 140 characters to suggest that ketchup on a hot dog might be OK. Maybe just for kids? You will be @’ed by the fast food fascists who insist otherwise, and who deploy terms like “blasphemy” and “sinful” like Southern state legislators passing anti-LGBTQ “religious freedom” laws. Construction of a classic Chicago hotdog. Construction of a Chicago hotdog. Chicagoans take their condiments seriously, and there are some reasons for this. Schwartz, former Tribune food writer Kevin Pang, and others have theorized how the different condiments speak to different ethnic groups who’d be buying the dogs from vendors: mustard and onions for the Germans and Slavs, tomatoes and peppers for Italians and Greeks, and who doesn’t love pickles? (Celery salt remains the great mystery, worthy of another essay on its own.) The condiments represent a rainbow coalition of American immigrant palates, and perhaps putting them all on that steamed poppy-seed bun helped unite immigrant Chicagoans. Or at least it let them all get fed. But this silly no-ketchup argument ignores one key fact. There are actually two styles of hot dogs characteristic of Chicago: the salad-on-a-bun variety and the Maxwell Street dog. The condiments for this latter sausage are much more limited: mustard and grilled onions, the barest basics, amenable to the stripped-down equipment available in historic street vending situations that the name recalls. The other condiments, which require refrigeration, would not work on the street. Maxwell Street grill: Polish, pork chops and onions. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Maxwell Street grill: Polish, pork chops and onions. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Even though the open-air grillers of Maxwell Street have been Urban Renewed into oblivion, the Maxwell Street brand and style has spread all over town. Jim’s Original survived the University of Illinois, though it was relocated to the on-ramp of the Dan Ryan south of Roosevelt that is laughingly called “Union Street.” But all over town, thanks in no small part to the advertising geniuses at Vienna Beef, you’ll see “Maxwell Street” in the name of hot dog stands. Some of these joints do the fully-loaded-but-no-ketchup dog, but many do not (Maxwell Street Depot at 31st and Canal, for instance, or Maxwell Street JJ Sausage at 87th and Washtenaw). (Most of these places also feature the bone-in pork chop sandwich that’s an under-appreciated morsel of Chicago’s street food, also served with just mustard and grilled onions.) But back to ketchup. The ketchup argument distracts us from the real meaning of hot dog stands. These places are also cultural barometers. One chain aside (Portillo’s, which recently got critiqued on DNAinfo for allowing ketchup as an option), hot dog vendors are small-time. Their tight profit margins make them the first victims of gentrification, replaced by classier joints as soon as the rent goes up. If you’re seeking a hot dog in a high-end neighborhood, start by looking for the oldest and most run-down building (see Gold Coast Dogs, on Rush just north of Chicago Avenue, in a dilapidated building that will, sooner or later, be torn down for a high-rise or Loyola expansion). 3cr-muffler-signage (1) Photo by Bill Savage. 3CR-pawnshopsign Photo by Bill Savage. For those us who attend to urban aesthetics, design features of hot dog stand design reinforce its marginality. The dominant color of the vast majority of hot dog stand signage is yellow, usually with red highlights, sometimes blue. Other urban businesses that are almost always signed yellow are also relegated to marginal or industrial streetscapes: auto body and muffler shops, pawn shops, and currency exchanges. This marginality has historical roots. As Vienna Beef’s own corporate histories emphasize, the hot dog became omnipresent due to the Great Depression, and so hot dog stands survive in the parts of the city that are still depressed. Back to ketchup, again. Neil Steinberg has suggested, half-jokingly, but convincingly to me, that this ketchup nonsense is a way of sublimating other forms of Chicago-style prejudice. It’s no longer socially acceptable, in most non-Trump-voting circles, to openly and vocally dislike your fellow citizens for their race, class, ethnicity, or gender: but you can hate away on anyone who dares to put ketchup on their sausage! The No Ketchup taboo is all about identity. Us v. Them. Apparently, we cannot all just embrace the great Chicago hot dog, and accessorize it to our own taste. No, and some hot dog stands enforce this in crazy ways. Gene and Jude’s in River Grove has no ketchup on the premises, not even for their fries (the McDonald’s next door does brisk business selling packets of the sinful condiment). Last Bears season, I saw a hot dog truck near Soldier Field with a sign requiring anyone asking for ketchup on their hot dog to do a little dance. This, my friends, is fast food fascism, which betrays the essential democratic and American nature of the hot dog stand. That last word: “stand,” with its implicit history and latent democratic impulse, is what matters, not someone’s taste in condiments. Like other slapped-together structures, a “stand” is something not necessarily designed to last, but to fulfill some temporary but essential need: a fruit stand by the side of the road during harvest, say, or a shack slapped together on a vacant lot to sell quickly cooked food. Beyond that, “stand” is a verb, and it expresses an essentially democratic impulse that is the best of urban life. 3CR-Byrons-sign (1) Photo by Bill Savage. The hot dog stand has no maître d’ to tip for a better table: many of the best have no tables. If they do have some picnic benches outside, or some plastic seating indoors, the fundamental rule of the democratic city applies: first come, first served. Line up, tell the person behind the counter what you want, pay for it, and get it. Then sit down, or better yet, stand, and eat it. Then go about your business. At a real hot dog stand, downtown guys in power suits don’t cut the line on neighborhood kids in sagging jeans. Everyone waits in line and everyone shares the same space (a space that is an extension of the sidewalk, public urban space). To continue the political metaphor, eaters vote with their feet when it comes to choosing which dog stand to patronize. Different stands mostly sell the same product: Vienna Beef or its few competitors. The reason to go to one hot dog stand rather than another is about how well it’s run: are the condiments fresh? Do the counter people know what questions to ask, how to deal with the pros who rattle off their order and the tourists who don’t understand the mysteries of sport peppers? Do they charge you less if you don’t want the fries? Is the main guy at the counter (if there is one) a master of reading people? That was one of the keys to Doug Sohn’s success with the late Hot Doug's, not just the exotic sausages and gourmet toppings, but his presence as gatekeeper, rule-maker, and enforcer of democracy: Cash Only. No Cutting in Line. No taking a table before your order was ready. Maybe Ian Belknap is right that a Hot Doug’s hot dog was just a hot dog, but Hot Doug’s, the hot dog stand, approached a certain Platonic ideal. (Though it must be pointed out that Doug sometimes tops his dogs with BBQ sauce. Mark Twain wrote that cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education; I’d say that BBQ sauce is just ketchup with a PhD.) So, as summer approaches, consider seeking out not just a good hot dog, but a good hot dog stand. A spot where everyone is American—which is to say, equal—and where you can get a dog however you want it. Even with ketchup. If you have an opinion on ketchup vs. mustard or the nature of being a True Chicagoan, feel free to comment below.
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