Blame this article on a sixty-nine-cent can of Steve & Ed's Original Hot Dog Chili Sauce.
Next to genocide and slavery is there anything more American than the lowly hot dog? Enjoyed in huge numbers on a daily basis all over this fair land, everybody has their own unique preference for how they like to eat a tube steak: with relish, any number of mustards, onions (cooked or raw), cheese (real or that fake yellow/orange semi-solid), wrapped in bacon, or with a slathering of ketchup. Those are all well and good, but they all pale beside the mouthwatering culinary orgasm of a really, REALLY good chili dog.
When my family moved to Westport, Connecticut in 1972 there was a humble little burger & dog stand on the Post Road called Big Top Shoppe, or Big Top for short. At first I was drawn to their superior flame-broiled cheeseburgers, topped with the white variety of processed cheese slices. Juicy and utterly delicious, the Big Top cheeseburger was one of the last of the dying breed of made-in-front-of-the-customer burgers that overflowed with the pride and care of a grill cook who really gave a shit about what they served to the public. Whenever I'm toiling over a grill I can't help but wonder if I will ever be worthy of the mantle of a Big Topper...
Having made my way through the rest of their menu by the time I was eight, I turned my sights onto the hot dogs. I didn't expect much since kids have always been exposed to franks of widely varying quality and by that time I was pretty much resigned to the inevitability of another sub par specimen. At birthday parties, cookouts, and ball games I had been subjected to such noxious "treats" as those gray, spongy filler-dogs of the Ballpark brand ilk and the vinegary, artificial-tasting horror of the Oscar Mayer hot dog (which has always struck me as tasting like what cloned processed meat would taste like after a trip through a matter transporter) with bland yellow mustard. In short, I was totally unprepared for anything resembling the mind-altering palate-festival of the Big Top chili dog.
I received the frank from the grill cook and took a bite. The frank itself was flame-grilled to crisp perfection, displaying what some hot dog experts term "the snap", junk food slang for the resistance that a good dog puts up when your teeth sink into it. Its meat had a solid, beefy consistency that brimmed with subtly seasoned flavor; the ambrosia of carefully administered spices that were glaringly absent from the hot dogs that I had previously tasted. The bun was light and fresh, briefly toasted over the brazier, providing the perfect cushion and counterpoint for the sausage. And then, the chili. Sweet jumping Jesus in a basket of chicken, the chili...
Never before or since have I tasted chili of the caliber that graced Big Top's masterpieces. If I could somehow conjure up a gallon of that sacred elixir for the sake of analyzing it and breaking it's arcane code I would willingly give up the pleasures of the opposite sex for two whole years. The basics are simple: we're talking a beanless wonder consisting of fresh ground beef, cumin and a unique chili powder all simmered for the better part of a day. The niggling puzzle is a question of exactly what was it that made this mundane recipe taste so damned good? Sadly, the world may never know again since Big Top Shoppe gave up the ghost around early 1983 after it was discovered to be a very profitable drug front. But I digress.
After losing my chili dog cherry in such a memorable fashion, I insisted that my mother try to replicate the miracle at home. Gone were the bad hot dogs and soon our fridge made the acquaintance of Hebrew National kosher franks, Sabrett, and others along those lines, but the closest thing to the Big Top dog to ever grace our house was the mighty Nathan's curved dog. Grilled or oven-broiled, they had the right "snap." Buns were pretty easy to find and toast so all that remained was the chili.
Now let's make one thing perfectly clear. My mother was always an exceptional cook, but chili was never her strong suit. Much like a good curry, if you intend to make it yourself you have to have a love for the flavor of chili to truly understand what you're doing. In later years Mom developed a taste for it due to my endless attempts at south-of-the-border alchemy, but at the time she just couldn't get it to work. My solution was to try any and all available canned beanless chili, and after several disappointments I finally stumbled upon what is my canned chili of choice to this day: Hormel. It's not as good as the Big Top goodness, but if you tweak it with just the right amounts of cumin and either Tabasco or West Indian pepper sauce it's good for rock 'n' roll.
Even today I'm willing to check out a new canned chili on the off chance that it may be what I've been searching to recapture for the past two decades. Nothing has come along to take the place of Hormel, and after the many culinary disasters that I have been assaulted with I have come to the conclusion that there simply is no other decent supermarket chili to be had. This point was driven home by the results of my shopping excursion of a week ago.
Since I am still unemployed, I have the wonderful option of going to market at any point during a given twenty-four-hour period. Not only is the enormous Pathmark supermarket on Atlantic avenue nearly deserted at 2AM, it also plays host to the dregs of the nighttime world.Prostitutes undergoing heroin withdrawal, bickering butch gay black men, alcoholic welfare mothers who are practically giving birth (again) in the frozen food aisle, hostile teenagers hanging around menacingly and former comics industry people can all be found haunting the joint, all under the weary yet watchful eyes of those unlucky enough to work the graveyard shift. It's all quite conducive to a meditative state, actually.
