When Bruce Kraig looks at a hot dog, he sees America encased—the Dream, out of the melting pot and into the bun.
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The Roosevelt University professor, food historian and author of Hot Dog: A Global History (Reaktion Books, 2009) is one of the foremost experts on the culture of hot dogs. For Man Bites Dog: Hot Dog Culture in America(AltaMira Press, 2012), Kraig teamed with photographer Patty Carroll, a longtime friend and collaborator, who for 30 years has been taking pictures of hot dog stands in Chicago. Some of her shots hang in the Chicago History Museum, which is hosting Carroll and Kraig at its first Chicago Hot Dog Fest. For National Hot Dog Month, I talked to the pair about encased meat lore, the whys of ketchup prohibition and their favorite local stands.
You seem like kindred spirits brought together by hot dogs.
Patty Carroll I started photographing hot dog stands in the '80s. Every day, I would drive to work and pass this hot dog stand on Irving Park Road that was the only place that had any color, some kind of life in it, especially during a gray, dull Chicago winter. I don’t even know the name of that place because it disappeared. It had orange and yellow and red, and I thought, This is amazing! I realized that these hot dog stands were like mini vacations from the rest of the reality of Chicago. So I started shooting them.
Bruce, you clearly saw hot dogs as a good entrypoint into American culture and history.
BK Hot dogs illustrate a number of themes and myths that Americans live by. One is upward mobility: The people who own these stands generally start at the bottom of the economic heap and they hope to make it. And this is an ongoing, enduring myth in America—that you can make it by hard work. Many don’t.
Another American myth hot dogs illustrate is the idea that we’re socially leveled. Go to a hot dog stand and you'll see everybody from every station of life, and we’re all eating hot dogs together. Ballgames are famous for that, and that’s why hot dogs are stuck in baseball. We think we’re all White Sox fans, but the reality is that there are guys in the sky box and then there’s us in the cheap seats. But we’re all eating hot dogs together, so it’s a communal experience. Even at Hot Doug’s, you see people who are workmen and yuppies and tourists and millennials—all sorts.
Yet another American theme related to hot dogs is that of the individual. A hot dog is an industrial product. It’s a commodity. But individuals take it and change it around to their tastes and to the local culture. And the hot dog stands—they are all decorated by the local people. It's vernacular art, folk art, and it expresses individualism perfectly.
Patty, when you started taking photos of Chicago stands, did you have these broader ideas in mind or were you just intrigued by the stands?
PC It started out that I was intrigued by the stands themselves. I’ve always been attracted to folk art. One of the things that I really like is the non-corporate quality of them, the fact that they are individually owned and operated and painted, often just by some guy and his wife.
BK If you look at American history and culture, it’s far more complex, more regional than we think. We have a highly complex culture, and we’re sort of hoping to illustrate that, especially when we look at regional hot dogs. Even within those, there are different iterations. And people are attached to them. Everybody in Chicago has their opinion about what the best hot dog stand is. But it’s the same also in North Jersey, where there are six different styles.
What's the Chicago stand to which you're most attached?
BKJim’s Original. I take people there; it’s a real Chicago place. They serve hot dogs the way they always were served. Murphy’s Red Hots is one of my favorites. It's a model Chicago stand because the owner is really careful about what he does.
PC Gene & Jude’s is fun. They only serve three things: one kind of hot dog, fries they cut from their own potatoes, and then they have these horrible tamales. But the stand itself is nothing to look at. I have other ones that I like visually, not necessarily because of the hot dogs: Superdawg—you gotta mention Superdawg because that’s the world’s most classic hot dog stand ever, with the two hot dogs, Maurie and Flaurie, on top. And it’s been there since 1949, so it’s one of those places that has continued on and never lost its appeal or its style.
But you have seen a lot of stands disappear over the decades.
PC In Chicago, there are between 2,000 and 3,000 hot dog stands at any given time, but they come and go. The problem now is that new owners want their stands to look more corporate because they think it’s cleaner. It’s like what happened to motels when Holiday Inn came along. Before that, places were more individual. Now you’ll find a place that wants to look like every place else, thinking that it’s cleaner or something. The ones that stay are the ones that are more individualistic. The other ones—I pass them by thinking they couldn’t possibly be good.
BK Hot dog aficionados around the country like grungy places. They think grunge is authentic. That’s a big part of American food culture—authenticity.
Do you think you could take the same stroll through American culture via another food, say, the hamburger?
BK I don’t think there’s enough culture around hamburgers. Hot dogs started off as artisanal sausages made by Germans who came in the 1850s. And there’s still this tradition within the sausage industry of artisanship, which you don’t find with hamburgers. And the lore and mythology around hot dogs is much deeper than it is with hamburgers.
I have to ask: Do you think there too much made of the no-ketchup-on-hot-dogs maxim in Chicago? Or is it sacred?
PC I think it’s sacred.
BK It’s a shtick, but it’s true: Ketchup destroys all flavors. You have to look at the Chicago hot dog as a culinary creation—a balance of textures and flavors: hot, sweet, salt and sour all on one bun, with the fat hot dog flavors flowing through it. If you put ketchup on it, it destroys the whole thing.