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Origins of neon relish and other Chicago hot dog conundrums

Vienna Beef hot dog as Navy Pier

Part 6 of a series in honor of National Hot Dog Month.
The Chicago hot dog — with the white of the onions, the red of the tomatoes, the brilliant green relish — “It’s like a work of art,” says Bob Schwartz, vice-president of Bucktown-based Vienna Beef Co., and author of “Never Put Ketchup on a Hot Dog.”

While the wiener and bun are both important, the toppings of a Chicago hot dog make it truly unique. Nowhere else in the country does a hot dog come with such a colorful array of fixings.

  1. Yellow mustard. The mustard goes on first. It must be yellow, “salad” or “ballpark”-style, a condiment that was relatively new when the Chicago hot dog debuted during the Great Depression.According to the makers of Chicago’s native-born brand, Plochman’s, mild, brilliantly turmeric-hued mustard was invented in the U.S. in 1904. Before then, mustard came only hot, spicy or sweet.

    Plochman’s was founded as Premium Mustard Mills in 1852, changing its name after Moritz “Morris” Plochman, a chemist from the Kingdom of Wirtemberg (now part of Germany), bought the firm in 1883. Plochman’s became the first successful squeezed condiment in 1957 when it introduced its distinctive plastic barrel. The company, still owned and operated by the Plochman family, is now headquartered in Manteno, Ill., north of Kankakee.

  2. Neon-green sweet-pickle relish. It’s unknown who first created this distinctive condiment or why, although Maurie and Flaurie Berman, owners of Superdawg in Norwood Park and Wheeling, where it’s still called “piccalilli,” say they’ve served it since opening in 1949, and believe they first introduced it to the Chicago hot dog.”I can’t remember when we didn’t have it,” Flaurie Berman says.

    The most logical story of the origins of the fluorescent green tint is that some pickle manufacturer tried to make up for uneven hues in his product by adding green food coloring and went a little too far. The bright-colored relish tends to be a little sweeter than the plain relish used by minimalists like Gene & Jude’s in River Grove. Schwartz says the relish fits the “boldness” of the colorful sandwich.

  3. White onions. White onions have a cleaner, milder taste than the much more common yellow variety, better for serving raw. They also tend to hold their crispness and moisture better when chopped. The bright white sets off the other ingredients nicely.
  4. Ripe, red tomatoes. Tomatoes are essential to the dragged-through-the-garden dog and served at most stands, though minimalist fans eschew them.Ripeness can be an often-elusive ideal. Superdawg remains unique in serving a pickled green tomato wedge in lieu of fresh red wedges, an innovation Maurie Berman says they instituted early on because the quality of fresh tomatoes is so unreliable.
  5. Kosher-style dill pickle. Chicago’s taste in pickles runs to fresh and crunchy, the style New Yorkers call “half sour” and others call “new dills.” “Kosher-style” means the pickles are naturally fermented in a salt brine (though many manufacturers add vinegar as a preservative) and flavored with garlic.Chicago is home to a number of pickle makers, including Chicago Pickle Company (aka Chipico, established in 1925 and now owned by Vienna Beef), Puckered Pickle Co. and Claussen, about which more on another day.
  6. Sport peppers. These pickled, green hot peppers, like most chilies, are a cultivar of Capsicum annuum, typically about an inch and a half long and a half inch in diameter.Pepper expert Dave DeWitt speculates, “The term ‘sport’ probably originated because they are used as condiments on hot dogs sold in baseball parks.” But in his book “Hot Peppers: The Story of Cajuns and Capsicum,” Richard Schweid quotes a former Louisiana sharecropper, Stella Larson: “They were called sports because they didn’t burn your hand when you picked them.”
  7. Celery salt. For many, a sprinkling of celery salt is the sine qua non of the Chicago hot dog. There’s no proof, but this defining shake may well date to the Maxwell Street vegetable-cart origins of the toppings, and it certainly points up the flavor of the onions and tomatoes and pickles. From the 19th century through the 1920s, local farmers touted Chicago as celery capital of the United States, so perhaps a mixture of ground celery seed and salt just seemed a natural add on.

Vendors have tried a variety of other toppings over the years. A few stands, such as Photo’s Hotdogs in Mount Prospect and Palatine, add fresh cucumbers. Byron’s Hot Dog Haus in Wrigleyville and Ravenswood even adds lettuce. Hot Doug’s in Avondale has been known to put grilled onions on its Chicago-style dog and Chicago’s Dog House in Lincoln Park offers Vienna Beef franks with toppings like brie and pear or hummus, while the venerable Susie’s Drive Thru in Irving Park adds red bell pepper as well as serving items such as a gyros dog and a Reuben dog. But noncanonical add-ons are mostly reviled.

“Long ago, we served a radish and a green onion,” Maurie Berman recalled. “It was not a success.”
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