Each time my parents come to visit Chicago, I try to outdo their last trip. I fill it with new tours and restaurants and all things Chicago – luckily our vast city has a ton to offer, and I can safely say this most recent trip is the (current) reigning champion. Since all of our amazing activities would fill-up more than just one blog post, I’ll focus on the clear highlight of the weekend: a Hot Dog tour!
Put on by the Chicago History Museum, we were greeted with a make-your-own-Chicago-dog-bar – which promptly started the question of the day: “to ketchup or not to ketchup your dog?” Any good Chicagoan knows that ketchup is a no-no… or so I thought but, it was actually quite a debate, even causing patrons to quote literary text and historical reports in support or refusal of the idea. Regardless of how you feel about ketchup on a Chicago-style hot dog (FYI: majority voted “I personally would never do it but if someone else wants to, that’s ok”), we did learn the history behind this now universal, culinary delight. Every ingredient represents a part of Chicago’s diverse population and storied history and now thanks to this tour, I love the Chicago dog that much more!
Starting with the all-beef frankfurter, it makes sense that quality meat would serve as the foundation, knowing how important the Union Stock Yard was to the city around the 1890’s.
The World’s Fair Columbian’s Exposition took place in the city in 1893 and around then Vienna Beef, the top manufacturer of the Chicago style dog, got their start and thus introduced to the world a new cuisine – the humble yet all important hot dog.
The distinctive toppings themselves were inspired by the now extinct Maxwell Street neighborhood, a "gateway" neighborhood for Chicago immigrants where in those early days included Greeks, Bohemians, Russians, Germans, Italians and Mexicans. Also dubbed the “Depression Sandwich”, the several vegetables that are toppings were seen as a small and still affordable luxury during our country’s tougher years. The bright colors in various sizes almost made it seem like artwork to the working class. Many have said it’s as if the dog had been “dragged through the [international] garden”, topped with yellow mustard and sweet pickle relish (a nod to the Eastern European immigrants), chopped white onions and fresh tomato slices (an homage to the Mediterranean contingency), pickled sport peppers (credited to the South and Central American populations), a dill pickle or cucumber spear and a dash of celery salt (which is considered a fairly “American”, as in United States based, ingredient).
Image courtesy of Vienna Beef
If my parents learned nothing else about Chicago during the whirlwind trip to the Windy City, it’s safe to say they will never again put ketchup on their dog. With all these flavors already going on, there really is no room nor need for the lowly, sugary ketchup. It would only mask the delicate balance and flavor combination that is the well-thought-out, time-tested and approved – Chicago Hot Dog.
Hungry for one yourself? Many lists have been created about who serves the best and since that’s always debatable, the only way to know is to start trying them all. Check out Chicago Serious Eats, Chicagoist, and Chicago Eater.
If you love this kind of food, try The Chopping Block's upcoming Street Food cooking class, where you'll master ethnic favorites like Cuban Sandwiches, Lumpia, Beer-Battered Fish Tacos and Beef Kofta Kababs.