I have a confession to make. My favourite food is the hot dog. And now I will spend the rest of the article justifying that statement.
But why am I thinking about hot dogs today? Usually, they are associated with summer days filled with picnics and carnivals and baseball games. Not really a mid-winter kind of food. Two events in my life bring hot dogs to mind this week.
The first was my visit to the arena. This past weekend I had the good fortune to watch the Jets beat the New York Islanders. It was an exciting match-up with our home team coming from behind to win the game in overtime. I had a couple beers, wishing there was a better selection than Bud or Bud light, and then decided to enjoy a Jumbo Jet Dog. People complain about the variety and quality of the food concessions at the MTS centre, but to my mind they do make a good hot dog. Eight inches long, plump and juicy (now settle down people!) this hot dog is served in a grilled bun with beautifully caramelized onions. They offer you a selection of additional toppings. I had bacon crumbles and perogy pieces (yes, pieces of cut up perogy) on my dog for a quintessentially Winnipeg flavour profile. My wife was feeling more exotic, so she got the nacho cheese sauce. And then you are invited to the condiment table for your selection of sauerkraut, homemade looking pickles, roasted garlic, banana peppers, decent mustard and an un-naturally neon green relish. All in all, a decent sporting event dining experience.
The second event, sadly, is the closure of a Winnipeg landmark. On Wednesday, Kelekis served it’s last hot dog. This iconic restaurant has been the heart of Winnipeg’s north end for over 70 years. Serving comfort food and diner classics, Kelekis was particularly famous for its hot dog and shoestring fries. Their hot dog was a European style dog with a nice ‘snap’ to its skin. At Kelekis, they sliced the dog in half lengthwise and grilled it cut side down for extra caramelizey goodness. I suppose it is reasonable that at the age of 88, Mary Kelekis would be tired of dropping fires and grilling dogs, but the closing of this classic diner leaves an empty hole in Winnipeg’s restaurant scene.
Why do I love hot dogs so much? I am a chef, I should be into sweetbreads and foie gras. I should be snacking on bulgogi and Chakhchoukha and ‘gator jambalaya not squeezing French’s onto a Schneider’s all-beef.
First of all, the hot dog is the first experience most of us have with snout to tail eating. Popularized by the likes of Fergus Henderson and Chris Cosentino, this type of dining encourages us to eat from the whole animal. We grew up in a culture of NY steaks, pork tenderloins and boneless chicken breasts. These cuts are the most expensive cuts of meat and only use a very small portion of the animal. In order to support this diet, hamburgers and hot dogs were invented to use up the rest of the animal. The hot dog, with its very fine grind and emulsified texture is particularly well suited to using up the gnarly bits. Eating hot dogs brings us closer to the First Nations ideal of using every part of the bison. Today, with concerns about greenhouse gases, carbon emissions and the environmental impact of animal protein diets, eating from the whole animal is more important than ever.
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I also believe that the hot dog is the crowning achievement and inevitable end point of western culture’s Haute Cuisine movement. Just hold on, stay with me. At its essence, culinary arts is about the mastery of human reason over nature. This mastery is enacted through the manipulation of biological products to create food items which enact the creative idea of the chef’s intellect. Much of the training cooks receive in the classical, primarily French, tradition is on the creation of a uniformly perfect product. Cooks learn how to distill animal bones to their essences by crafting the perfect stock. They learn how to create perfect sauces by balancing the four tastes. They learn how to break down irregular vegetable shapes into perfect julienne or brunoise pieces. Mastery of the classical tradition is not about novelty or freedom to express oneself, but it is about perfect uniformity. The hot dog is this perfect expression. It doesn’t matter what goes in to the making of a hot dog, the end result is always uniformly the same. Beef, pork, chicken, snouts, tails and feet, it doesn’t matter, when Mr. Schneider is done, the hot dog will be a uniform texture, a uniform shade of pink and a uniform flavour.
But seriously, hot dogs are easy and fun to eat. You can usually polish one off in a couple or three bites, leaving you more time for more important pursuits like drinking beer. You can enjoy them super plain with just a squeeze of mustard, or you can jazz them up with all kinds of fun condiments. Hot Doug`s in Chicago serves a foie gras dog. Japadog in Vancouver serves a pork hot dog with seaweed and teriyaki sauce. In New York City, after a life altering dining experience at KO, we wound up at Krip Dogs at three in the morning and enjoyed bacon wrapped hot dogs with a fried egg. Hot dogs must also be the safest food out there, I can`t think of any other reason it is one of the only foods the city of Winnipeg allows to be served from a street cart. Hot dogs are also super convenient. It is a one-handed food. No knife or fork or even plate required. You can eat it at a park, at a ball game, while walking. Enjoy a hot dog and you are still left with one hand to hold your drink. You can even eat it while driving, leaving your other hand free to steer or apply make-up or tweet about how much you are enjoying your hot dog.
As a chef, I am often at very fancy, very high end food and wine events. Multiple course tastings, serious red wines with names you can’t pronounce. I enjoy these evenings, but at the end of the night, as I am heading home, all I really want is a cold soda pop and a hot dog. So foodies, get off your high horse (also may be found in your hot dog) and allow yourself to enjoy the simple pleasures of a hot dog.
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