Getting serious with our hot dog sauce (not 'chili'): Column
Don’t ask anyone their hot dog preferences unless you’re prepared for a 20-minute debate. That’s how seriously we take our hot dog talk here in West Virginia.
I think so many of us grew up on hot dogs because they are an easy first food for anyone to prepare, any time of the year. In the winter, your mom probably boiled them in a pan on her stove. In the good weather, your dad did them on the grill. At campouts, you stabbed a stick through the bottom, and made a valiant attempt to get said stick all the way through the top, but most likely, it ended up poking out of the hot dog’s side about two-thirds of the way up. Hot dogs aren’t, therefore, just a food: They are a part of our best memories. Which is why we take the toppings that go on them so seriously.
Now, I’m as native a West Virginian, nay Jackson Countian, as they come. I was born in JGH back when they were still birthin’ babies, grew up in my JCO holler, went to school here and have never paid taxes or voted anywhere else. And as a native, when someone asked me what I call that stuff they put on hot dogs, I always said “sauce,” without hesitation. What kind of hot dog is the most popular in West Virginia? A sauce-and-slaw dog. Rolls right off the tongue, like all good alliterative phrases do.
So I’ve been surprised recently at the number of people who refer to sauce as “chili,” because, just, just no. Look, I’m not saying you’re wrong; You are, but you’re still good people. But chili is associated most readily with beans, and in my vernacular, its beany goodness is made in a big pot on a Sunday, and it sits there, bubbling away until your grandma’s cornbread is out of the oven. If you’re trying to tell me that that liquid manna could just as easily be spooned onto a chargrilled hot dog in a soft English bun, you’re out of your bean-loving mind.
Hot dog sauce is a sauce, because its very creation dubs it so: disparate ingredients cooked down together into a thick, yet still viscous, unctuous, spoonable mélange of the cheapest ingredients in a Mountaineer pantry and fridge, that somehow makes your tastebuds think you won the lottery. Chili is soupy, soppy and leaves bread soggy. Hot dog sauce holds its shape on the dog, and that’s important, because it’s the difference between it and Sloppy Joe sauce: just that little bit of extra time on the stove so it gets the perfect amount of thick.
There are many uppity variations of hot dog sauce out there, but if we ever had a hot dog sauce competition (hint, hint), the required main ingredients would be this: ground hamburger (preferably, from a JCO Junior Fair cow); one whole, chopped sweet onion (attempt a fine dice, but if you give up on perfection halfway through, a rough dice is fine — just keep it bite sized); ketchup (Heinz or Hunts); chili powder (treat yourself to a new bottle — you know you haven’t touched the one in your cabinet for a year); and brown sugar. How you gussy that up is between you and your particular grandma, but those are the basic Mountaineer hot dog sauce ingredients.
However, it’s the cooking of those ingredients that’ll separate the true native West Virginians from people who’ve only lived here for 40 or 50 years. Because while the ingredients are "Cooking for Dummies" basic, you will screw it up if you get too impatient or don’t bother with a taste test.
First, get out your fresh or thawed hamburger and a big non-stick frying pan (the person who hand-washes your dishes will thank you later). Set your stove burner heat to medium high, put your pan on the heat, dump your hamburger in, then grab a whisk and start breaking your hamburger up. Some people do this with a spoon, but I find a whisk gives you a better break, and you want your hamburger to be in fine pieces, not big lumps (you aren’t making meatballs here). So keep working your hamburger until it goes from pink to a greyish brown and it's in tiny pieces.
Key step here: Drain all that hamburger. If you’re a hopeless slacker, just tilt the side of the frying pan over your sink so the grease drains out one side, while doing your best not to lose your broken up burger in a surprise avalanche. Or play it safe and dump it into a colander, give your burger a quick shake, them dump it back into your frying pan, with heat now on medium. Don’t shake your meat until there’s no grease left — you want some grease so you get that nice sauce later. But too much grease and you’ve veered into Sloppy Joe territory, and while that’s tasty, it's not what you’re looking for here.
Now into your frying pan and hamburger, drop in your chopped onions and mix them in with your hamburger. Your onions need to fry up and turn translucent (that’s see-through, for those of you who drew pictures through vocabulary class), and that can take 20 or so minutes, so be patient and don’t run off. You need to stir them around so they don’t stick and burn, so keep it on medium heat. I usually put a lid on the pan, but that’s mostly for grease spatter control.
But once the onion pieces are see-through and soft, open up your ketchup bottle. This step is very much dependent on how much grease you left in the pan and how your onion fried up, so don’t go crazy here. Just give one or two big squeezes of the bottle into your frying pan and stir everything up really good. Increase the heat to medium-high and let it all meld together while you grab your chili powder and brown sugar.
These next two ingredients are to taste, and I suspect some people don’t do brown sugar, but I like a spicey-sweet balance in my hot dog sauce, and I’m the one writing this column, so you get my taste here. I like to do about 3-4 shakes of chili powder into the pan stuff and 2-3 big spoonfuls of brown sugar, stir it all together, then let it cook down for about 10 minutes. Then I taste: if it's too spicey, add more sugar. If its too sweet, add more chili powder and ketchup (watch your squeezes). Keep doing this until you’ve got it tasting just how you want it.
Then turn your heat to high and get your consistency just right: remember, it's sauce, not chili, so you want it thick, but not too so thick it won’t shake off a spoon. You also want that nice deep brown-red color that comes from tomatoes, chili powder and brown sugar caramelizing together. So once your sauce is the consistency and color that you like, turn off the heat, grab a Tupperware container you don’t mind being permanently stained, load up your pound of meaty goodness and head off to your summer barbecue.
You follow these steps, and you’ll be the most popular person at any summer gathering where hot dogs are on the menu. But just try and hand a container of beany “hot dog chili” to your hostess and see what happens. Sure, she’ll thank you for your contribution, but then they’ll be some mysterious “accident” in the kitchen, and all that’ll be left of your chili is the container it came in. So save that chili for when it's appropriate: fall football Saturday or Sunday dinner. We’ll love you, and your chili, much more if we’re wearing a sweater at the time.