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First a story: I recently ran across a reference to an old (as in 1983) paperback, Hot Dog Chicago: A Native's Dining Guide. Ten bucks or so later (on Alibris—don't pay the crazy Amazon prices) I had it. I thought it would be fun to talk to either of the two authors, Rich Bowen and Dick Fay, if they were still around and in Chicago, about how the hot dog scene has changed over these many years. According to the authors' note in the book, back in '83 they were both professors of psychology at Loyola, so I checked the university's site. Sure enough, 32 years later they were both still teaching there. I emailed Bowen first and got a reply; we arranged to meet at the kind of hot dog place that certainly didn't exist then, Andersonville's Hoppin' Hots, which has a creative menu of unusual toppings on your choice of beef, duck, or veggie dogs. We met there last week—and as Bowen came in, he said to me, "You know, I think I've been to your house."
Well, it turns out his ex-wife is an attorney who once worked with my attorney wife, and after we rehabbed our place years ago we'd hosted a department holiday party which they'd attended. Small world, but there were more parallels than that between us: Bowen had once contemplated a career as a food writer, and that was what led to Hot Dog Chicago. The difference was that he was on the other side of the invention of the Internet, when there were far fewer ways to break into that field—only one in Chicago, as far as he was concerned.
"Back in 1981, I had applied to Chicago magazine to be a food reviewer," Bowen explained. "Which at the time, that was it—that was all you could know about restaurants in Chicago. (There were like forty restaurants then.) Allen Kelson was the editor—since, as I remember, disgraced. I'd never met the man, but he took me on, and over the period of about a year, I did probably a dozen restaurant reviews, some well-known places, some not so much. And they'd give me an honorarium, I forget how much. So finally I confronted him and said 'I've been doing this for a year, how about a job?' And he replied, 'Ehhhnh, we don't need you.'"
The book grew out of that brush-off. If he couldn't review high end restaurants for Chicago, he'd pen a definitive guide to Chicago's street-food culture. "When Kelson said 'We don't need you,' I said, 'I will have my revenge.' I'd been going out to lunch with my friend Dick, who was from Massachusetts. I was from Cleveland, I'd been in Chicago about eight years, but hot dog stands, we didn't know. We wrote it tongue in cheek to some extent, except we tried to be as accurate as possible—if the guy had dirty fingernails, we said he had dirty fingernails."
The idea of devoting serious writing to joint food wasn't very old—Calvin Trillin and Jane and Michael Stern had only been doing it for about a decade at that point—and a certain air of sarcasm might have been a defense mechanism. But even though Bowen and Fay wrote with cheek, their research and documentation were meticulous, and besides calling out favorite hot dog stands (as well as Italian beef, gyros, and other things), the book included valuable interviews with the heads of companies like David Berg & Co. and Iltaco, the tamale and pizza puff empire. Years later the Sterns would call it "a brilliant overview of Chicago's street food culture" in a list of essential books. "Interestingly though, over the course of thirty years, any Chicagoan who reads it takes it deadly seriously," says Bowen. "They don't see the humor or what we tried to pass as humor. Even Jane and Michael Stern didn't get it as tongue in cheek. The truth is, we wrote it as a kind of parody of serious restaurant reviewing."
Also appreciative of the scholarly validation, however irony tinged, were the city's hot dog vendors. "The traditional hot dog stand proprietor—the mom and pop—they were very excited about the attention," Bowen says. "When the book came out our publisher, Chicago Review Press, had their offices down on Institute Place, and they had a party on the roof. And the elevator went out, so Fluky, Jack Drexler, catered it, and they had to carry everything up the stairs. Anyway, everybody who was in the book was invited. So Maurie Berman, who was Superdawg, is up there, and he's standing next to me—he was a little guy, shorter than me, but I thought of him as the Rasputin of the hot dog business—he came up to me and said [speaking in gravelly voice]: 'Rich, you did a great thing for the hot dog industry. You didn't name us number one, but you know what, Rich? Fuck you, we don't need ya!'"
