The smell hit me as soon as I pulled the first trash bag, and with it came a flood of memories.
There’s a particular aroma to the garbage at a hot dog joint: a pronounced mustard base with an accent of vinegar, undertones of wet bread and subtle notes of hot dog water.
It’s different, in its way, from the detritus of burger joints — which always smells like ketchup and onions — and bars, where sour beer and cigarettes (back before they were forced to go smoke free) always packed the hardest olfactory punch when I was making the garbage run.
And to me, as I volunteered on the last night at Skippy’s Hot Dogs on Fourth Street in Winston-Salem, it smelled like the past.
Like most Americans, I’ve been eating hot dogs my whole life. In the days before concession food became more sophisticated, they were everywhere: ballparks, movie theaters, shopping malls, airports, fairgrounds, festivals, on street corners in just about every downtown in the country, and blackening in the corner of the grill at every backyard cookout.
Even my wife, who has been vegetarian since she was 8 years old, ate canned hot dogs made from soy when she was a kid.
Frank. Weenie. Red hot. Tubesteak. Footlong. Street meat. Coney. Durger.
In New York City they top ’em with spicy mustard and sauerkraut. In Chicago they get mustard, relish, onion, peppers, tomato, celery salt and a pickle wedge. Kansas City Dogs come with kraut and Swiss cheese while in Arizona the meat wears a bacon jacket and Seattle serves ’em with cream cheese and grilled onion.
The local version of “all the way” — chili, slaw, mustard and raw onion — has its own place among these regional giants.
But the best hot dog in the Triad — and maybe even the best I’ve ever had — was at Skippy’s, and you can’t get ’em anymore.
The saga of Mike Rothman and Skippy’s Hot Dogs will go down in the annals of Winston-Salem culinary history.
Rothman ran his shop on Fourth Street like a majordomo in service to his chosen medium: the humble hot dog. He used the good ones — all beef, baby — even in his base-level menu items and nestled them along with their condiments in pretzel rolls made from a secret recipe acquired from a Pennsylvania pretzel maestro.
He worked his grill with surgical precision: a handful of dogs thawing on the back right while he slowly rotated two rows, conveyor style, on the left until each took on a toasty char. No compromises.
When he announced that he had brain cancer and closed his shop late last month, members of the city’s restaurant community stepped up, opening and running the shop for a week and sending the proceeds to Rothman, who is undergoing treatment in Pennsylvania.
Through labor and donations, they raised more than $100,000 in eight days.
I volunteered because I’ve admired Rothman for years, ever since I “discovered” the place in 2005. Even when I was on the food beat, it was rare to meet a chef who cared so deeply about the ingredients, the process. And after enjoying so many Chicago dogs and hand-cut fries in the place, I figured I owed him at least that much.
I took my shift on the last night. After restocking napkins and filling ketchups, I pulled my first trashcan, and that’s when that pungent smell took me back.
I worked in a couple hot-dog joints in the mall when I was a teenager. The first was at a set of kiosks known collectively as “Snack Shack,” where we trucked in frozen and reheated pretzels, Italian ices, soft drinks and knish. We had hot dogs too, cooked on one of those roller burners that kept them rotating under a hot light. They were, by and large, inedible even by shopping-mall standards, even when slathered in red onion sauce, which is Option B for hot dogs in the New York metro area.