Friday, June 26, 2015

Milton Pope

My solo musical career has been exceptionally brief. Outside of church choirs, both as a kid in Danvers and an adult in Ottawa, I’ve performed twice officially for an audience.  I don’t think singing “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” a cappella for a bunch of Moroccans on a beach campout in 1975 qualifies.  I’ve done a lot of impromptu stuff, karaoke and all, but that’s not real performing.  So yeah, twice.

Until most recently when I whistled with the Milton Pope Chorus at their Spring Concert.  They did four numbers and I accompanied them on one called “The Walker” which was recorded by Fitz and the Tantrums in 2014.  You hear that tune now and again. The Cubs broadcast from AM 780 uses it as a jingle.  The song was written by six, count ‘em, six people.  I assume one of them is Fitz and the rest are the Tantrums but I can’t confirm that.  The arrangement we performed was by Mac Huff.  I knew nothing of the song until Heather McDowell Francis gave me a CD that had the music audio with words, the music without words, and sheet music which I don’t read.  I had listened to the whistler on the CD in my car and my part was securely in my head.

Yes whistling.  That is my instrument.  It requires only practice and maybe the right teeth. I’m pretty sure everybody can, or could, whistle if they worked at it.  I’ve been working at it most of my life if you choose to call it work.  Whistling comes out of me on sort of an unconscious level.  I fill time with whistling, airing out the music running through my brain, mostly when I’m alone.  I’ve learned, sometimes the hard way, that not everyone appreciates a good strong whistle.   

Until I drove out to Milton Pope’s little cornfield campus and walked inside the portable trailer that serves as the music rooms for a practice, I had pretty much forgotten about elementary music instruction.  I enjoyed music, in a building a lot like theirs, in Danvers, Illinois as a kid in the early sixties.  Our music building in Danvers, though stick built, was also a cheap add on stuck at the edge of the school property as an afterthought.  Why does the music program get the odd space anyway?  Why isn’t it right up there with the library and the science lab?  Hard to figure.

Anyway I walked into this little trailer and was immediately immersed in a sea of kids.  I’m not around kids much these days.  I used to get that same feeling when I went into the day care center, or into a group of kids at YSB, or playing Santa Claus.  As I got older I used to feel that way around staff.  But there I was, an old guy in a group of 5th through 8th graders.  They turned to look at me as I came in the door.  Such faces, young and expectant.  Bright. Every one of them smiling I think.

It was hat day at Milton Pope, which worked out well because I was wearing my Cub hat, and could keep it on as the kids had the privilege of doing that day.  First of May, drive through the country, bright spring day, baseball season underway.  It’s a nice time to be in Illinois.  I was glad to be there.

If you’re not from LaSalle County let me fill you in on Milton Pope.  It was not as some guess the last names of two famous old poets, John and Alexander.  It was named after a rich farmer who left the land and a chunk of money in trust to the school.  It is north of Marseilles, southeast of Norway, southwest of Stavanger, on the edge of a section of farmland planted in beans and corn.  Mr. Pope imagined more than a one room country school serving rural kids and that is exactly what his gift has produced.  A small elementary school in the country which sends well prepared students to several area high schools.

Things are different out there in the country these days.  All the kids attending country schools are not farm kids.  With farms being so big, and farmers tilling more and more acres, relatively few are farmers actually.   Most now are the children of parents who bought a small acreage in the country, are renting farmhouses, or live in little rural subdivisions.  The choir was a big mix of kids, an all school upper grade choir, numbering 27.  Participation is easy at little schools.  It’s one of their advantages.

We got right to work.  I whistled without amplification at the practice.  Heather and a few kids standing close to me could hear it well, but I was by and large drowned out by the voices.  It’s a good song, The Walker, snappy and hip.  The kids enjoyed performing it.  Heather urged them to dance in place, doing their own individual moves, which many were reluctant to do.  You forget how it is to be a kid, self conscious of your changing self, so influenced by how others see you.  They laughed a lot, blushed, and giggled.  But they sang like angels.

We ran through my song a few times and Heather gave me a chance to leave if I wanted.  I declined.  I had nothing else to do and besides, I wanted to hear them sing their other songs.  There is something about being in the middle of all that green on a spring afternoon hearing kids sing that does your heart good.

An adult woman sat in the back smiling and I couldn’t figure out why.  When practice was over a special small buss pulled up and the woman went to the front and helped a young boy who had been sitting make his way with crutches to the door and on to the waiting bus.  Another woman came out of the bus to help the girl in a wheelchair to her ride home.  When you’re learning music and making it with your voice those challenges don’t figure in.  At Milton Pope choir is for everybody.

On the day of the performance, May 13, I went back to Milton Pope in the afternoon to practice with the kids on the auditorium stage.  I say auditorium loosely.  It is the school’s single big room-cafeteria, basketball gym, stage, concert hall, all rolled into one.  We had one at my school even smaller.  Milton Pope had six rows of bleachers on the side of the gym opposite the stage.  In the community hall, blocks from school, where I played basketball we had eight; four on each side, stage at one end.  For the rehearsal the room was empty save for us.

They handed me a microphone and cued up the music.  The kids were standing neatly on risers next to me on the stage.  The recording began.  My part came up.  I whistled into the mic and shrill notes blasted out into the gym.  I was taken aback.  I turned and the kids were all looking at me smiling.  This was much more of a deal than say whistling “When I’m Sixty Four” between my car and the YMCA locker room.  Heather reminded us of the dress code for the show, white shirt, black pants, black shoes.  We did some run throughs and I went home.

