The 7 toppings of the Chicago hot dog

How the Chicago hot dog came to host a lucky number of pile-ons.

Quick: Name the components of a classic Chicago-style hot dog. If you rattled them off faster than the Sox can tank a winning season, congrats, you’re officially a Chicago dog aficionado. If you’re dumbfounded, this breakdown is for you: a boiled or steamed all-beef dog on a poppy-seed bun topped with mustard, relish, chopped onions, tomato wedges, a pickle spear, sport peppers and celery salt. How these particulars came to be is part speculation, part marketing and a little bit of the old telephone game (i.e., “this guy my father’s brother knew said…”). And the guy who’s heard the most of those stories is Bruce Kraig, president of Culinary Historians of Chicago and author of the forthcoming book The Hot Dog (spring 2009, Reaktion Press).

“The best I got from various interviews from old-timers, many now gone,” Kraig says, “was that the Chicago dog as we know it was invented in the teens, and the toppings came from competition among Greek and Italian vendors, who needed to add value to their product during the Depression.” To echo that point, the earliest offering from the legendary Fluky’s Maxwell Market stand was dubbed “The Depression Sandwich,” selling for a nickel back in 1929. Jack Drexler, grandson of Fluky’s (now called U Lucky Dawg) original owner, Abe Drexler, claims, “If we weren’t the first selling Chicago-style hot dogs, we were pretty close to being first.”

But even earlier, the hot dog—sans seven toppings—made its Chicago debut when it was trotted out at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition under the Vienna name by a couple of Austrian immigrants looking to cash in on the Eastern European frankfurter. More than a century later, Vienna is still the main game in town, supplying franks to 85 percent of Chicago’s hot-dog stands. Bob Schwartz, Vienna’s senior vice president, points to the company’s Jewish roots as the source of the all-beef dog (as opposed to pork), but he defers to Kraig on the cornucopia of toppings that turned the term “with everything” into “dragged through the garden.”

“Sausage is German in origin and so is mustard 1, but buns are American—Germans would eat it with bread, but not a bun,” Kraig explains. “Sport peppers 2 are basically giardiniera, as is relish 3, which is Italian, while dill pickles 4 are German. Tomatoes 5 and onions 6 are Mediterranean, so that’s Greek and Italian, and these came from guys that turned their produce carts into hot-dog carts on Maxwell. Chicago was a major producer of celery until the ’20s, and celery salt 7 became a substitute. The poppy-seed bun, which is Jewish and was introduced locally by Rosen’s bakery, didn’t appear until after World War II.”

Makes sense, but what about the ketchup ban? The solid red line Chicagoans have drawn in the sand between themselves and those who “ruin” a dog with ketchup is so notorious it’s infiltrated organizations like the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council, whose Hot Dog Etiquette guide includes the rule, “Don’t use ketchup on your hot dog after the age of 18.” Schwartz is such a disciple of the rule he’s written the book Never Put Ketchup on a Hot Dog (due out in August, Chicago Neighborhoods Press). “The real reason not to use it is because the sweetness and acidity doesn’t blend well with the other toppings,” Schwartz asserts. “Sure, it’s played up and there are several stories about ‘why no ketchup,’ but very simply, it’s just legend. And when the legend becomes stronger than the fact, you print the legend.”

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