Hotdog! I’m on the road to recovery

My relationship with the tubular meats had, until recently, been a rocky one.

With the immature palate of a child, I enjoyed eating members of the hotdog family on a fairly regular basis. My mother used to pack cans of Vienna sausages as part of my lunch when I was in elementary school. I still have a vivid memory some 50 years later of having to enlist the cafeteria ladies to help me open the can one day when I was having trouble with it. (This was in the days before easy-open tins, and I imagine I used to carry a can opener with me to school. Little wonder I wasn’t one of the cool kids).

During summer vacations, my family would make the trip from Miami to Pennsylvania to visit relatives. Part of that journey always involved a quest for something my parents called the “Texas Hot Wiener,” a near-mythical meat sandwich covered in chili that could only be found in the North. They had enjoyed the THW as children, and wanted to pass down that heritage to their own kids. We would scour the countryside outside Philadelphia looking for shops that advertised the precious sandwich, and feast royally when we ultimately succeeded. It was like our Holy Grail, only with more sodium and preservatives.

As a teenager, I began to lose interest in hotdogs. There were two store-bought versions my mother would bring home from the supermarket that never quite cut the mustard as far as I was concerned. The first were standard-issue Oscar Meyer’s, too thin-skinned to provide that satisfying resistance when you bit into them. The second were the Ball Park brand that gourmands of the sixties regarded as the ultimate in deluxe hotdogs. I never saw the appeal in their taste, a kind of off-flavored meatiness more suggestive of bologna than the true dog.

When my mother saw my interest waning, she tried to spice things up by slitting the franks long-ways, splaying them open onto a sandwich made with toasted bread and ketchup. I’d eat these bastard cousins of the true hotdog-and-bun only grudgingly, and only because the flavor of the toast overpowered the weak essence of what passed for wiener in mid-twentieth century America.

I lost interest even further when I headed off to college. In earlier years, the hotdog and the hamburger had enjoyed a relatively equal stature, but by 1971 the rise of fast-food outlets such as McDonald’s and Burger King began to push the wiener farther onto the sidelines. I think you could still find them toward the bottom of the menu at many of these restaurants, but in nowhere near the variety of the quarter-pounders, Big Macs, Whoppers and double-cheeseburgers that began to replace them. Gradually, they disappeared entirely, and I was happy to live out my years at university in a world of burgers.

I got caught up in the trend toward healthier eating as I entered adulthood, and barely thought about the hotdog at all for years at a time. I may have tried the abomination known as the “tofu dog” at some point as I experimented with these exotic offerings, but it wasn’t anything memorable. I’d eat a bratwurst or two as part of some Oktoberfest celebration once every couple of autumns, but these Germanic strains of the hotdog weren’t at all the same thing. The presence of sauerkraut as a condiment disqualified them as anything truly American.

Then, last summer, during an outing at a minor-league baseball game with my son and a friend, I came to rediscover the power of the hotdog. It was a cool clear evening in early June. As I ordered my beer from the concession stand, I decided to add a hotdog to the purchase just because it seemed like the right thing to do. I slathered on some mustard and returned to my seat, ready to enjoy the rest of the game. As I took my first bite, the lead-off hitter in the third inning cracked a sharp single to left at almost the same instant I felt that exquisite breakthrough moment when your teeth overcome the rubbery resistance of the frankfurter casing, releasing the flavorful offal inside. A surge of patriotism coursed through veins not yet clogged with the animal fat that would start to build up from that point onward, and I renewed my love affair with hotdogs.

A few days later, I had forgotten to bring my usual low-fat turkey sandwich to work and pulled out a menu from the diner just down the street. I didn’t have much cash with me that day and started looking for the cheapest item available, which turned out to be the hotdog. I called in the order.

“Do you want the footlong?” asked the lady who answered the phone at the Steele Creek Cafe.

Years of propaganda about the merits of healthy eating told me that a phallic slab of pork byproducts measuring a third of a yard in length would be a bit excessive for a 57-year-old circulatory system.

“No, that sounds like too much,” I said. “Could I get something closer to maybe seven or eight inches?”

“Sure,” she said. “Would you like that all the way?”

Again, I thought it best to avoid the extremism that would include slaw and chili and relish and onions, and opted for a couple of packets of mustard on the side.