When I came back the school had been transformed.  Cars lined the blacktop roads.  I managed to get a parking place not too far away and entered the building into a crowded hallway.  There was evidently some issue about when the auditorium opened and who got seats where so they were not seating folks in the auditorium until a certain time.  Parents, grandparents, and friends waited patiently in the halls.  Kids ready to perform, band kids carrying instruments and chorus kids with none, made their way through the crowd.  There was a buzz of excitement. 

I was a little excited myself.  Heather had saved my wife and I seats in one of the front rows of folding chairs on the block linoleum floor near the stage.

My number was the third of their four song set.  While the place was empty Heather checked the mic, ran through the song quickly, and calmed the kids down.  They were nervous.  As they opened the auditorium to the audience I took my seat next to Colleen.  Though it’s a small school and a small school community, there was nevertheless a rush for seats.  It was after all the Milton Pope spring music concert.  If you are part of the Milton Pope community, and your child, grandchild, or neighbor kid is performing, the spring concert is a pretty big deal.  It is a chance for a kid you know to show you and the world what they’ve discovered and developed within themselves.  Finding their talent is what life is about for kids, right?

The choir opened with “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel?” an old negro spiritual with a new arrangement  by Greg Gilpin.  It’s a good song for a small group.  The boys with the relatively low voices got a nice refrain part while the girls carried the main melody.  Heather both played the piano and directed from behind it, not easy but often done in small schools I’ve found out.  No money for an accompanist.  Not only did they have the notes and the lyrics down cold, the kids threw in dynamics, going loud and soft at appropriate places.  They sang it better than they did when they practiced in the little portable classroom.  How does that happen?  How do performances bring out the best in choirs?  Good choir directors I think.  I love the hopeful lyrics:

              He delivered Daniel from the lion’s den

              And Jonah from the belly of a whale

              And the Hebrew children from the fiery furnace

              Why not every man?

The crowd applauded in a big way. The kids smiled even bigger.  They had broken the ice.  They were a hit and they knew it.  It made the next song even better.  But this one they sang less exuberantly.  It was a blessing, an old Gaelic verse.  It went straight to this old heart.  I felt they were blessing me, and all of us listening.  Was it because they were kids?  Could they possibly know how much we need their encouragement? 

May the road rise to meet you,
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
The rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of his hand.

When they finished, as Heather asked them to do, they stood very still and silent.  The last note of the electric keyboard faded out.  Our choir director always asks us to do that and I never knew why.  Now I know, seeing them standing there motionless.  With the silence and stillness came a moment of recognition before the applause.  Such voices.  Such a thing they had just done together.

I left my seat and hurried backstage.  The kids looked over their shoulders a me as I took my place at the microphone.  This was the fun number.  This was the one they were looking forward to sing.  Heather was able to direct this one, as we were singing to CD accompaniment.  I was glad because I needed her to point to me when I was on.  Starting in the right place was the only big challenge.  The rest was pretty easy; notes all in my range, easy to remember, and fun to do.  Once I got started it was in my wheelhouse so to speak. 

I worried only about two things.  First, it is impossible to whistle while smiling.  It pulls your lips away your teeth and takes your pucker right out of the ball game.  Whistlers live in fear of being suddenly amused at inopportune moments.  Second, I sometimes get crowd shock.  You’re all ready, you know what you want to say or do, you look up and see the crowd for the first time and some switch inside you flips to the off position. 

My whistling part introduced the song more or less.  There was maybe a bar of instrumental music and then my whistling carried the melody.  The music started, I looked up and brought the mic to my lips, Heather pointed at me, and I was on.

Nothing made me smile.  The crowd looked unintimidating, even friendly, and I knew the kids were behind me.  It came out fine.  My first whistle was over and the kids were singing.  Here’s the song.

Both whistler and singers made it to the bridge where we were to loosen up and dance in place.  Not everyone could.  The shy kids stayed shy.  I saw lots of blushing.  The extroverted kids hammed it up.  It’s not easy for middle school kids to risk looking silly on stage, or for old guys either.  But as they expressed themselves I bopped a little in time to the music, alternating bent knees, shoulder shrugs, moved my butt a little.  I didn’t want take attention from the kids or look silly in the process.  They went back to lyrics, I had one more whistle, and then it was over.  Too soon.  It really was fun.  I think the crowd liked it.

I went back to my seat for the last number Gone, Gone, Gone arranged by Mark Brymer.  There was a day when kids in grade school memorized poems, and soliloquies from plays.  I was charged in 5th grade to learn Portia’s mercy speech from Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice; “the quality of mercy is not strained…”  That’s over.  What kids, and big kids like us too, commit to memory now are song lyrics, which can be both good and bad.  I don’t mind that.  Who cares if it’s a song from a Spiderman movie, I’m glad the kids in Milton Pope learned these lyrics.  See for yourself.

When life leaves you high and dry
I'll be at your door tonight
If you need help, if you need help

Your hope dangling by a string
I'll share in your suffering
To make you well, to make you well

You're my back bone, you're my cornerstone
You're my crutch when my legs stop moving
You're my head start, you're my rugged heart
You're the pulse that I've always needed

And if your well is empty
Not a thing will prevent me
Tell me what you need,
What do you need?

I surrender honestly
You've always done the same for me

So I would do it for you, for you

And long after you’ve gone, gone, gone

Put those words to catchy music and it will stay in your head forever.  That’s how they ended their concert, my new middle school friends, on an up beat, smiling, proud of what they’d learned, brimming with possibility.

