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David Lissner
for restaurants

It takes big buns to hold Chicago hot dogs

How Mary Ann buns are made.

Part 5 of a series in honor of National Hot Dog Month.

What is anything without its proper foundation? Although a few stands, such as Little Island in Evanston, tout their buns in signs as big as their Vienna Beef promos, this part of the sandwich doesn’t get nearly the attention that other elements of the canonical Chicago hot dog do. Yet it forms a critical base for the wiener and its load of condiments.

Not just any bun will do — it takes a special, high-gluten dough to hold up to the steam-warming Chicago hot-dog buns receive and to contain all of the wet toppings without falling apart. (Vienna Beef Co. spokesman Peter Sload notes that the manufacturer used to supply vendors with pots to cook the franks in, explaining how to steam the buns on top.)

S. Rosen’s Mary Ann Poppy Seed Buns.

About 70 percent of hot-dog wrappers served at Chicago restaurants are S. Rosen’s Mary Ann buns from Alpha Baking. The classic Chicago poppyseed-studded bun, fluffy yet solid, originated at the Mary Ann Baking Co., founded in 1935 and once Chicago’s largest institutional bakery. Mary Ann made buns for McDonald’s and a variety of hotels, restaurants and other organizations.

In September 1979, Mary Ann went bust, leaving local hot-dog purveyors in a tizzy. A group headed by Mike Marcucci and his cousin Larry Marcucci, scions of the Gonnella Baking Co. family, formed Alpha to rescue the operation, choosing a Greek-sounding name because most of the company’s customers at the time were Greek-owned snack shops. Two years later, the company acquired the struggling variety-bread bakers Rosen’s Bakery Co., founded by Samuel Rosen in 1886 and located a few blocks from Mary Ann on the Northwest Side. The Marcucci and Rosen families both remain active in the business today, and Alpha is one of the 10 largest privately held baking companies in the country.

No one knows exactly when or why poppyseed became quintessential in the Chicago hot-dog configuration, but the nutty flavor, popular in Eastern European cookery, certainly complements the spicy, kosher-style franks, and likely appealed to early, Jewish vendors.

Alas, perhaps due to corporate drug testing or childish palates, “The trend is plain buns,” according to Scott Ladany, president of hot-dog maker Red Hot Chicago.

That’s just wrong. If your hot-dog seller doesn’t serve poppyseed buns, ask for them!

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