Budget Cooking — Hot Dog!

My first job was also my favorite.

When I was 14, I lied about my age and got a job as a cook at Jr.’s Hot Dogs, a tiny hot dog stand near where I went to high school on Chicago’s South Side.

In the two years I worked there, I mastered every aspect of the tiny operation, from prepping the food to manning the deep fryer to interacting with customers and working the cash register.

And, of course, preparing Chicago style hot dogs by the tens of thousands.

I often attribute my becoming a chef to the experience I had working at Jr.’s. Maybe it was because I was so young, but I associate it with really happy times. I just loved going to work every day.

Getting ready for work circa 1980

Getting ready for work circa 1980

Part of the reason I liked it was because it was a very compact work space. The building was like 20′ x 20’, so between the other employees and the equipment, it basically was like working inside the lunar module. The advantage was that everything was within reach – you hardly ever had to take more than a step to do your job. Plus I could make a hot dog to order in less than 8 seconds.

I also liked that it was very busy. Most days, I was in constant motion from the moment I arrived until the time my mom or dad came to pick me up.

Finally, I liked the people. Because of my age, the girls who worked there were a couple of years older (and more developed) than me, which I liked A LOT. It was owned by the Vanderwall family, who were very lovely people who were dedicated to the success of their
business and to improving their community.

Seems like a simpler time.

But back to the hot dogs. Like pizza, Chicago has a unique relationship with its hot dogs. We revere them. We defend their honor against anyone who dares disparage them. And we eat them like there’s no tomorrow.

Chicago Style Hot Dog

Chicago Style Hot Dog

There recently was a published report that stated hot dogs are as bad for you as cigarettes. Horse hockey! That’s just some researcher trying to attract attention to themselves.

Hot dogs are American as, well, apple pie. And Chicago style hot dogs are the best.

First, a few ground rules about Chicago style hot dogs:

  • If you are older than 3 years old, never, ever, EVER put ketchup on your hot dog. That’s just profane.
  • Hot dogs can be boiled, steamed, grilled, warmed on a griddle, or roasted on a stick over a campfire for all I care. That part’s not important. The bun, however, must be steamed.
  • I don’t care if you do have a drug test in the morning: poppy seed buns only.

What makes a hot dog Chicago style are the toppings, which include yellow mustard, pickle relish, cucumber halves, tomato halves, diced onions, celery salt and sport peppers. It’s up to you what you want on your dog.

Cheese and/or chili may be added to your hot dog, but that’s no longer a Chicago style hot dog. That’s a chili-cheese dog.

Hot dogs are best eaten right away, preferably while you’re still sitting in the parking lot with the steering wheel jabbing into your stomach.

Recently, I took my daughter and nephew to Hot Doug’s, a big deal gourmet hot dog joint on the North Side. While I must admit it was amazingly delicious (I had the knockwurst stuffed with Swiss Cheese and topped with a fancy mayo and smoked gouda), I think I prefer the simplicity of that cramped little hot dog stand on Pulaski Road. Sadly, that particular Jr.’s is no longer around, although there are still a few left at other locations.

One of the best things about working at Jr.’s was getting to eat anything you wanted on your lunch break. Me and my teenage stomach would sit down with an entire squeeze bottle full of cheese sauce and two steaming hot loaded Polish sausages and just eat until I was ready to burst like an over-steamed hot dog.

To make your own Chicago Style Hot Dogs for your family, gather the following toppings and let them make their own:

Mustard, green pickle relish, cucumber slices, tomato slices, diced onions, celery salt and sport peppers.

Just leave the ketchup in the refrigerator.