One of the long-standing traditions of American Independence Day celebrations is the grilling of meats. Hamburgers and beefsteaks are popular choices, but the quintessential Fourth of July comestible is, of course, that most American of foods: the Hot Dog. And hot dog is so much more American-sounding than frankfurter sausage, a name that reveals the Germanic origins of this Cylindrical Meat-Food.
Hot dogs are just one of a vast family of sausages, concoctions consisting of meat, fat, spices (and sometimes non-meat components), packed into a casing and then cured or cooked. The original casings, of course, were animal intestines, which come in a convenient hollowed-out tubular form. Alas, many modern sausages have dispensed with the casing. But I submit that a frankfurter with a natural casing that pops when you bite into it is the only authentic kind.
Sausages! They are manifold, from the porky delights of the Italian salumeria to the garlicky kosher salamis that inspired the famous sign in Katz’s Delicatessen (site of the Fake Orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally): “Send a Salami to Your Boy in the Army.” Liverwurst. Bratwurst. Boudin. Cappicola. Sopressata. Knackwurst. The scary French Andouillette. And the humble Frankfurter, king of them all.
Growing up in the late 1950s and early 1960s, we had hot dogs frequently; they were an inexpensive source of protein and were easy to prepare, to boot. In school, nasty porky hot dogs would appear once a week, served on a (gak!) buttered bun. At home, hot dogs and beans were also regular menu items, except there we would have all-beef dogs. (Not that my notoriously nonobservant parents had any objection to pork, mind you. They just didn’t think it belonged in a hot dog… and, to this day, I agree.)
Frankfurters were generally not restaurant fare, with one notorious exception: the Big Bow Wow, the completely unhygienic source of the finest grilled hot dogs on Long Island’s south shore. And that brings me to the real point of this post.
How should you prepare a hot dog?
Some will steam them, others boil them. The now virtually defunct Lum’s chain used to steam them in beer. But me, I like ’em charcoal grilled.
Get hold of some good beef hot dogs, preferably dinner size. Kosher dogs, like those from Hebrew National, have a nice dense, salty, beefy, garlicky flavor and texture – everything else is an also-ran. Slash those dogs on the bias, then put them on a hot grill until they char; that’s how to do it. Whether you serve them minimalist-style with mustard only, or whether you pile on the sauerkraut and relish, that’s up to you. Chicago dog, with cucumber spears, fluorescent green relish, sport peppers, and celery salt? Be my guest. Ketchup? Be ashamed.
Bite into one of them —man bites dog! — and you are not simply having a meal. You’re having a bite of America.