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ME LIKE EAT Contributor: On Hot Dogs, Pizza And New York

February 3, 2011 is glad to present to you this paean to the hot dog, courtesy of contributor Hugh. Hugh’s recent visit to Papaya King on the Upper East Side got him thinking. By the way, here’s my review of Papaya, and it’s neighboring competitor, the inexplicably overhyped Shake Shack.

Hot dog with sauerkraut from Artie's

I have long been dogged by the question of hot dogs.

While New York is a City known for all sorts of wonderful foods, the hot dog holds a special place here.  One might argue that the hot dog is a microcosm for the City itself.  There is room for debate on the question which food truly epitomizes New York City.  I do not claim to know the right answer to that question.  Certainly the hot dog is a prime candidate.

One probably should start with the supposition that there is something inherently wrong about the hot dog.  Let’s face it, when you’re a fancy-shmancy foodie type, the kind what dines at the Oyster Bar, or Peter Luger, there’s something mischievous about loving hot dogs because a hot dog is a suspicious and seedy mash up of various meats, made from all of the wrong parts of the cow (and/or other animals…).  Indeed, most rational people really do not want to know what a hot dog is made of, or how it is made.

Two with kraut from Papaya King. (image credit: Hugh)

But New York has long been a town haunted by vice.  It’s part of the City’s DNA.  The City either grows or attracts colorful troublemakers, con men and cheats from Boss Tweed to Bernie Madoff to Eliot Spitzer.  Why shouldn’t the City’s signature dish be at least a little bit wrong too?  And let’s admit it, it’s at least a little bit of fun living in a town where the pillars of our community can also be scoundrels.

There are other interesting connections between New York City and the hot dog.  Each ia convenient and available.  The City demands and requires a food that is good for people on the move.   The hot dog is egalitarian – it is for the rich and the poor, and for people of every race, creed, or political persuasion.  Just like the subway.

Of course, a slice of pizza may have a claim to the title of the signature food of this City.  It was – according to the legend that I choose to believe – a food created in Brooklyn by Italian immigrants.

My father spent some time in Europe (courtesy of the U.S. Army) after growing up in Brooklyn.  He visited Italy in the 1950s where he thought he would find pizza Mecca in pepperoni’s birthplace (which also apparently turns out to be the United States).  According to his account, despite his efforts and his searching, he could not find a slice of pizza within Italy’s borders.  Italians did not then know what pizza was and the local restaurateurs looked at him funny when he tried to order a slice.  Pizza – it turned out – was a New York thing.  It was not an Italian thing.

A troubling characteristic of pizza that distinguishes it from the hot dog is pizza suffers from an identity crisis.

A hot dog is – by definition – a tube of meat, served often in a bun, with a choice of customary garnishes and toppings.  Pizza, was – at one time – an open faced cheese and tomato sauce sandwich.  But pizza is no longer what it once was.

Today, sometimes it has cheese.  Sometimes not.  Sometimes it has tomato sauce.  Sometimes not.  A pizza with truffle oil and shiitake mushrooms is still pizza.  Pizza’s very definition has been kidnapped from the safety of history, hijacked by the present.  It has evolved.  And, frighteningly, one can expect that it will continue to evolve.  And there’s nothing that any old-fashioned pizza purist like me can do about it.

It looks perfect. Admit it.

Pizza’s chameleon-like quality renders it in some ways like New York, and unlike New York in others.  I think you can accuse this City of being many things (an urban center, finance center, media center, arts center, big city, etc.), but you cannot say New York City is everything.  For example, while we may have a summer scene – of sorts – in a few places across the boroughs, no one can really accuse New York City of being a beach town.  Or a ski town.  Or a small town with a blinking stoplight in the town square.  But, in other ways, like pizza, New York keeps changing and evolving.  As the saying goes, if you don’t like a neighborhood in this town, wait a week.

In thinking about it, one can reasonably conclude that pizza today, is really pizza 3.0.  Or pizza 4.0.  Hot dogs remain doggedly at 1.0.   And that might explain why there is something about hot dogs which harkens back to pleasant childhood memories.  In my case, hot dogs marked part of my initiation to independent and grown up dining out – albeit usually in the company of a corner pushcart vendor.  The hot dog was a food I could buy myself.  All I needed was a few quarters, and I was dining out.    I can say the same thing about the pizza slice as well.

Or at least, I could about pizza version 1.0.

MELIKEEAT thanks Hugh for his thoughts on hot dogs, pizza and NYC. If you’re looking for another excellent dog, I recommend Artie’s. For a slice, try Sal & Carmine’s. Which food do you think is the most New York? Sound off in the comments section.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. Shawn permalink
    February 7, 2011 12:58 pm

    Hugh is clearly passionate about New York City and its street food and I enjoyed reading his post.

    It’s true that pizza by the slice has periodically flirted with fusion. However, I’d wager a large pie at Sal & Carmine’s on Broadway that plain (i.e., cheese) and pepperoni remain the most popular options… by an order of magnitude.

    In fact, I dare you to even TRY to order a truffle-oil and shiitake-mushroom slice from Sal (or any other self-respective pizza joint). Go ahead, see what happens. The bottom line about the perceived “Pizza 2.0 identity crisis” is that you can take the slice out of the city, but you can’t take the city out of the slice.

    Hot dogs are already a grotesque and delicious fusion of “selected cuts of beef.” What could possibly be added to a hot dog to make it MORE exotic? Second to none, the lowly frank is the quintessential New York City street food. Fast, cheap, and tasty. Take it, or leave it. Just don’t ask too many questions.

    As Hugh wrote, New York City is always evolving. Next week someone will try to make buck by putting hot dogs on pizza. But, like yellow cabs and yellow snow, some things never change. The fundamentals remain constant… and delicious.

    By the way, Sabrett is the undisputed king of the dirty water dogs. They make 100% of the franks served at Gray’s Papaya, Papaya King, and the vast majority of push carts. If you bought a hot dog on the streets of New York over the last 90 years, odds are it was a Sabrett. Proud New Yorkers may be disappointed to learn that Sabrett is actually manufactured (by Marathon Enterprises) in New Jersey. It’s shameful, really.

  2. Hugh permalink
    February 7, 2011 1:30 pm

    You know, I’ve heard that the Sabrett they sell to Papaya King is made by a different formula than the Sabrett dogs they sell everywhere else. So there is a question if the Sabrett product is uniform throughout. That said, while I love the Papaya Dogs, I must confess that when I buy dirty water dogs, I prefer buying from a Kosher dog vendor – Shofar, or Hebrew National. The dirty water dog experience is skeezy enough, so, I look for Kosher on the theory (which may or may not be true) that the conditions in a Kosher rendering facility are better than the conditions in a non-Kosher one. That said, the real deli dogs – Arties’, and Katz’ – generally beat them all.

  3. Shawn permalink
    February 7, 2011 4:09 pm

    Sabrett makes Katz’s dogs, too.

  4. Hugh permalink
    February 7, 2011 5:47 pm

    I did not know that….


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