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Dachshund On A Bun

So there I was with my teenaged son eating hot dogs in the baking sun. We were in Manhattan and needed a break from its intensity, so we took the hour-long train ride to Coney Island. The humidity of New York City in August gave us the perfect excuse. The amusement park reminded me of the last days of Crystal Beach. At any rate, for lunch we ate at Nathan’s Restaurant, which is still operating at its original location just off the boardwalk, and is reputed be the originator of Coney Island hot dogs. And this is how I found myself sitting under a canopy that did not entirely shield me from the sun, while I contemplated the quality of a hot dog. They are world famous, after all.

Buffalo, as some readers may be aware, also has a history with hot dogs. Not with the Coney Island hot dog, but the Texas hot. And though I eat them only once or twice a year, hot dogs have a special place in my heart and my career. It was, in fact, a small diner that specialized in Texas hots that gave me my first job while in high school, and that laid the groundwork for my career in the food service industry. Unlike many chefs who wax romantically over their externships at this fancy restaurant or that, I began my career as a short order cook in a hot dog joint. And in retrospect the skills that I learned “slinging dogs” were the very foundation for my later studies. The speed and multi-tasking with which a short order cook works parallels that of an efficient line cook. Working a busy grill late at night or at peak breakfast time taught me economy of both time and mo tion—the ability to cook many different things at the same time.

Hot dogs themselves are really a type of wurst, or German sausage, and in the same way that it was revolutionary to first serve a hamburger steak (yes, they were once considered chopped steaks) on a bun, rather than on a plate with a fork and knife, so too was the hot dog on a bun an innovation. The name apparently comes from the elongated canine, the dachshund, because of their shape. And depending who you talk to, the sausage is said to have originated in Frankfort (thus frankfurter) or Vienna (thus wiener).

Nathan’s refers to theirs as frankfurters and claims to still serve their own brand. According to their Web site, they ship their frankfurters airmail around the globe. I have to admit that they’re pretty good. However—and I may be consciously exhibiting some hometown Buffalo pride here—they still don’t compare to Sahlen’s hot dogs. According to the Sahlen’s Web site, this Buffalo company in its fourth generation of family ownership was founded in 1869; Nathan’s started selling their frankfurters on the boardwalk in 1916. To this day, any Texas hot joint worth its grain of salt serves only Sahlen’s hot dogs. But this is about as far as the German influence goes with Texas hots; from here on we tip our toques to the Greeks.

Texas Hot Sauce

Yield: 3 quarts

3 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 cups minced onions
2 tablespoons minced garlic
2 quarts water
2 pounds ground beef
1/2 cup chili powder
1/3 cup paprika
2 tablespoons ground cumin
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
2 tablespoons oregano
1 tablespoon ground allspice
1 tablespoon salt
2 teaspoons dry mustard
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1-1/2 cups unseasoned breadcrumbs
1-2 teaspoons Tabasco sauce (optional)

Combine the oil, onions, and garlic in a heavy-bottomed saucepot and cook over medium heat for 15 minutes or until dark golden brown. Stir often to avoid scorching. Add the water and bring it to a boil. Add the beef and stir to break apart any lumps of meat. Return the sauce to a boil and stir in the chili powder, paprika, cumin, cinnamon, oregano, allspice, salt, mustard, cayenne pepper, and black pepper; stir to remove any lumps. Lower the heat to a low simmer and cook the sauce for 1 hour, stir frequently and skim any excess fat; there will be a fair amount of fat from the beef. Stir in the breadcrumbs and simmer over low heat for 30-60 minutes. Stir the sauce frequently to avoid scorching. If the sauce is not thick enough for your liking, add more breadcrumbs; if it is too thick, dilute it with water.

A hot dog, no matter how good it is, is just a hot dog without accompaniments. The Coney Island is served with a type of chili on it; a Texas hot on the other hand has a sauce that may look like chili but tastes nothing like it. It’s a heavily spiced meat sauce that is thickened with breadcrumbs. A Texas red hot (its full name) is also served on a steamed bun (not toasted), and topped with yellow mustard and chopped raw onions before ladling on the sauce.

But what it boils down to, really, is the sauce. Sauce recipes vary from restaurant to restaurant and their spice blends are guarded secrets. Some restaurants claim to simmer their sauces for eight hours. This is a far cry from fast food.

Unlike chicken wings, which have a known origin, the history of Texas hots is a little more nebulous. There seems to be nothing “Texan” about Texas hots, other than that the sauce resembles chili in appearance. The culinary historian in me says that the sauce actually has more in common with ancient Greek or Roman cooking than it does Texas—the meat is not sautéed or fried, it’s boiled with spices and thickened with breadcrumbs.

One story I came across some time ago is that they were first concocted at a downtown Greek diner that was located opposite a Deco restaurant, the fabled Buffalo restaurant chain that also made it’s living selling hot dogs. At the time Deco was offering a 25-cent wiener-and-beans dinner that was luring customers away from the diner. In order to stay competitive, the owner of the diner offered a hot dog special with his secret sauce on it and called it a Texas red hot after its resemblance to chili. I’m not sure if this is true or if the marketing ploy saved his restaurant, but it’s a nice story. One thing is for sure, whether you like them or not, or however they originated, Texas red hots are pure Buffalo.

As I sat eating and contemplating my hot dog, there was a silence about us that only happens after having your brains rattled on a nearly century-old roller coaster—the Cyclone. When we ordered our food, one of the first things that I noticed on the menu, in bold letters, were Buffalo wings. How ironic, I thought, that the Coney Island frankfurter may (or may not) have influenced the creation of the Texas red hot as a sort of chili dog copy, and in return we’ve given Nathan’s the chicken wing. I also couldn’t help but notice that almost every worker at Nathan’s had a heavy accent…still a melting pot, I thought. Nathan’s, like many restaurants, was founded by newcomers to America, and was still to this day, like many restaurants, staffed by newcomers to this country. I went to the counter for ketchup for our french fries, and the young woman who handed it to me said, in halting English, to have a nice day. She seemed to really mean what she said, and her struggling to say it really did make my day. It was a nice day indeed.

To read more about Deco restaurants and their history in Buffalo, follow this link: www.buffalohistoryworks.com/deco/history/history.htm.

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