On the wall of the Lakeview hot dog joint Flub a Dub Chubs, there is a Polaroid of me looking sad and confused. At least I think it’s still there—I’m not sure because in the seven years since it was taken I’ve been too traumatized to make a return visit. You see, I made the “mistake” of ordering ketchup on my hot dog and was promptly added to the restaurant’s “wall of shame” for all who dare choose the red vinegary condiment over the city-sanctioned yellow one. But now, with Chicago Hot Dog Fest (aka the Mustard Mafia’s Christmas) upon us, it’s time for me to metaphorically tear that photo off the wall and speak, well, frankly: I’m not ashamed to put ketchup on a hot dog.
You could say I was born this way. I grew up in a ketchup family in northern Illinois. We’d always have to ask for an extra bottle at restaurants, and one year Santa brought my sisters and me a Costco-worthy boxful of ketchup bottles. To choose anything else would dishonor my ancestral legacy.
While I’m at it, I might as well share another opinion that may be even more unpopular: Hot dogs generally aren’t that great. Anything piled on top is simply there to mask that fact. According to Vienna Beef, the Chicago-style dog’s established combination of mustard, onions, relish, tomatoes, celery salt, sport peppers, and a single pickle spear came about during the Great Depression as a way to punch up the flavor of meat and bread that cost a nickel. The dragged-through-the-garden assemblage was drawn from immigrant cultures in the city at the time (something Chicago food writer Kevin Pang delved deeply into during his time at the Tribune).
While that particular set of ingredients became customary, it’s the stubbornness of contemporary Chicagoans (what Jeff Ruby of Chicago magazine once called “foodie fascism”) that’s made ketchup taboo. In this town, ketchup is garbage sauce that has no place beside encased meat in the same folkloric way that the Cubs are the greatest team on earth even when they’re terrible and Chicago will never be second to New York.
Heinz recently rattled the cages of local condiment Nazis when, as part of a promotional stunt ahead of National Hot Dog Day in July, the company released ketchup in a container bearing the label chicago dog sauce. What the Mustard Mafia deserved instead is a little slice of humble pie—with a big squirt of the red stuff.
Who knows, maybe there could be significant change if people refocused their energy and ire on the city’s inequities rather than on which toppings I choose to put on my phallic foods (because really, would anyone care so much if hot dogs resembled female reproductive organs?). Chicago should be a place where one can treasure the city’s foodways without getting huffy about tomato sauce—and ketchup lovers such as myself can be free to live our truth in a world that’s just a little bit more delicious for everyone.
Chicago Hot Dog Fest Fri 8/11-Sun 8/13, 11 AM-9 PM, Stockton and LaSalle, 312-642-4600, chicagohistory.org/2017hotdogfest, $5 suggested donation (food and drink available for purchase).