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Welcoming The Dog Days Of Summer

As Memorial Day fast approaches, the loud clunks and wrish-wrish noises you hear from your neighbor's backyard should not alarm you. They are the sounds of empty propane tanks being replaced with full ones and crusty carbonized grills being scraped clean.

All around the country, people are gearing up for grilling season, and that means one thing: Ladies and gentlemen, it's time to get your dogs on.

For more than a century, the hot dog has worked its way from the butcher's scrap table straight to our nitrite-filled hearts.

And, oh, how our hearts flutter when we bite into a pillowy, warm bun, our tongues tingling under a sweet-and-sour medley of condiments as our teeth snap satisfyingly into the meat's outer casing. A properly topped dog is one of those rare foods that can send us to gustatory nirvana in a single bite: salty, sweet, sour, soft, crunchy and oozy all at once.

Today, there are all kinds of dogs in most markets: turkey dogs, chicken dogs, tofu dogs, kosher dogs and even nonfat dogs.

Contrary to popular legend, most beef hot dogs are not made of unmentionable animal parts. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has imposed strict regulations on hot dog ingredients, and if the dogs contain any "byproducts" (heart, kidney or liver, for example), the manufacturer is required to list those ingredients on the product label.

Most hot dogs contain a combination of pork and beef, unless otherwise stated, and all hot dogs come precooked and ready to eat.

How did we get the name "hot dog"? The story starts in Vienna, Austria, and Germany in the 1800s, where the "wiener" and "frankfurter" were first invented. Both sausages were thinner than bratwurst or knockwurst but still heavily seasoned and less spicy than their relatives -- knockwurst, bratwurst and kielbasa.

One of the popular Frankfurt butchers of the day "curved" his sausages in homage to his pet dachshund. The name "dachshund sausages" stuck, and this style of link, thinner and less spicy than regular sausages, made its way to the United States, where street vendors eventually put the sausages inside a bun to simplify eating them.

Historical gastronomists argue over how exactly hot dachshunds came to be called "hot dogs," but the most compelling tale comes from a 1902 Giants baseball game on the New York Polo Grounds. A cartoonist for the New York Evening Journal drew a picture of a frankfurter with the head, tail and legs of a dachshund, but he did not know how to spell "dachshund." His caption read simply, "Hot dog!"

The hot dog has always been an American favorite. Americans eat an average of 60 hot dogs every year. But every region of the country has its own style of how to dress a dog.

Folks from Los Angeles swear by Pink's, the 68-year-old Hollywood institution whose signature hot dog is a steamed, all-beef kosher frank on two slices of American cheese, smothered with homemade chili, chopped onions and a squirt of mustard.

New Yorkers, who spend $100 million on hot dogs every year -- more than any other city -- love their deli dogs straight from a hot water bath, loaded with 'kraut and mustard, while neighbors in Long Island enjoy their Coney Island dogs swimming in chili and cheese.

Then there's the Chicago dog, my personal favorite. Order it "dragged through the garden" and you'll get an all-beef kosher frank inside a poppy-seed bun, topped with green relish, chopped onions, a pickle spear, mustard, tomato wedges, sweet peppers and a heavy shake of celery salt. Who needs a balanced diet when you can eat a Chicago dog every day?

Hot dogs have even gone upscale. They've gained a kitschy culinary status among fine-dining restaurants that are reinterpreting this cheap eat into a gourmet meal. In Miami, a chain called Frankitude offers an all-salmon hot dog, while the Laundry in the East Hamptons offers a $25 Wagyu beef dog. M'Dawg Haute Dogs, a new joint in Washington, D.C., offers a $20 Kobe beef dog for the criminally insane. Talk about hot cuisine.

Call me a traditionalist, but what's the point of overseasoning, grinding, extruding and precooking a good cut of meat into the shape of a sausage? You shouldn't try to teach an old dog new tricks, especially when the beauty of the hot dog is its low-brow appeal. Any attempt to gussy up an American tradition would seem, well, un-American.

For this reason, I give you recipes that don't offer high-end toppings or homemade wieners. If you're serving dogs at home, stick with the basics. Start with the freshest white buns you can find. They make a difference (now is not the time to go healthy by choosing whole wheat).

Then pick your favorite dog. Most enthusiasts swear by all-beef kosher wieners for their bold flavor. I grew up eating all-beef Oscar Meyer but now prefer the taste and harder casing of Hebrew National or Nathan's. Some franks, mostly cheaper ones, do not have outer casings, which deprives hot dog lovers of that signature snap when biting through to the meat.

Even though hot dogs come precooked, heating them excites the water and salt molecules inside, which enhances the overall flavor of the dog. In non-grilling season, I like to boil or steam my dogs in cheap American beer. Or if I'm feeding my hungry -- and impatient -- 2-year-old, I'll resort to nuking them in the microwave for 60 seconds. But nothing beats a grilled dog, the preferred cooking method among Americans. The smoky grilled flavor, the carbonized char marks and the slightly toughened outer casing are essential to the summer grilling experience.

For toppings, don't try to get too fancy. Remember to dress the dog, not the bun. The mustard should be bright yellow. The onions need to be chopped fine, and the 'kraut should be a little pale and runny. The relish needs to be a shade of nuclear green, the likes of which can only be found in Marvel comic books. The only exception to the store-bought toppings is chili, which is a snap to make at home and worth the effort.

Finally, a word on ketchup: Don't use it. It may be the second most popular condiment, behind mustard, but its cloying sweetness doesn't go with a salty dog. Even the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council says that anyone over the age of 18 should not use ketchup.

Ketchup or not, we Americans will consume about 7 billion hot dogs between Memorial Day and Labor Day. It's an amazing statistic considering that most of us do not eat like Takeru Kobayashi, the six-time Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Champion who last year inhaled 53.75 hot dogs in 12 minutes.

So what are we waiting for? Fire up that grill and lay out your toppings. The dog days of summer are here.

Read last week's Kitchen Window: tea.

Get more recipe ideas from the Kitchen Window archive.

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