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an on-going debate

Can there be such a thing as a transformative hotdog experience, and if so, of what does it consist?

Though not native to these shores, in my time in the US I have sampled my share of hotdogs. I’ve eaten them at Ikea, at movie theatres, at 7-Eleven. I have made pilgrimages to Pinks, and treks to Tommy’s. I’ve had them boiled, grilled over coals, and fried on the hob. I’ve eaten them in soggy sesame-seed buns, in gourmet bread rolls and in wonder bread. I’ve consumed them standing, in the local park; sitting, on a picnic bench in the Santa Monica mountains; horizontally, sprawled out on a rug on the grass (not recommended, bad for the digestion). I’ve eaten Chicago-style dogs, as Jonathan Gold’s father recommends, topped with yellow mustard, relish and chopped raw onion; sprinkled with celery salt; garnished with a spear of new pickle; and served in a soft, steamy poppy-seed bun. And to be perfectly frank, I have never had a perfect frank.

Here’s my theory: the flawless hotdog is not about the quality of the meat or the freshness of the bread, or the precise ratio of relish to mustard. The transformative hotdog experience occurs when the setting is just right, which is why the closest I’ve come is a Dodger Dog, because as marriages go, there probably isn’t one finer than the glorious union of hotdog and baseball.

The essential thing is to arrive at the ball park early. One must be in one’s seat with a plastic cup of Miller in the cupholder and a hotdog in hand in time for the national anthem. Only then can one appreciate the full glory. Now take the first bite of the hotdog, the exposed end of sausage that sticks out from the bun like a toe poking through a holey sock. (There maybe people who can resist this protruding nubbin – ascetics, geniuses or madmen – but I, for one, do not have the self-control.) Observe the texture of the outer hotdog skin as it resists tooth-pressure, then bursts with a satisfying squeak, squirting hot, oily juices into the mouth. Marvel at the wonderous texture of the meat that has been compressed into the skin so tightly it has been liberated from all shape and form, like a tube of solid meatpaste. With the next bite, pucker up as the mustard zings and the ketchup blossoms and your jaws begin to ache from the tart, sweet cocktail of sensation. And then, as The Star-Spangled Banner strikes up, tip up your plastic seat with the back of your thighs, turn towards the flag, place your hand on your heart and wonder if there isn’t, as I hereby propose, something unsurpassable – and deliciously inappropriate – about listening to the national anthem of the US with a wiener (however sloppy) in your hand.

Alchemy

The Italians have panini, the Australians have jaffles, in England we have toasties, and now it turns out there is an American equivalent: the hobo pie.

hobo pie

It’s a simple idea. Take a sandwich and toast it. Nothing so very remarkable about that. But if, instead of a crappy Hamilton Beach toaster oven you utilize a cast iron sandwich clamp, and instead of an HB electric filament the sandwich is toasted on the hot coals of an open campfire, what initially may seem like an exercise in culinary banality becomes transformed into a small slice of food heaven (assuming, of course, that heaven is sliceable — as it assuredly must be given the propensity of pie to transport the human soul to a condition of celestial rapture).

Getting the correct raw materials is, as always, essential. You will need a pie iron. This is an inexpensive cast iron sandwich clamp on the end of two long sticks that bears more than a passing resemblance to certain medieval Spanish torture devices. Next you will need some bread. It is absolutely paramount that the bread is of the bleached and tasteless variety. Don’t get all fancy and start using stuff that has been baked. You need the white stretchy kind that has been steamed free of all nutrients. Finally you will need some sort of filling, and this is where it gets fun.

Eggs and bacon

I’m told that the canned apple pie filling will create a hobo pie that is similar in texture and taste to those apple pies you get in McDonald’s. I can neither confirm nor deny the validity of this claim. I can, however, report that a filling of pasta sauce and Mozzarella will produce the finest calzone you have ever set your lips around. Add some sausage and basil and instantaneous ecstasy is unavoidable. For the morning hobo I recommend a filling of prefried bacon, scrambled eggs, and some slices of American cheese, served with a pool of ketchup on the side. For the dessert hobo, how about a filling of broken crumbs of Graham Crackers, marshmallows and chocolate? Or banana slices interleaved with white chocolate? The truth of the matter is that more or less anything will be good in these delectable parcels of gooey splendor; the challenge is to find the filling that most adequately satisfies your palate at a given moment.

In the Fires of Heaven
The real genius of the hobo pie, however, is in the wonderful alchemy that converts the base metal of the bread into wonderful nuggets of pure gold. The word “toast” here is wildly misleading, nor does the “pie” of hobo pie adequately signify this particular crust. Quite what happens when the metal of the pie iron meets the hot coals of the campfire I could not possibly conjecture, but it is an extraordinary, magical change of state that transforms the insipid bread into a crispy pocket of divine manna. It is the sort of conversion that encourages a reevaluation of the existence of the Infinite. Perhaps that whole water-into-wine myth has something to it after all.


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