We forget about small happenings like that. But there at Milton Pope in May, in the middle of America, in the middle of the corn and bean fields, kids and their families, teachers and friends, participated in the pure joy of music.  I was glad to be part of it.  It made me remember what it was like to have my whole life ahead of me with so much to learn.  Like we adults now, still.  It is so easy to forget.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Hot Dog Blog-the Final Word

What’s in a hot dog?  You’re not sure are you?  I can feel your lack of clarity through the little ones and zeroes that have become electrical and now somehow appear as letters of the alphabet on our screens.  Let me help you.

I was once working a fund raiser for my former agency; it was a hot dog stand outside a supporter’s small grocery store.  It was a modest endeavor, cooking hot dogs on a grill and selling them to parade watchers and participants at a small town community festival.  I brought a folding banquet table, two folding chairs, a pop up tent and a grill. He furnished from his store shelves hot dogs and buns, condiments (ketchup, mustard, and relish), charcoal, and napkins.  It was rudimentary, straightforward, and good.  Yes we lacked fresh condiments but we made up for it with enthusiasm and kindness.  He knew most of the hot dog buyers.  I met a lot of nice people. They didn’t seem to mind.
At one point our stock of wieners in the cooler was down to one package, and we had a run of people lined up for hot dogs.

“Run in the store and grab five more packages of hot dogs.  Tell the woman at the checkout they’re for George.”

“OK.  Which hot dogs?”

“The cheap ones,” he replied.

I could have guessed that.  It was a fund raiser after all and he was donating the wieners.  I did as I was told and on the way back read the ingredients from the label.  Probably not a good idea.

In addition to a choking warning there was corn starch, corn syrup, and the less than 2% preservative line up of sodium phosphate, sodium benzoate, sodium asorbate, sodium nitraite, and that simple yet mysterious ingredient-flavor.

Even your expensive all beef wieners are suspect.  Beef, after all, is a broad category.  If I’m not wrong the word beef denotes nothing more than being contained within the body of a cow. Beef may make you think of roast beef, prime rib, steak, lean ground round and other delicious cuts but cow’s bodies contain much than that.  Also on that list are entrails, organs, gristle, fat, udders, skin, tongue, and so forth.  I could go on.  There is lots more to cows than that.

Hot dogs are made from things left over in the butchering process as is bologna, head cheese, and more.  If you find an all beef hot dog claiming to be made entirely of prime rib let me know.  Knowing cattle as I do from my days on the farm, I assure you that beef cattle contain all the parts I just mentioned. The tongue of a Black Angus beef cow and the tongue of a Jersey dairy cow are for all practical purposes indistinguishable, trust me.  Let’s not split carnivorous hairs here.  Occasionally, not often, I see a beef tongue for sale in the meat case.  Mexican restaurants serve lengua tacos made from tongue.  My Mom boiled tongue and we ate it cold in sandwiches.  But tongue by itself in America has pretty much fallen off the map.  Do you think they throw those tongues away?  I don’t.  I think they’re in your hot dogs.
As miscellaneous as its content parts may be an all beef wiener is considered superior because it does not contain pork , chicken, or turkey.  We feel better about beef.  Some of us may have religious reasons for not eating pork.  And both chicken and turkey sound bland.  There are probably a host of reasons that beef registers higher on the desirability scale than pork and other meats, I just can’t think of any.  It’s all meat.  Animal protein.  You can get snobby about it if you’d like.  But whatever it is, you will find it ground up into practically a paste, with various other ingredients, stuffed into a casing, pre cooked (usually) and packaged for you to warm up and eat.  Wieners, frankfurters, call them what you want.  Miscellaneous meat bits are the backbone of your hot dog.  They contain a lot of fat and that’s what makes them good.  They taste like a hot dog.  That’s why you like them.  Hot dogs are comfort food.

This week I went to Ottawa’s most generic grocery store, Kroger, and perused the hot dog section in the meat department.  I was interested in the cheapest and the most expensive hot dogs.  I found them both.  The cheapest hot dogs, several brands found on the bottom shelf, had a lot in common.  Many brands were on sale; ten five packs for $10.00.  That’s twenty cents a hot dog.  All those sale hot dogs restated the word hot dog in Spanish (salchichas) and forsook any mention of wiener, frankfurter, or frank.  I bought the Louis Rich hot dog five pack, made by Kraft Foods, which claim to contain no artificial flavors or colors.

Higher up, at eye level, was the most expensive hot dog-Oscar Meyer Selects.  They cost $5.19 for eight, just under sixty five cents a hot dog.  You will find no Spanish on their label and they are presented as “Angus smoked uncured Angus beef franks.”  That’s right, they say Angus twice.  They are also made by Kraft foods and claim many things including being gluten free with no nitrites except those naturally occurring in celery juice.  Do naturally occurring nitrites harm us less than unnaturally occurring nitrites?  For that they gain the distinction of having no artificial preservatives, which is prominently displayed in a round patch on the label made to vaguely resemble a wax seal.

For all their differences, these two types of dogs have much in common; 35 milligrams of cholesterol, about 380 mg of sodium, total carbohydrates  both 1%.  The cheap dogs are actually lower in both calories and calories from fat.  The expensive dogs contain not regular salt but sea salt.  They also have cherry powder.  I think that’s for color.  They’re a little redder.

