I love hot dogs. As a Chicagoan I consider myself somewhat of a hot dog gourmet. Of course there’s only one way to have one, and that’s “Chicago style.” What’s curious is that “Chicago style” seems to have evolved over the years. I know this for a fact given that my mother and her sisters and my grandmother and grandfather made a small fortune in the hot dog business in Chicago in the 1940’s and 50’s. I think it’s fair to say they’re experts on the subject.
My mother recently shared with me the history of the Chicago-Style hot dog, and an interesting insight on why you don’t see ketchup on a hot dog in Chicago.
My Grandpa Frank was an unemployed pipe-fitter in 1941. He found odd-jobs but spent most of his time sitting in his second-story apartment and watching people on the street.
And then one day, the hot-dog man showed up. He had a simple cart on wheels and an umbrella and Grandpa watched him every day. He figured the guy averaged 10 cents a minute. That came out to $6 an hour. A lot of money in the 40’s. $95 an hour in today’s equivalent.
After buying lots of hot dogs from the hot-dog man and spending a lot of time sitting and watching the guy work he decided he would do the same. He built his hot dog cart in his mother’s basement from plywood, sheet metal and buggy wheels. It had compartments for the hot dogs and tamales and four metal trays for condiments.
He bought Marhoefer skinless hot dogs, sold Texas Tamales -either 4 minis in corn paper for 10¢, or one large tamale for 10¢. The buns he got from a local bakery and he charged 10¢ for the hot dogs.
Toppings included mustard, piccalilli, chopped onions and in the winter and spring -hot, sport peppers. Sliced tomatoes took the place of the hot, sport peppers mid-summer and fall when they were in season. This essentially created a winter-style and summer-style Chicago-style hot dog.
He never offered ketchup for two reasons.
For one, no one ever asked for it.
For another he didn’t have room in his condiment trays. There were only four trays and they included the mustard spread on the hot dog with a spoon, the onions in another tray, the picalilli in the third and either the peppers or the tomatoes in the fourth. Most hot dog wagons were designed this way and no one every complained.
I asked my mom about the bright, green pickle relish. She shook her head. “I don’t know where that came from. We used to chop sweet pickles into a relish and we called it ‘piccalilli.’ That’s what all the hot-dog guys did. Not that funny, bright green stuff. I think the bright, green stuff was some kind of advertising gimmick and now everyone thinks you have to use that. What a bunch of hooey.”
She also said that no one at that time put a slice of dill pickle on their hot dogs and my mom shook her head when I mentioned celery salt. She laughed and said, “I don’t know where that came from. We had salt and pepper on the deck if someone wanted it. Celery salt was unheard of.”
She also questioned the poppy-seed buns. ” No way.” She said. “A lot of people wouldn’t want poppy-seeds and then you’d have to have two kinds of buns. The buns were plain, but they were always steamed. So were the hot dogs.”
It took my Grandpa about a month to build his cart and get all of the food lined up and he was ready to start. He had painted his cart white and added an umbrella. He stood on a corner at Western and 24th street where his brother owned a gas station because the health department required you to have access to a sink where you could wash your hands.
My mom was 11 at the time and she would collect the money when things got busy. There was also a large office building and people in the office would lower a basket from the upper floors with the order and the money, and she would put the hot dogs and the tamales in the basket with the change and they would pull it up. They usually ordered about a dozen and always asked for them with “everything on it.” They were rolled up in white butcher paper.
He was very successful with his hot dog cart and used to wheel over to Levitt Street and Blue Island at lunchtime. At the time a large factory called McCormick Place (not the convention center we know today) was located at that corner and the workers would stream out of the factory at lunch to buy his hot dogs.
Business was good and only got better. He eventually opened a restaurant that specialized in hot dogs and was appropriately called, “Franks.” My grandfather’s first name.
I finally had to ask my mom the big question. “What’s the story with ketchup?”
She laughed and said, “Oh, it’s not a big deal. The reason we didn’t sell a hot dog with ketchup was because no one ever asked for it, and even if they did he didn’t have room in his condiment trays for an ingredient most people didn’t want.” I asked her if she ever put ketchup on a hot dog. “Sure.” She said. “But only if I don’t have some of the other toppings. I like ketchup, but when it comes to hot dogs, I like them just the way we used to make them. A plain, steamed bun, hot dog, mustard, onions, piccalilli and sliced tomatoes. I never liked the hot peppers.”