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David Lissner
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Eat this! The Chicago hot dog, born in the Great Depression

A Vienna Beef hot dog with the works.

A Vienna Beef hot dog with the works.

Part 2 of a series in honor of National Hot Dog Month.

What it is: A steamed or boiled, kosher-style beef wiener, the Chicago hot dog comes served on a poppyseed-studded bun and piled with a unique set of toppings, typically yellow mustard, neon-green sweet-pickle relish or “piccalilli,”
chopped onions, fresh tomatoes, dill-pickle spears, pickled sport peppers and a dash of celery salt. The complete assembly is sometimes called “dragging it through the garden,” but more usually, “the works.”

Where it comes from: By most accounts, the “banquet on a bun” had its origins in the Great Depression, when greengrocer Jake Drexler decided his 18-year-old son, local sports hero Abe “Fluky” Drexler, needed an occupation. That was in 1929, when jobs were hard to find, so Drexler converted the family’s Maxwell Street vegetable cart into a hot-dog stand, and began offering the “Depression Sandwich,” which sold for a nickel.

“He built it like a vegetable cart would do it,” says Fluky’s son, Jack. (Also called Fluky, he likes to say he was “born in a bun.”) Hence fresh tomatoes, cucumbers (which later gave way to dill pickles) and celery salt.

An instant hit in the straitened times, the Fluky’s idea soon spread. Today Chicagoland boasts more than 1,800 stands serving Chicago-style hot dogs.

What to do with it: Eating a Chicago-style hot dog (as well as other local foods like Italian beef) requires the Chicago stance: Lean well forward, forearms braced against the counter, to avoid dropping toppings down your shirt. (If you wear a tie, flip it back over your shoulder.)

Chicago-style hot dog

In future posts, we’ll go into the individual ingredients, but here is the canonical Chicago-style hot dog, as served by Bucktown-based Vienna Beef Co. and many local stands:

All-beef, natural-casing frankfurter, such as Vienna Beef, David Berg or Red Hot Chicago, boiled or steamed
High-gluten, poppyseed bun, such as S. Rosen’s Mary Ann, steam-warmed
Squiggle of yellow mustard
Chopped white onions
2 or 3 fresh, ripe tomato wedges or slices
1 or 2 kosher-style dill-pickle spears or slices
2 or 3 hot, pickled green sport peppers (optional)
Dash of celery salt

Remove the hot wiener from the cooker, shaking off the water and place into the bun. Don’t leave the hot dog in the water too long — it will lose flavor and snap.

Add the condiments in the order listed. Always dress the hot dog, not the bun. And NEVER add ketchup!!! 1 serving.

Variations: There are, of course, numerous variations. Adhering to the vegetable-stand history, doggeries such as Byron’s Hot Dog Haus in Wrigleyville and Ravenswood add shredded lettuce, sliced cucumbers and green bell peppers to their “dragged through the garden” wieners. At Superdawg in Norwood Park and Wheeling, they replace the fresh tomato with a green, pickled wedge.

Some stands also offer sauerkraut, but local purists consider that “giving in to the whims of New Yorkers,” says Bob Schwartz, vice-president of Vienna Beef, and author of “Never Put Ketchup on a Hot Dog.”

Other vendors use skinless hot dogs or skip the poppyseed buns, a nod to childish tastes. “The kiddies don’t like the seeds much. They get all over the place,” says Jim Photopoulos of Photo’s Hotdogs, who serves seeded buns at his original Mount Prospect store, and plain ones in his Palatine location. No one in Palatine has complained, he says. Photopoulos says he also serves skinless dogs because children prefer those. “The natural casing is kind of tough. It’s more of an adult thing.”

A few places, such as The Wiener’s Circle in Lincoln Park, grill up a blackened “chardog.” Then there are the minimalists, such as Gene & Jude’s in River Grove, where the toppings are limited to mustard, onions, plain relish, sport peppers and a generous handful of hand-cut french fries.

Chicago hot dog series:

  1. The Chicago-style hot dog: ‘A masterpiece’
  2. Eat this! The Chicago hot dog, born in the Great Depression
  3. Know your wiener!
  4. Friday food porn: Seasons’ sexed-up hot dog
  5. It takes big buns to hold Chicago hot dogs
  6. Origins of neon relish and other Chicago hot dog conundrums
  7. Do only barbarians put ketchup on hot dogs?
  8. Chicago’s Schmidt the real Mr. Footlong Hot Dog Inventor
  9. Chicago’s Oscar Mayer has a way. . . .
  10. Relishing Chicago’s 10 funniest hot-dog joints

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