When people find out I’m from Chicago—particularly sports fans—they’ll almost always bring up the Cubs. I wouldn’t call myself a die-hard baseball fan, but my allegiance will always belong to the White Sox. My memories of summers from my childhood include night games with fireworks, soft-serve ice cream served in a mini helmet, going to get the parking permit for game days in the neighborhood, and drives out of the city on game days that had to factor in Sox traffic. My cousins would always go to the opening day game at Sox Park (currently Guaranteed Rate Field, formerly U.S. Cellular Field, formerly Comiskey Park). I was always too young to go with them for the actual game, but that didn’t really matter all that much to me. My favorite part about opening day was that the hot dog stands would finally open.
A Chicago-style hot dog is a beast of a thing. Some say that the Chicago dog emerged as a product of the Great Depression for being almost nutritious and definitely cheap. Abe Drexler, the self-proclaimed inventor of the Chicago-style hot dog, called it a “Depression Sandwich” at his renowned stand, Fluky’s. Others claim it emerged from a more organic process due to the diverse ethnic population and ingredients that were mass-produced in the first half of the 20th century. Its anatomy is complex, precise, and haphazard. The core ingredients are yellow mustard, chopped white onions, bright green sweet pickle relish, a pickle spear, tomato, pickled sport peppers, and celery salt. If you ask any Chicagoan, the dog actively denies ketchup. It already has a mix of flavors that are sweet, salty, and spicy, which don’t need to be smothered by the overwhelming condiment. Beyond the toppings, there’s a lot more nuance to the construction of a Chicago-style hot dog.
The dog should be boiled. Some places char it. Many will dispute the authenticity of this method, but it can’t be denied that charring adds a crispier texture and smoky flavor to the experience. One should always use an all-beef dog, and many swear by the authenticity of Vienna Beef. The company has an entire page on their website dedicated to the explanation of their role as “Chicago’s Hot Dog.” Austrian-Hungarian immigrants Emil Reichel and Samuel Ladany created the all-beef sausage for the 1893 Columbian Exposition. Not only did their Germanic gastronomic traditions need to accommodate a Jewish population and a kosher diet, but the Union Stockyards and its mass production of beef products made Chicago a fantastic spot for the company to begin.
This all-beef dog needs to be nestled in a beautifully fluffy, steamed poppy seed bun. It’s not a real Chicago dog if you’re not wiping those little black seeds off the sides of your pants after you finish it. Bread as a side to sausage came from the German sausage tradition, but Eastern European Jewish immigrants popularized the poppy seed addition in the 1940s.
The rest of the toppings have a history of their own. As European immigrants populated the city in the early 1900s, most of the ingredients that top the hot dog resonated with European palates. Onions—a favorite ingredient across European culinary traditions— were necessarily added to this Frankensteinian sausage in order to appeal to the growing population of the city. Mustard comes with sausages in the German tradition. When yellow mustard started being mass-produced as a condiment in the US, it easily and quickly attached itself to the hot dog, and the sheer cheapness of it encouraged the diversity of Chicagoans to maintain that detail. The sweet pickle relish is British; piccalilli in Britain is a Western interpretation of a South Asian pickled vegetable mix. In the ‘20s—probably in the context of a Cubs/Sox baseball game—hot dog expert Bruce Kraig said it became a vibrant, green condiment that added a sweet flavor and uncanny neon color to the mosaic of the Chicago dog.
Sport peppers and celery salt are products of North America. Sport peppers or small and spicy pickled peppers probably came from Mexico and were popularized in Chicago during the Columbian Exposition as a condiment for tamales. Celery was a superfood of the ‘20s: many claimed there were extreme health benefits associated with the fibrous vegetable, so one could say it was thrown on the hot dog for some extra beneficial sustenance. Realistically, celery was grown on the north side of Chicago, so it was a pretty accessible ingredient and probably cheap to add.
Everyone’s got their hot dog stand. Chicagoland born writer and editor Jason Diamond lists a handful of them located mostly on the North Side. My go-to stands will typically stay somewhere within the two-mile radius of my neighborhood. This may be controversial but my favorite hot dog stand puts a cucumber spear instead of a pickle spear on the hot dog. The cucumber offers a nice bit of watery freshness that isn’t nearly as harsh and vinegary as a kosher pickle. Now, I don’t really have to wait for baseball season to get a good Chicago hot dog. Portillo’s, a local chain, will never let me down. The Weiner’s Circle has gone viral for its rude staff and classic char dog. Gene and Jude’s doesn’t offer ketchup. Taking it even further, 35th Street Red Hots (sorry folks, no website here) has a bell of shame for those who have the courage to ask for ketchup (or lack the tact to just add it on their own if they really need to). It doesn’t really matter where you go, as long as you remember to get all the good stuff.
And please, just forget about the ketchup.
Cover image courtesy of Mashed