So there I was at 2AM, grooving on a very relaxed vibe (which probably had something to do with the six beers working their way around my synapses) and shopping at my leisure when I found myself in the aisle containing condiments for hot dogs, burgers and such. The thought that I might like to make chili dogs the next afternoon entered my addled mind and I began to look for old reliable Hormel when my eyes spied something I had never noticed before. The unassuming can read Steve & Ed's Original Hot Dog Chili Sauce and featured a photograph of what I could have sworn was the long lost Big Top brew, and it was on special for sixty-nine cents. Dare to hope?
The next day, when I finally opened the can, I tasted a bit of the chili sauce and my upper lip involuntarily tried to wrap itself around my nostrils. I should have stopped right then and there, but I hoped that once heated the flavor would come through. The brackish brown glop began to simmer and my apartment was promptly inundated with a stench that rivaled the Fresh Kills landfill or the farts that follow digesting a sack of White Castle cheeseburgers. As for the flavor, it tasted not unlike coffee grounds and cigarette butts slow-brewed into a tar-like consistency. I promptly dumped the offending crud down the bog, which seemed appropriate since it looked like the contents of colostomy bag. Bottom line: Steve & Ed's Original Hot Dog Chili Sauce is without question the single worst thing ever to cross my palate in all of my thirty-eight years on this miserable rock, and the fact that it is now sub-filed in my memory in relation to the chili quest is tantamount to psychological torture. In fact, it prompted me to go off at length on just what makes up a good chili dog just to try and get the violation out of my mind.
So the lesson here is that when you find a truly great specimen of your favorite junk food, cherish it since you may never find it's like again. And for the record, here's where you can find some very good chili dogs; nothing approaching the Big Top glory, but I'll take what I can get.
NATHAN'S-nationwide in the USA. Perfect frank, decent chili. 7 out of 10.
DAIRY QUEEN/KING-nationwide in the USA but slowly dying out. Decent foot-long dogs and light grilled buns, but the chili is the star here. One of the best out there, but the preparation varies regionally, so be sure to specify that you want it with just chili and not ketchup and mustard. 9 out of 10, sometimes 10 out of 10 (depending on where you get it)
THE PUERTO RICAN HOT DOG STAND AT 95TH STREET AND COLUMBUS AVENUE, MANHATTAN-run by a sweet middle-aged woman whose grasp of English is tenuous at best, this stand peddles your standard New York dirty-water-dog garnished with a homemade bean chili that can give eyesight to the blind. In fact, the chili is so good that there are some regulars who order just the chili on a bun. I have been a big fan of these dogs since the current proprietor's ancient father was making them during my four-year residence in the neighborhood, and at $1.25 each, these are a bargain basement gem. 8 out of 10 (would score higher if the chili wasn't adorning the common dirty-water-dog)
MOJO'S-a beachfront joint in Provincetown, Rhode Island. Hands out exceptional dogs that not only taste great, but they look like works of art. Utterly appropriate for the most entertaining
of the East coast's gay meccas. I once saw a drag queen work one of these to the point where I felt the urge to smoke a cigarette afterward. 9 out of 10.
SWANKY FRANKS-Norwalk, CT. Fried or grilled dogs (go with the grilled ones) and a bun which is much too thick and hearty at first, but the bun is absolutely necessary for helping to absorb some of the most ass-kicking chili ever to grace anything served in a family restaurant. 8 out of 10.
PAT'S HUBBA HUBBA-Portchester, NY. Infamous in local college lore first as TEXAS CHILI, this place is a twenty-four-hour chili endurance test for diehards and gastrointestinal masochists only. The only items on the menu are chili, hot dogs, hamburgers, cheese burgers and French fries, and chili-slathered versions of each (except the chili because that would be redundant and possibly lethal). The chili at this place tastes incredible, but you start to pay the price for eating it about three minutes after it hits your mouth, and I won't even mention what happens about an hour later. Just make sure that you are near a bathroom that has toilet paper and some interesting reading material; you'll be there for a while. The genius of this is that the food is dirt cheap, yet the small drinks that they serve (orange or grape only) are two bucks apiece, and as the chili rapes your mouth Viking-style, you'll go through at least four of them. The first time I ate this stuff I was taking a late-night break form working in my college's sculpture wing, and upon returning to the campus I flew to the bathroom. As I suffered unspeakable agonies on the bowl, I noticed an understated bit of graffiti that simply read, "Texas Chili is an evil thing." Extremely dangerous and definitely not recommended for those with weak constitutions or acid reflux disease. 10 out of 10 for the sheer balls it takes to do this to the public and get away with it.