He and Fay did manage to appear on a couple of TV programs as hot dog experts, but otherwise it was back into long careers in academia for both of them; Hot Dog Chicago stands out incongruously among the otherwise sober scholarly papers in their respective lists of publications. Over a trio of dogs with things like jerk chicken sausage and duck confit at Hoppin' Hots, I asked Bowen how he felt the food scene in Chicago had evolved since their book came out three decades ago.
"A place like this, which is great, parallels the evolution of food in Chicago a lot," he said. "The traditional hot dog place, the mom and pop, hasn't changed that much. Places like Wolfy's and Parky's and Gene & Jude's—they'll never change. When the whole family dies and there's one addled nephew left who's running it, they'll finally close. So there's still this core of places that will never change."
"But this is the greening of it, beginning with Hot Doug's and so on. God bless that things like this exist, because it represents that you can really eat well now in the city. The whole idea of eating well has changed. Back then you'd go to the Bakery and have beef Wellington. And now it's places like this—it's a matter of creativity, I guess. It's also a fact that the best food in Chicago is in the hood, it's somewhere in the hood. I mean, look at Logan Square. My ex-wife and I were big fans of Lula Cafe, when that was still a pretty rough area. If I could have a time machine, I'd be 27 years old in Logan Square now."
I mentioned that leafing through the book, I'd seen a lot of places that were still around, or at least the building was still a hot dog stand. But there were two areas that used to be strong areas for hot dogs that are virtually frankfurter free today. One was Streeterville, which back then would have still had factories and truck drivers coming off Lower Wacker Drive with deliveries. "Well, Streeterville—I live down there, and it's owned by Northwestern now," Bowen said. "They might as well call it Northwesternville. I think you have to go over to Gold Coast Dogs on Rush now, if that's still there."
The other was Rogers Park and the area west of there, which had lots of kosher dogs back when its population was heavily Jewish. "In my own mind, Rogers Park hasn't changed. I'm probably wrong about that, but I don't get to Jarvis and places like that much," Bowen said. "The interesting thing about Rogers Park now is the profusion of Mexican places. We took our authors' picture—with our backs to the camera—at an old chili parlor on Clark just north of Devon, Dewey's, which is a taco place now. It was this place that you went to at two in the morning when you'd been drinking. Quite remarkable in the day—it was like Nighthawks in there."
That brings up another food covered in the book—chili. That was a classic workingman's lunch back in the day, but has pretty much vanished in the years since. "I don't know why chili has faded like that," Bowen says. "I mean like Dewey's, that was a place that was really from the Depression. When was the last time I even saw chili on a menu? If you go to a place like Wolfy's, they probably have it on the menu—but you don't know where it came from. Or what size can it came from."
He muses, "That's an area where some place could take this idea, the upscale hot dog—because a bowl of chili is not much different from a Chicago hot dog in terms of what you could put into it. Although that could be a hard sell. There's something about the tube steak on a bun that's easy."
On the other hand, Italian beef is one they wrote about then that's still going strong—and largely unbastardized. "In terms of it staying traditional, I think it's the Italians themselves—don't mess with Texas, you know?," he said. "I personally love Italian beef—I don't eat that many hot dogs these days, for whatever reason, but the Italian beef places—that's a very delicious thing."
For him, the persistence of Italian beef is proof that we still have a vibrant local fast-foods scene strongly rooted here. "The wonderful thing about Chicago, which was true thirty years ago and is true now, is—yeah, there are Mickey D's around, but I think the total number of places that are native here, still exceeds the Burger Kings and so on. Well, McDonald's has fallen on hard times, and good on 'em! Polluting American tastes for fifty years."
"But I was just in Canton, Ohio, my uncle passed away there at 91—and oh my God," he sighed. "The busiest place in town was the Outback Steakhouse. People were actually saying, let's go there! My cousin took me to an Italian place that was his favorite, and it was just terrible. He and his wife came to visit here, and I took him around the corner to Francesca's on Chestnut, which is two blocks from where I live—I live in one of the Mies buildings on Lake Shore Drive. To me it's just Francesca, it's close and I like it well enough. And he declared that it was the best food he'd ever had in his life."