The biggest difference of course is found in the meat ingredients.  The Oscar Mayer Selects have not just beef but ANGUS beef, while the cheap wieners have chicken or turkey with pork.  Not just any chicken or turkey, but mechanically separated chicken or turkey.  Thankfully they do not go on to explain the process of mechanical separation, although I do not believe it refers to poultry being gently persuaded to enter different turnstiles.  I picture flailing metal rods and hapless featherless carcasses meeting violently.  The Angus frank package mentions separation not at all.
While it may be far afield from hot dogs, bear with me while I explore this poultry corollary with you.  There’s something funny going on in the world of eggs. We have developed sensitivity to what the hens that lay eggs eat, and how much room they have to move around.  We are offered on most shelves not only eggs from cage free chickens but now eggs from free range chickens.  We have eggs from hens eating only vegetarian feed and some eggs with super Omega 3 properties.  All are more expensive of course from the run of the mill egg, although not that much.

However, as caring as we might be about live laying hens when it comes to the meat of these same animals, we apparently care much less or not at all.  Granted there is some fancy chicken being sold which is nicely fed and whose meat is preserved little if at all with tainted chemicals, but those are whole chickens or dismembered chickens displayed under clear film and recognizable as distinct chicken parts.  The packages they are sold in are dominated by the color green.  But when it comes to the chicken in hot dogs, chicken nuggets, their cousins the chicken fingers, or any canned chicken, let alone hot dogs, our consciousness is pretty low.  You may want to start considering this from an ethical standpoint.  I’ve decided I prefer my chicken separated with dignity by a sharp knife, but I have to admit I’ve just now started thinking about it.  Mechanical separation, while not leaving a bad taste in my mouth, seems wrong somehow.            
But you don’t eat hot dogs to make a statement on animal cruelty, detoxify your body, lose weight, or enhance your diet do you?  Seattle Sutton does not serve hot dogs in her little black plastic healthy eating containers.  You could and probably should eat other healthier things to offset the guilty pleasure of hot dogs.  Kale for one.  Perhaps for every hot dog you eat you should have a kale salad, or braised spinach, quinoa, asparagus, broccoli, or brown rice. But who are we fooling?  You know what’s good for you and hot dogs aren’t on that list.  But you eat hot dogs anyway.  You know why?  Because you love the taste.  You know you do.
Let me tell you something.  I had both the hot dogs mentioned above this morning, the Kraft Oscar Mayer Angus beef frank and the Kraft Louis Rich hot dog with the mechanically separated chicken and/or turkey, boiled and on a paper plate with a blob of Sandwich Pal Sweet and Sour mustard.  I tasted both in turn.  There’s not a dime’s worth of difference between them, even though one costs more than three times the other.  They taste just like the hot dogs they both are.  They’re wonderful.  You want a hot dog right now don’t you?

If I am right, and you are dying to bite into a hot dog, I suggest you do this.  Get in your car and drive to:

Ambience:  Grumpee’s Weenie Wagon is an outdoor food stand serving hot dogs and little else located just North of Interstate 80 on Route 71 south of the Dayton Blacktop.  It’s next to a cornfield.  Next year it may be a bean field.  When you’re at Grumpee’s you are in rural Illinois.  In most of these reviews I’ve located the windows in the restaurant, communicating the amount of light afforded the diner.  At Grumpee’s it is the clouds and the time of day that determine the brightness.  Because it’s only open in the summer, and the only tables are picnic, the milieu changes on the hour with the weather.  Grumpee’s has a vague theme; everything is painted orange, all the signs and lettering are free hand, and if there is a logo it would have to be the decal on the door depicting Grumpy from the seven dwarves.  I’m told the owner is a tad grumpy but I’m not evaluating owners, just hot dogs.  Grumpee’s Weenie Wagon and the hot dog it serves is original, independent, one of a kind.  That’s what gives Grumpee’s its charm.

Presentation:  There’s a lot of stickers and decals, given as gifts by customers I think, on the sliding windows of Grumpee’s narrow stand so it’s hard to see into the prep area.  What comes out is a compact round cylinder of shiny foil wrapped in a napkin.  No flimsy formulaic red basket.  No waxed paper.  It’s unpretentious.  It’s a dressed dog complete with its own thin aluminum place mat.

Condiments:  While Grumpee’s offers a Chicago Style dog on its menu board, which I ordered, the condiments do not conform to a Chicago dog’s standards.  For one Grumpee serves Jalapeno peppers rather than sport peppers.  The woman at the window asked politely “Do you want Jalapeno’s with that?”  To which I of course replied yes.  After a few bites I realized I might have asked for extra, but then I like a “hot” dog.  Jalapenos are different and in some ways better.  These soft pickled peppers stay in the bun next to the dog.  They are easily incorporated into both bite and chew.  Close your eyes and you can readily taste the tang of the Jalapeno in each bite unlike sport peppers which are tough and hit your taste buds sporadically.
The day I had my Grumpee’s dog they served not relish but chopped sweet pickles, bread and butter slices I suspect.  That’s a different approach.  They also served my dog with a small cylinder of raw cucumber and a chunk of fresh tomato at opposite ends.  Those tastes came in one after the other.  They used plenty of celery salt.  It was a unique mix of condiments.  Grumpee had me at the Jalapenos.
Bun:  The bun was exceptionally fresh but otherwise unremarkable.  Again I would have hoped for poppy seed, but with all the flavor action going on in that hot dog experience I think it was best that the bun just stayed out of the way.  It was fine; adequate but not extraordinary.
Dog:  The dog was big.  I’m not sure it was a jumbo but it seemed larger than the standard wiener.  I asked the nice woman behind the counter what kind of hot dog they served, thinking she would refer to a brand or the ingredients and she answered

“GFS.”  I thought perhaps she hadn’t heard me correctly.

