DOWNTOWN — Chicago’s love affair with its namesake hot dog goes back decades.
The Chicago-style hot dog traditionally features a poppy seed bun filled with a wiener (Vienna Beef’s all-beef dogs are popular, to put it mildly) and then topped with mustard, relish, onions, tomatoes, a pickle spear, sports peppers and celery salt. The dish has been around for decades and become as much a symbol of the city as The Bean or deep-dish pizza.
Despite its special place in the city’s heart, the Chicago-style dog’s origins only stretch back to the Great Depression in the ’30s, when its hearty helping of toppings could provide Chicagoans with calories and nutrition on the cheap.
“Before, during and after the Depression, hot dogs were the food of working people,” said Bill Savage, a hot dog historian and English professor at Northwestern. But Chicago-style dogs were “really a product of the Great Depression. … A nickle could get you a hot dog with all these condiments on it that made it something approaching a full meal.”
The now-defunct Fluky’s, started in 1929, claimed to have invented the original Chicago-style dog, then called a “Depression Sandwich.” That recipe varied slightly from the current standard: The original had a frankfurter topped with mustard, pickle relish, onions, a dill pickle, hot peppers, lettuce and tomatoes for 5 cents. (You can still find lettuce on dogs at some places, like Fred & Jack’s in Chatham.)
The “Depression Sandwich” and other hot dogs ended up being a perfect fit for Chicago: It was a working-class city, and hot dog stands could provide a cheap, quick meal for people working in factories or on road crews. They also appealed to the city’s large immigrant population, as Germans and Slavs had brought sausages to the United States and helped popularize them, Savage said.
The same things helped other popular Chicago foods, like tavern-cut pizza and Italian beef, get popular, Savage said.
“These are all foods that working-class people ate because they were good and tasty and could stretch a dollar,” Savage said.
Chicago’s culture has changed over the years, and it’s now not so much a working-class city as a tourist destination and “culture machine,” Savage said.
“We used to produce sausages,” Savage said. “Now we produce discourse about sausages.”
But love for the Chicago-style dog has hung on, in part because people just keep talking about it, making it into a symbol of the city, Savage said.
“It’s pervasive. It’s like oxygen,” Savage said. “The Chicago hot dog is the lake — it’s just always there.”
The hot dog has also maintained its popularity because eating one is a shareable tradition among the city’s families, Savage said. Everyone has a favorite hot dog stand, he said, and the love of a good Chicago dog is perpetuated by families.
“It’s a treat when you’re a kid. When you’re a teen, young adult, you can afford it. It’s something you can get even when broke,” Savage said. “And then it becomes a nostalgia thing.
“It’s also the fact that there are a lot of really good hot dog stands in this town.”
Trying to find a quality hot dog stand of your own? Here are Savage’s tips:
• Look for a hot dog stand that offers an option for just the dog without a fry or drink. That goes back to Chicago’s working-class origins, Savage said, when people just needed a cheap meal.
• Watch the way your Chicago-style dog is assembled. A good stand will build condiments from the bottom up, with the topping order based on the condiments’ sizes, how they adhere to the bun and sausage and how their flavors mix. A classic Chicago dog should have toppings applied in this order: mustard, relish, onions, tomatoes, pickle, sports peppers, celery salt.