Wiener Wonderlands

The Dogs we love and where to get 'em

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A famous story details the origin of the hot dog: Supposedly sports columnist T.A. "Tad" Dorgan invented the term in the early 1900s as an insulting reference to cheap wieners sold at Coney Island, which he implied were made from dog meat.

Dorgan was a gifted writer and cartoonist to whom many popular sayings are correctly attributed, such as "1-2-3 skidoo," but when it comes to naming the hot dog, it's all baloney.

"I'm sure he'd like to take credit for it, but the word had already appeared in college humor magazines by that time," said Bruce Kraig, history professor emeritus at Chicago's Roosevelt University and unofficial hot dog historian who is writing a book to be titled Man Bites Dog, a Social History of Hot Dogs.

According to Kraig, the word began appearing as early as the 1890s in college magazines. Sausage vendors would collect outside the student dorms with their wares, and their carts became known as "dog wagons," later morphing to "hot dog."

German immigrants can be credited or blamed for creating the hot dog, since they enjoyed a variety of sausages and eventually hit upon the ease of eating them wrapped pristinely in a specially shaped bun. The rest is history. The dish became a staple of the American diet, and now, we eat more than 20-billion of them each year, according to statistics furnished by the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council.

It's humble fare, workingman's fare, simple to prepare and tasty blackened over a grill or smudged with ash from the campfire. Slathered with mustard, it goes down great at the ballpark with cold beer. Loaded with pickles, ketchup, onions, sauerkraut, Dijon, cheese, chili or even served with sweet-sour sauce, it's a cheap, versatile meal.

Hot dogs are especially popular among those who don't cook at all. Individually wrapped dogs can be zapped in the microwave even by the younger set. Spear the steamy dog with a fork and drop it into a soft bun, slather with condiments, arrange a crispy pile of chips around it, open a can of cola — and you've got a filling lunch for even the most amateur chef.

Of course, they can be glamorized with corn chip stuffing, wrapped in bacon, drizzled with chili, dabbed with paté and served as hors d'oeuvres or rolled in a cornmeal mix and fried to produce that most delectable subset of hot dog: the corn dog.

We're not the only ones who love hot dogs: The Spanish call them "perrito caliente," in Italian, it's "caldo cone," the French refer to them as "chien chaud," Germans wolf down "Heisser Hund" and the Dutch have dubbed them "worstjes" according to the hot dog website www.hot-dog.org.

Locally, we do have a few restaurants that specialize in dishes featuring the hot dog, everything from a simple, unadorned one of regular, 2-ounce dimensions all the way to a big fella that tips the scale at 8 ounces. For a veritable smorgasbord of dogs, try Gourmet Hot Dogs Plus, operated by William and Wanda Hangston in a strip shopping mall in Lutz.

The restaurant lists 30 different varieties of hot dog, some plainer than Janet Reno and others the edible equivalent of Angelina Jolie. I went there recently to test a few and left fat and happy. Fat because hot dogs typically pack 150 calories each, without the bun, and contain a whopping 13 grams of fat; and happy because the fact that the damn things are 40 percent fat is what makes them taste so good.

I started with a quarter-pound hog dog called the Florida Dog ($3.89); sautéed onions, mushrooms, Provolone and a tangy citrus relish draped across its lascivious length, set on a soft white bun. I will forgo the obvious sexual metaphor here in order to stay on the good side of Miss Manners. Or try the Polish Dog ($3.79), a quarter-pound Polish sausage or Chicago all-beef dog brightened with sauerkraut, grain mustard and diced onion. Unfortunately, both were overcooked.

The side order of sweet, southern-style coleslaw garnished with scallions (small $1.09, large $1.99) and a fragrant cup of baked beans with squares of ham (small $1.19, large $2.19) helped the dog go down easy. Finish with a milk shake (20 ounces, $1.99) or a treat called frozen cheesecake on a stick, a slice of cheesecake frozen in dark chocolate and set on a stick ($4.59).

Another popular hot dog haven is Bill's Dog House in St. Pete, a neighborhood joint where the regulars like to hang at the back table or post pictures of their kids, dogs, weddings and cars on a sort of "community wall" in the little shop operated by Letty and John Haerr.

The restaurant's most excessive offering is the Wonder Dog ($2.85), a big sucker of a dog layered with ketchup, mustard, relish, onion, lettuce, tomato, pickle and celery salt. I tried a regular all-beef wiener there ($2.60), a dainty little thing of good quality, encased in the requisitely tender bun. It could have been hotter; it wasn't really steamy the way primo Chicago dogs are. But still, it was acceptable. My lunch companion enjoyed his bacon cheese dog ($2.85), snuggled between two slices of crisp bacon and blanketed with cheese.

We washed it down with lemonade (12 ounces, $.85; 20 ounces, $1.20; and 32 ounces, $1.50) that was a neon pink. It tasted and looked more like medicine designed to kill off parasites. But the rest of the dishes we tried, we liked, including a respectable coleslaw, OK baked beans and reasonably fresh and crispy french fries.

Should you overindulge, take a cue from professional hot dog eaters who compete in timed contests to determine who can eat the most dogs the fastest. There is a lot of discussion among such athletes about whether purging at the end of the contest is permissible or whether a monitor ought to be assigned to each contestant in order to insure that, uh, the stuff stays down.

Food Editor Sara Kennedy dines anonymously, and Weekly Planet pays for her meals. She can be reached at [email protected] weeklyplanet.com or 813-248-8888 ext. 116.

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