“You hot dog is GFS?”

“Yeah.  Gordon Food Service.”

“Do you more about them than who sells them?”

“Nope.  Just that they’re good and nobody complains about them.  Is this your first time here?”

“No, but it’s been a long time.”

“Well we’ve been serving those dogs for fifteen years.  You be sure and tell me if you think they’re mediocre.  Cause we think they’re top notch.”

I have to say they are top notch.  My dog was cooked nicely, had snap, and lots of the good flavor that comes from fat.  It was juicy.  I don’t know if it was beef, pork, mechanically separated and previously abused chicken, tortured turkey, or what.  I know it was damn good.  It was a hot dog.  Hell they’re all good.

The Whole Deal:  Grumpee’s was absolutely wonderful.  You can’t eat there in the winter, or early spring or late fall for that matter.  Grumpee’s is a summer time experience.  And it is an experience.  It's standing outside at the counter feeling the sun on your back as you order your dog.  It’s climbing into the picnic bench and unrolling your dog.  Cold coke in a sweaty can, looking out across the cornfield, turning your head to keep your nose out of the mustard as you take your first bite.  It’s the feel of the hot dog on your tongue, the taste that fills your mouth, the satisfaction you feel as you chew.  It’s summer in Illinois.  You’re eating a hot dog.  You can’t beat it.  Grumpee’s is the best.

Five peppers for Tim Carver and his eclectic independent hot dog stand by the highway. You’ll not find another stand, or another hot dog, like it.

The End

Thus concludes the hot dog blog.  I’ve learned a few things doing this.  First, have pity on the food writers. They are forced to write the same things over and over.  It must be what writers of porn experience.  How much new and different can be said about a basic bodily function like eating?  Don’t look for “Dave in the Shack” to become a food blog anytime soon.

And don’t expect me to try other hot dogs.  I can’t go anywhere since this series began without someone recommending another hot dog place to me.  I gently remind them I set out to write about Ottawa hot dogs only but they insist I’m neglecting the best dog in the area if I don’t review a purveyor of hot dogs in a neighboring community. I may be neglecting good hot dogs.  I don’t care.

A nice woman I know thinks I should do hamburgers next.   I’m not going to do that.  There is no end.  Pizza, steak, fried chicken?  Tell you what, you do it.  Send it to me.  I’ll share it on the blog.  But if I don’t stop sampling food I’ll have to buy all new clothes.

There is one more thing to share. The very best hot dog?  It’s probably at your house.  It could be in your back yard.  Buy a good hot dog, which is easy because they’re all good.  Cook it as you like it.  I recommend a charcoal grill or an open fire.  Cook it without burning the grease that oozes out of it, unless of course you like your hot dogs black.  In that case burn that grease and the casing.  Or boil it.  I don’t care.  It’s your wiener.  Take charge of your own hot dog experience.
Spend some time lining up good condiments before you cook your dog.  Chop fresh onions in a size you like.  Or consider grilling the onions for a soft feel and a sweeter more carmelized taste. Get tomatoes with actual flavor, maybe when your garden tomatoes are ripe, and have a bowl of those available cut in the size you prefer.  Get good mustard, or rely on the plain yellow stuff from a squeeze bottle.  Don’t be afraid to put ketchup on it if you like it, ignoring what anybody  tells you.  It’s your hot dog.  And don’t forget that celery salt.
Include the sweet pickle relish, or chunks of sweet pickle, and consider a good dill pickle spear or fresh cucumber.  There is a week when your garden could give you damn near all of this.  Peppers if you like them, hot or mild, will only make everything better.  I’m thinking of fresh chopped garden peppers of all kinds (watch out if using habaneros) or grill the peppers if you want to take some of the heat out of them.  Heck grill your tomato if you want.  Do it up.  Get containers of everything you like ready to put on the dog when it’s cooked and ripe for eating.
Get good buns.  Don’t get them out of the freezer or buy them days ahead. This is your chance to get poppy seed buns if you like them.  Use same day fresh buns, lay one or two of them open on a plate, and when your dog is cooked the way you like it, plump and juicy or black and wrinkled, put it in there.  Now slather it with the stuff you like.  More of this, less of that, but include everything you want.  If you’re outside consider staying there.  If you’re lucky enough to have a partner, make a couple more dogs.   Open a couple of your favorite beverages.   When you’re ready to eat , pause and give a little thanks for the privilege of living to have another meal.
Bite into that hot dog, close your eyes, and savor one of the real pleasures of being alive; food the way you like it, shared with someone you love, eaten with gratitude.  Enjoy summer.  There is plenty of it left.  

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Hot Dog Blog II

The blog continues with reviews of personal favorite hot dog establishments and others recommended by readers.  I can’t eat every hot dog in town folks, but I did my best. 


Let me be quick with this one.  The food item people may call a hot dog which is served at DiDoughs at 228 W. Main is not a hot dog.  It’s a wiener wrapped in pretzel dough baked in an oven.  In other places at other times that dish may have been referred to as pigs in a blanket, although I think of those as the classic little cocktail weenies in biscuit dough.  Pigs in a blanket had variations; bigger sausages, dough more akin to croissants, lots of things.  The thing served at DiDoughs is not a pig in a blanket either.
For starters it contains a pretty good all beef wiener.  There is no pork and thus no pig involved.  If you go down that road it could only be called a cow in a blanket.  And the blanket is nontraditional as well, being made of pretzel dough.  If you want, call it a cow in a quilt.  But don’t call it a hot dog.

