Chicago hot dogs


I’m not going to lie—today, amidst the collapse of the stock market in the wake of the partisan rancor enveloping Washington and the inevitable spillover into the budget crises in Chicago and Illinois, I spent awhile observing the train wreck (252 comments!) that followed Kevin Pang’s defense of putting ketchup on hot dogs:

"Mike Royko was right. He was referring to true Chicagoans,not all you knuckleheads that move here from Small Town,America for the amenities Chicago offers and then call yourselves Chicagoans. You’re not! So go ahead and put ketchup on your hot dogs. Ugh!"

"Put down the self-righteous leftist nannying, and step away from the processed meat byproducts. I don’t tell you what to put in your chai latte, so just MYOB about my hotdog."

"Typical culinary perversion from a guy who was born in Hong Kong and grew up in Canada."

"I had to look up the definitions of 2 words in you column.  I bet no one had to do that when Mike Royko wrote for the Trib."

"I LOVE how outsiders move to Chicago and try to change tradition….Chicago is one of a kind city and the only ones who appreciate it are those of us who grew up here…."

"Honestly, it’s a non-issue. But since Chicago has been altered, transformed, sold-out and changed for the transplants (ehm Mr. Pang) and corporate sponsors NOT putting catsup/ketchup on one’s hot dog is one of the remaining cultural traits of this great city."

Ketchup, if one is to believe the comments, a simplistic concoction for children, hicks, and outsiders. Which is a shame; in some respects, ketchup is a remarkable creation:

There are five known fundamental tastes in the human palate: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami…. What Heinz had done was come up with a condiment that pushed all five of these primal buttons.  The taste of Heinz’s ketchup began at the tip of the tongue, where our receptors for sweet and salty first appear, moved along the sides, where sour notes seem the strongest, then hit the back of the tongue, for umami and bitter, in one long crescendo.  How many things in the supermarket run the sensory spectrum like this?

That’s from a Malcolm Gladwell piece about ketchup. The parts where food scientists talk about the condiment are fascinating for their unique take on how flavors are created and balanced.

The thing is, both things are true—it’s a sophisticated creation that has an obvious appeal to children ("a typical five-year-old consumes about sixty per cent more ketchup than a typical forty-year-old") and those who are averse to unusual flavors:

There the three-year-old was, confronted with something strange on his plate—tuna fish, perhaps, or Brussels sprouts—and he wanted to alter his food in some way that made the unfamiliar familiar.  He wanted to subdue the contents of his plate.  And so he turned to ketchup, because, alone among the condiments on the table, ketchup could deliver sweet and sour and salty and bitter and umami, all at once.

Which is likely why Henry Adaniya told Phil Vettel: "For me, the transition to mustard was a culinary threshold; I became grown-up once I moved over to the Yellow Side." Ketchup is "bland," but not from an absence of taste: its base appeal arises from balancing the spectrum of taste, like a Ron Howard movie, an Eagles album, or Mitt Romney.

Which is all to say I understand why grownups object to putting ketchup on hot dogs, but not the rancor. It makes me want to put ketchup on hot dogs out of general principle. So ketchup tribalists should be careful, because as a child of the ’90s, I know where these things lead: Carpenters revivals and ironic PBR drinking. You’ve been warned.


Photograph: contributing2myinsanity (CC by 2.0)