Hot Dogs

Gene’s & Jude’s is one of Chicago’s hidden cultural icons. It’s too far off the beaten track for most tourists to visit, but real hot-dog connoisseurs actually do travel to Chicago and then make their way West to Grand Ave & River Road just to eat one of Gene’s & Jude’s “depression style” hot-dogs.

Here’s one. It’s lurking beneath the fries.

The Gene’s & Jude’s hot dog was recently elected “Best Hot Dog in America” by subject matter experts who compared more than fifty candidates across the continent.

The award is instructive; it tells me I need look no further. That’s comforting.

If I had to select a “Best Hot Dog of Chicago”, the crisp G&J would be top of the list, followed at a distance by Portillo’s and then by Superdawg. But none of the three would be my first choice for dinner: I haven’t developed a taste for hot dogs. It’s not just the American kind I’m lukewarm about, either. I feel the same way about German Frankfurter and Swedish Korv.

The thing I find striking about hot dogs and other forms of Wurst served at fast food stands is this: out of all available choices, they are the food with the lowest value added by the vendor. I say vendor because “cook” is always the wrong word to describe what they are doing. They unpack portions of processed and preserved foods and assemble them into an end product which is warmed up and sold.

Not that hamburgers or döner kebabs are healthy, or require years of culinary training to prepare. But relative to a hot dog they almost look like they’re cooked to order with fresh produce.

But it’s never just about the food, is it. In the US in particular, I think, for many the hot dog has a special meaning which transcends the relish. Almost no-one who’s talked to me about hot dogs so far has done so without mentioning childhood memories. Regular Sunday outings to a hot dog stand close by the Sunday School, or that promised visit to Soldier Field in Boston which finally came true… that sort of thing.

I don’t think I have a “memory food” like that, so I can’t really empathize. But I do understand the value of history. Some of those iconic fast food places have been around for a while. G&J’s has an interesting history (see the Wikipedia entry). It seems the owners lost the original, centrally-located store “in a card game” in the late 40s. Which goes a way to explaining why their new store is far out West and is not much more than an improvised wooden shack with linoleum floors. Cool place.

That Fearful Demon Alcohol

This morning I went to buy some stuff downstairs. I came across some manchego, and decided it would be complemented very nicely by a cabernet from Washington State – a region I’ve heard much about but so far haven’t tasted.

Alas, the cashier pointed out that it wasn’t yet 11:00 (it was 10:30 or so) and he was therefore not permitted to sell me a bottle of wine on a Sunday morning. I asked if this regulation applied to the entire land of the free, or only in Chicago. It seems to be one of those quirky local rules I’ve learned it’s better not to ask too much about.

There’s a similar local law which makes sure that even after 11:00 on Sunday mornings “underage” adult cashiers are not permitted to touch a bottle of wine on the conveyor belt: they call for an older colleague to pick up the bottle, pass it over the scanner, and place it in the bag. That last step isn’t optional, either. I don’t need to carry my stuff very far and have on occasion successfully insisted on carrying a bottle without a paper bag, but it’s been a struggle so now I generally just let them have their way.

Drug regulation is hard to get right. It’s a confusing web of dilemmas and trade-offs. The Chicago pseudo-embargo on alcohol is obviously pointless (or is it? It’s hard to guess just what the inciters are trying to achieve), but at least it’s mildly amusing and doesn’t cause any harm aside from a bit of shopping inconvenience.