All beef wieners are beginning to rule these days.  They may be the new standard of excellence.  That’s what DiDoughs is serving.  It is a good wiener wrapped in their delicious pretzel dough made fresh each day on site from very good ingredients.  The baked product is salty, savory, and delicious.  The wiener and the pretzel dough combined make a fine thing to eat; a nice lunch item, a snack, or just good when you are hungry.  But it’s not a hot dog.

There is no place for condiments and because of that there are none.  With this food item, which they label a “DiDough Dog” they offer either a cup of plain or beer mustard for dipping.  Hot dogs aren’t dipped.  I had the beer mustard, runny but good.  Further, the pretzel dough wrapped around the wiener doesn’t qualify as a bun.  There are, as you may know, pretzel buns which open and hold condiments so you can get that blended bite of wiener and the good stuff that is so essential to a hot dog.  But you can’t experience that eating DiDough’s baked pretzel wrapped wiener, cow in a quilt, call it what you will.
Don’t get me wrong.  DiDough’s is a nice clean place.  They make and bake their own pretzels and offer other great looking sandwiches.  However they don’t offer a hot dog.  The thing I ate is really good.  I’ll probably go back for more.  But don’t be fooled.  A wiener does not a hot dog make.  A hot dog is a sandwich with a bun holding condiments alongside the wiener.  You won’t find that at DiDough’s.  End of story.  No rating.

Mr. J’s

The building at 323 W. Madison Street like most old commercial structures in Ottawa has been many things.  There are histories begging to be written that will never be authored because they would be read by so few.  The history of establishments occupying this particular concrete block building is one such history.  You won’t learn it from me.

Ambience:  Mr. J’s is one of three, a small LaSalle County chain, the others existing in Streator and LaSalle.  Ottawa’s Mr. J’s is connected to La Mexicana, a Mexican grocery with take out food just to the west.  When I sit there I remember it being part of Chuck Varney’s Video Store, when DVD’s were all the rage, the aisles crowded with movie lovers.  The Video Store occupied both the grocery and the restaurant.  Chuck created an old time soda shop where Mr. J’s now operates.  There were big big mechanized computer run stuffed animals that eerily performed on a timer ala Chuck E. Cheese.  One played the drums.  My kids were little.  Both they and I were amazed.  Those were the days.

Mr. J’s windows face north and the counter faces south and west.  It’s a little dim.  What immediately strikes you when your eyes adjust is the giant menu.  It stretches all along the wall behind the counter.  Billed as “Hot Dogs and Gyros” Mr. J’s is much more.  Hot dogs get top billing, with various dogs including chili, corn, and a polish sausage following.  But it goes on.  And on.

You can get ten varieties of hamburgers at Mr. J’s seven kinds of beef and sausage sandwiches, seven plate dinners (2 Gyros plates, Chicken kabobs, two spaghetti plates) and BBQ ribs, both full and half slabs.  There are ten appetizers available along with eleven sides.  They have four seafood entrees at Mr. J’s and a whopping 23 Mexican favorites before you reach the comparatively small breakfast menu which includes an interesting chorizo and potato burrito.  Before you get to the chicken, which offers both fingers and nuggets, you got your choice of six subs, five salads, twelve specials, ten chef’s specials, but surprisingly only two desserts: Tres Leches Cake and Churros.  I was amazed at the menu.  Imagine being the cook.  I sat at the old black and white ceramic tile counter on a red stool.  The place was clean.  You could smell the deep fryers.  I ordered the hot dog with everything and a medium coke.  Seemed a shame to ignore the rest of the menu, but I was on a hot dog mission.

Presentation: The hot dog as it turns out is another “Red Hot Chicago-Pure Beef Products” of the kind I had at Triple J’s.  Is this a franchised food?  Do they require it be cooked and served in a particular fashion?  Is this coincidence or a disturbing trend?  Do we want our hot dogs to be uniform like Big Macs?  I don’t.  When it came out there was the little red plastic basket, the white waxed paper, the dog with the dill pickle spear lying in the bun along with your Red Hot Chicago pure beef wiener.  I have to say it was a disappointment.  I might have felt the same way at Triple J’s if I’d gone to Mr. J first.

Condiments:  Mr. J was skimpy with the chopped tomatoes.  He had chopped onions but they seemed almost removed, stand offish, sullen.  His sport peppers looked tired.  I couldn’t tell if there was celery salt on that dog or if it was only a rumor.  But most alarming was a stripe of ketchup way down in the bun almost as if it were hiding.  I think that’s against all the Chicago Hot Dog rules.  No ketchup allowed.

Bun:  The bun was dry.  If it was only dry that would not have been a deal breaker.  But it was also cold.  It’s hard for a bun to overcome cold and dry and make it all the way to pleasing.  Pleasure was encountered nowhere in that bun on that day.
Dog:  The dog was hot, plump, and tasty.  It was cooked nicely and had some snap.  But it just couldn’t make up for its team mates.  It was like the only good player on a small town basketball team.  No matter how many points it scored it couldn’t make up for the shortcomings of the others around it.
The whole deal:  I think the hot dog deal at Mr. J’s is simply and unfortunately lost in the menu.  The menu is vast.  How many hot dogs could they possibly be selling in a day given all those choices.  You could walk in wanting a hot dog and be immediately distracted.  There is nearly everything you ever wanted on that menu.  Ironically, the hot dog bite, that mix of flavors you get when you take in the mix of dog with condiments, was helped by the ketchup.  It made up for the lack of tomatoes.  I never thought I’d say that.  But the ketchup was OK.  I know that’s blasphemy to some.  I don’t care.
I give Mr. J’s two sport peppers.
The damage:  $3.73 for the hot dog with everything and a medium coke.

P.S.-Mr. J’s dog was my second of the day so I passed over other menu items.  My eyes lit up when I saw Tres Leches cake.  I used to have it in a little coffee place run by an old woman in Oaxaca.  She baked one of those cakes every day.  I wanted to order it so badly, risking the almost certain fact it would never be as good as that fresh cake there in the market in Oaxaca in 1976.  Mr. J’s may be the only place in the county where you can get Tres Leches cake.  To make matters worse when the waitress came to take away the basket she asked if I wanted dessert

“Churros for you?  How about a piece of Tres Leches cake?”

It’s one thing to silently pass over a coveted dessert on a menu.  It’s quite another to be forced to verbally turn down something you want so badly.  I hesitated, then uncharacteristically replied

“No.  Not today. Another time.”
I amazed even myself.  But I meant it.  I know I’ll be driving by on Madison one day and impulsively pull in to Mr. J’s parking lot drawn by the memory of that cake.  And when I do I’ll give you a full report.  But for now, I’m focused on hot dogs.


Thorntons is a gas station on Ottawa’s North side by Interstate 80 that typically sells gas cheaper than anybody and everybody else.  But when you add it up the pennies you save there should not prevent you from buying gas elsewhere.  It’s a mental thing I think.  If Thortons is $.02 cents a gallon cheaper, fifteen gallon tank, $.30 total is it worth not supporting an independent business man like Doug Conroy down the street, who does so much for the community, when it costs so little to do so?  I don’t think so.  But Thornton’s sells other things, among them pretty damn good hot dogs.

Ambience:  Thornton’s is a new style gas station, designed to sell goods as much as fuel.  Walk in and you find yourself in a place engineered to take your money.  Attractive displays, fruit in little baskets, cold pop and beer in ice chests, racks of liquor , fake wood grain, a walk in beer cave, brightly lit cold cases festooned with beverages of all kinds, a coffee bar with all the bells and whistles, and in the middle of it, grandly lit by fluorescent bulbs, the roller grill with wieners in constant motion.

You make your own hot dog at Thorntons.  You get your own bun, put it in a cardboard tray, dress it, pay for it, and eat in or out as you wish.  I prefer to eat in.  There’s a stand up table right next to the roller grill which is fine for a quick bite with plenty of napkins.  You can get yourself a fountain drink and knock them both down.  Unknown I’m sure to many is a table tucked away by the front window behind a stack of Bud Light cases of cans and the aisle with the slim jims.  A table for four, up against the window, a view of the pumps and beyond it Conroys.  I didn’t know it was there until one day I was headed to the back corner for a gallon of milk and found Rich Myers there by himself with two handsomely dressed hot dogs, a fountain drink, and the Tribune sports page.
“Rich, what are you doing here?”

“I’m having a quiet lunch.  This spot is the best kept secret in town.  Perfect for getting away.”

I agree.  That’s where I had my test dog.  It’s not the Uptown Bar and Grill but it’s not bad.

Presentation:  When I first mentioned Thornton’s and the roller grill in my Face Book post soliciting favorite hot dog stands, I got two distinct reactions.  The first, from a guy I know who likes to eat, was wildly complimentary.  "The invention of the roller grill is right up there with the light bulb, flight, and a giant leap for mankind." My own daughter, when I mentioned this review said "I would skip the gas stations if I were you.” And she’s a graduate of the University of Illinois’ food science program.  The roller grill, found primarily in gas stations, is controversial.  But like all new technology we have to deal with it.  I think of the roller grill as a rotisserie for cased meats.  It sounds better.

The roller grill allows mankind to place raw hot dogs (aren’t they precooked anyway and only need to be warmed and plumped?) on hot steel rollers which slowly turn them continuously for hungry patrons to select themselves with plastic tongs, place in a bun, apply their own condiments and enjoy.  Roller grills make possible quality self serve hot dogs.  That’s how they are presented.  Under bright light, slowly turning.  At Thornton’s they are switched from the hotter cooking rollers in the rear of the grill to the warming rollers at the front of the grill by an employee charged with tending the grill and restocking condiments.  I talked to her the day I had my hot dog.

“Do you know how many hot dogs you serve a day here?”

She seemed offended.  “I know how many hot dogs I serve every day here.  It ranges from just over 200 to just under 300.  Higher on weekends, lower during the week.  But always plenty.”  That, my friends is high volume hot dog sales. Why is that important?  Because when you sell a lot of hot dogs, they tend be fresh. And when they’re fresh they’re better.

At Thorntons you see  your hot dog close up.  Like picking a lobster out of a tank you can take the one you want.  The biggest downfall in the roller grill wiener presentation is the dog’s skin.  Under the lights it glistens and shines.  The dog rolls over and over in its own grease.  We realize more readily the grease is there thanks to the roller grill.  Folks, that same grease is in every hot dog you eat.  You just don’t see it.  More later on the dog and the grease.