When I picked up the platter and saw the hotdog resting in a nest of crinkle-cut French fries, my mind immediately flashed back to my carefree youth. I spent a lunch break transported to a time when a typical American boy, made up of snips and snails and puppy dog tails, could chow down on a flavorful classic consisting of basically the same thing without any guilt. It was absolutely exquisite.

Now, I had broken through some unseen barrier that had kept me from enjoying the pleasure of heavily processed entrails. I started ordering the hotdog platter as a regular Friday treat, with an occasional Tuesday thrown in if it was a particularly stressful week at work. I was slowly but surely heading down a road of dependency.

Around Christmastime, my wife and I were doing some last-minute shopping at the upscale mall in nearby Charlotte. In search of a quick snack, we stopped by the Auntie Anne’s pretzel counter in the food court, and I discovered there existed such a thing as a “pretzel dog.” This was a hotdog baked inside the salty dough of a pretzel, and it was delicious. I had now discovered that there was more to the hotdog experience than eating it from a bleached white-bread bun. All kinds of baked goods could serve as a sheath for the wiener. If you could use a pretzel, why couldn’t you use a bagel? Or a fine French baguette? Or maybe even chocolate cake?

With my reason now spinning out of control, I spent the month of January — when most people have committed to eating better, exercising more frequently and losing weight — resolved to eat more and more hotdogs.

After a snowstorm passed through our area, I took my Honda to a nearby convenience store that doubled as a car wash. I knew that the accumulated rock salt had to be removed from the undercarriage of my car, not making the connection that a similar buildup was happening in my bloodstream. While I waited for the car to make its way down the conveyor line, I wandered over to the corner of the store. There, I confronted the devil that had begun to take over my life. On one of those open-air greasy grills with the rotating steel rods, I saw the depths that my addiction had reached. It was represented by two golden-brown corndogs turning slowly under a warming lamp, and a sign just above saying they were priced at two for a dollar.

I bought and ate both corndogs, sucked the remaining cornmeal from the base of the wooden sticks, then broke down sobbing in the corner of the convenience store. I ran into the refrigerated beer cave to hide my shame, shivering in humiliation at how low I had sunk.

After a few minutes, I composed myself and emerged to claim my car. The shock of the ice-cold beer room had rattled my nerves, but I felt something else had become dislodged as well. I had hit rock-bottom and confronted my hotdog demons, and was now ready to make the long climb from the depths of unhealthy eating back into the sunshine of a reasonable diet.

Today, I celebrate my eighteenth day as a recovering hotdog addict. Every day is a struggle, but every day it seems just a little bit easier to avoid the sandwich that had taken me to the depths of despair in that Cherry Road Exxon. One day at a time, I am determined to recover. I keep the words to the “Serenity Prayer” on a slip of paper in my wallet to help get me through any moments of weakness:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to stay away from those goddamn hotdogs.”

Devil dog, be gone!


Tags: , , , , , , ,

2 Responses to “Hotdog! I’m on the road to recovery”

  1. deyank Says:

    I, too, am a recovering Vienna Sausages addict. The very thought of popping the top just enough to first be able to suck out the jellied pork liquid and then rip the lid all the way off in order to attack the little wieners with anything handy until one of them lets go of it’s mates and allows itself to be pulled out of the can is enough to force tears to my eyes.

  2. Paul Dixon Says:

    Vienna sausages and Lance peanut butter cheese crackers were a fixture on every boating excursion that my Dad and I ever went on, and that was every weekend. Fishing or skiing, it was guaranteed that those two items would be aboard. I miss those days, and I, too, resent not being able to live in ignorant bliss on how terribly unhealthy those sausages were.

    You didn’t mention Deviled Ham, but now I read labels and see that the meat comes from South American countries that don’t pay much attention to mad cow disease, etc. (I know-deviled ham comes from hogs. Same idea, though).

    My current problem is that I fell off my low-carb diet that I had been on for 3 1/2 years and re-discovered cheeseburgers. Checkers cheeseburgers, to be specific, because they’re so cheap and tasty. I still haven’t had my moment of self-confrontation like you did in the convenience mart, and I know that I must. I think I need an intervention by my wife and well-intended friends who are fed up with looking at me doing a fair imitation of the Goodyear blimp.

    Good, amusing blog today. If you can wax eloquent on the hot dog, you can write about anything!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: