For quite some time it appeared that hot dogs were losing favor in the United States to tacos, pizza, burgers and fried chicken. Then, over the past few years, the ever-so-adaptable sausage started to make inroads with the latest generation by serving as a vessel for creative toppings such as kimchi, cheese curds and foie gras. This was hammered home to me when, a couple of weeks ago, I got a telephone call from my youngest daughter, an aspiring actress in New York City, passing on with exuberance her adventures with a hot dog extraordinaire — a bockwurst made from veal and pork to be exact — from a cart on the city's West Side.
This year, the "encased meat" has been enshrined in at least two books that found their way to me: "Hot Doug's: The Book" (Agate Midway, July 2013, $24.95), a history of Hot Doug's sausage emporium in Chicago, and "Man Bites Dog: Hot Dog Culture in America" (AltaMira Press, 2012, $40) the history of the frankfurter in America that also dishes up lore, recipes, personalities and lots of photographs.
I'd wanted to visit Hot Doug's on a trip to Chicago, but it was closed, so Sherri Panza and I had to be content to buy a real dog, instead.
For us, Hot Dog Month is every month. On a recent trip to Troy, N.Y., for a reunion of old staffers from the Times Record, we took the chance to seek out the tiny dogs served with Greek sauce that so intrigued me in the 1970s that I stopped by a minimum of three times each week. This time around, with no children and a few extra hours, we discovered a location not too far from the Albany airport and my wife's friend's home.
En route to lunch, we stopped for a few dogs. Perhaps my palate changed, but I thought the sauce lacked a certain pungency of cloves and allspice. But the company has returned to using a lighter beef-pork mix made by the original sausage-maker, Hembold, and only uses the all-beef Sabrett for full-size dogs, which the shop didn't carry 30 years ago. Of course, we brought home a jar of the sauce, which has since topped all kinds of franks and turkey sausages.
While hot dogs seem to be coming back, in some places they have never left. While running the Southern barbecue trail last summer we actually were tiring a little of barbecue sauce by the next-to-last day. The lady behind our hotel's front desk finally revealed Brunswick, Ga.'s, claim to fame — Willie's Wee-Nee Wagon. What once was just a wagon has grown into a collection of sections (one was a much-needed-in-the-100-degree-heat air-conditioned dining room). Willie's has a list of dogs, including a superlative slaw dog, which were drawing in a crowd of customers — local, travelers and soldiers from the nearby base. One lady, a former resident of Brunswick, told us that it is her first stop on every trip home.
Sometimes, as I have written, finding places to eat depends on research and sometimes it depends on the kindness of strangers, and sometimes it is just pure dumb luck. On our barbecue trail, while seeking a chicken place in Cleveland, N.C., we got lost and wound up finding Jay Bee's Hot Dogs and Hamburgers, marked by bright orange trim. So to tide us over until barbecue time, we savored chili dogs and freshly formed hamburgers topped with the Southern staple, pimento cheese.
They were excellent eaten at picnic tables under the trees with Weegee the barbecue hound trying to cadge bites.
Where will the hot dog go? Wherever people want to take it. While we were on Sanibel Island, Fla., at a chain called Cheeburger Cheeburger, Sherri ordered a 10-inch frankfurter with peanut butter. The server did not blink but only suggested that the peanut butter be served on the side.