Condiments:  Thornton’s maintains a smorgasbord of self serve condiments, the largest selection I’ve yet seen in the area.  You’ll see things there you never imagined putting on a hot dog.  This is where Thorntons excels.  They offer both the dyed green sweet relish and the standard sweet relish, salsa, sauerkraut, chopped onions, sport peppers AND pickled jalapenos, and tomatoes in thin half moon slices only.  I prefer chopped tomatoes.  But at least they’re fresh, along with fresh dill spears with snap.  Thorntons offers two mustards (one yellow one spicy), one ketchup, and BBQ sauce all in generic squeeze bottles with fine point openings that afford a lot of control over amount.  They have packets for undressed to go dogs.  They have mayo.  They have a veritable palette of condiments for the creative dog dresser all available there next to the roller grill, all regularly restocked and fresh.  One giant omission, which I can’t believe they don’t rectify; no shaker of celery salt.  What would it cost?  Why not?

Bun:  The buns are in a shiny metal drawer under the roller grill.  Something keeps them hot in there.  A hot bun is a soft bun.  The ones at Thorntons are individually wrapped in cellophane.  It’s a pretty good bun as buns go, but it’s a shame they don’t stock poppy seed buns.  They did try pretzel buns for a while, but they faded as fads do.  What is left is your standard soft white bun, brown only on the very outside.
Dog:  Thorntons does not brag up its dogs.  Unlike many hot dog sellers there is no sign telling the buyer what brand of dog they’re eating.  We don’t know if it’s all beef, all pork, part turkey, a little of all of those, whatever.  It’s a wiener rolling around on hot rods of steel.  And it’s damn good.  It’s a jumbo wiener with all the juices trapped inside.  The skin is never pierced and the roller grill keeps them from dripping out.  Those juices are constantly turning with, and within, that meat of unknown origin until you pluck it off the grill, self selected.  I look them all over myself and take the tastiest looking one.  It’s not easy to choose.

The whole deal:  The Thorntons hot dog is very, very good.  Because it’s a jumbo dog you need to apply the condiments liberally.  The buns will hold a lot of selections.  Do I think hot dogs should be eaten with BBQ sauce or ketchup.  No.  Do I think Jalapenos should be used instead of sport peppers?  I think the jury is still out on that.  But the fact is it‘s all there.  Whatever rows your boat, whatever you have always wanted to try, is there for you at Thorntons.  If we require every wiener be eaten with the same exact set of condiments hot dogs will end up like classical music.  No change.  Innovation stifled.  At Thorntons you get a big juicy wiener, a plethora of condiments, on a warm soft bun.  What’s not to like?

The damage:  As an added bonus, because its a self serve hot dog it and  a dog and a medium self serve fountain coke (surprisingly weak and unsatisfying that day) is only $2.87.  Sometimes they have deals.  If you’re talking pure nutrition, calories per food dollar, its quite a value.
I give Thorntons four sport peppers.

Road Ranger

At the intersection of Route 71 and Interstate 80 I found the only Nathan’s wiener being served in the area.  Nathan’s is a storied hot dog originating from the famous stand on Coney Island.  It is featured in the gut wrenching pseudo sports event each summer known as the National Hot Dog Eating contest.  Nathan’s is a part of hot dog history.  Nathan’s is an all beef wiener with cachet.  Not only that they’re delicious.  Road Ranger serves them from a roller grill in their gas station.
Yet they make a fatal mistake.  They do not serve with them fresh condiments.  Road Ranger is a high volume place.  They’re selling a lot of gas and thus a lot of everything on that corner.  They may rival Thorntons in hot dog sales because they accommodate truckers.  It’s crowded in there.  They have a busy roller grill.  But what do you find, there right next to those tasty famous dogs?

A rack of condiments in packets.  Let’s get right to it.  Have you had the PPI (Portion Pac Industries out of Mason, Ohio) produced chopped onion product in the shiny green lettered foil envelope?  Let’s quickly run down the ingredients found in small print on the packet.  Here goes.

“Water, dehydrated onions, sugar, distilled vinegar, salt, modified food starch, xanthan gun, dehydrated green onions, Propylene glycol alginate, citric acid, sodium bisulfate, sodium benzoate, and postassium sorbate as preservatives.”

You take a famous East Coast all beef wiener, offer it to the public, and in order to put onions on it the hot dog hungry buyer has to tear open a packet (with no expiration or sell by date mind you) and squeeze that ooze of stuff onto it?  Propylene Glycol Alginate?  On a Nathan’s All Beef wiener?  Are you kidding me? 

Nothing is fresh there but the hot dog and the bun.  You get packets of relish, ketchup and mustard bottles straight off the rack with those waterless caps that release their contents in big blobs.  Where’s the concern for quality?  Where’s the hot dog love?  Not at Road Ranger.  It’s the easy way out.  Slap the wieners on the roller grill, keep the packet rack filled, and think no more about it.  Thorntons may not have a famous dog, but they have a total hot dog experience that exemplifies quality and is a source of pride for staff.  Road Ranger does not.  Neither does Marathon downtown on Columbus by Norris Drive.  Same set up as Road Ranger.  That’s what I think my daughter is referring to when she expresses disgust with gas station hot dogs.  Moe-give Thorntons a chance.

Road Ranger gets a single sport pepper for having Nathan’s dogs.  Eat hot dogs there only if you must.

Next week:  The final chapter of the hot dog blog.