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.
My next job was a step up, at Charlie’s Snack Bar & Deli, where a menu of burgers and sandwiches was bolstered by our bestseller: Hebrew National kosher franks, born and bred in New York City and still my own personal standard. A hot dog aficionado named Lou worked the grill six days a week, running the same sort of roll that Rothman used at his place to lay in the perfect char. Lou spoke mostly Greek, but he managed to get his point across when he was yelling and gesturing at me. The only time he smiled at me was when he would slide me a couple hot dogs for my shift meal, a smile that had everything to do with his pride of workmanship and nothing to do with me.
I’ll admit I was a pretty terrible busboy at 16. Thirty years later, working the floor on the last night at Skippy’s, I felt I had gotten much better at it.
Except in extreme circumstances I don’t eat hot dogs in Greensboro — the Gate City is more of a burger town anyway, and I’ve gotten to the point in my life where I’d pay a dollar not to eat one of those nasty bombs from Yum Yums.
I should say that I find red hot dogs — a grotesquely dyed variation on the form prevalent in the South and Midwest — to be an aberration. Nothing in nature wears that color save for the hindquarters of certain species of baboon. Because the hot dog is sort of a down-market item anyway — it’s pretty much all lips and buttholes, isn’t it? —it seems offensive to give it such an artificially cheery veneer. And sometimes, when you bite into one of those red dogs, the inside of it is dishwater gray.
But Winston-Salem is a hot dog town, with a history of establishments that go way further back than Mike’s little outpost on Fourth Street. And I’m slightly ashamed to say that until Skippy’s shut down, I had never been to any of them.
JS Pulliam’s barbecue shack hunkers down on a hillside out by the Reynolds Airport. It’s a 100-year-old structure of convenience with a menu consisting of nothing but chopped barbecue, hot dogs and chips, and a short counter to lean on while you eat.
Of the iconic Winston-Salem hot dog joints, Pulliam’s is perhaps the most revered both for its longevity and its authenticity — it’s been open and more or less unchanged since 1910, which predates even “The Andy Griffith Show,” and its vintage-ness has a certain cachet among the thoughtful, bearded and tattooed set.
I pulled in, ordered a quick two all the way with chili, mustard and slaw, and brought them, wrapped in napkins and a brown paper bag, to eat in my car.
Alas, Pulliam’s uses red hot dogs with just a light grilling to them and none of that crispy bark that sets in after just the right amount of time on the grill. The chili was fabulous, though, as was the hyper-chopped slaw spooned on top. And the bun — buttered and toasted crisp — stepped in to add texture to the bite.
All in all, not a bad dog, with bonus points for the bun. When Pulliam’s opens its new location at Sixth and Trade streets in downtown Winston-Salem — no date yet set, but it’s been in the works for a year— I plan to put it in my lunchtime loop.
Given its status as the ultimate cheap cut of meat, one might wonder why hot dogs never made it big in the fast-food world, where low-grade tacos, burgers, burritos, sandwiches and various incarnations of fried chicken have stuffed gullets since the Golden Age of the 1950s, when Col. Harlan Sanders and Ray Kroc started a culinary revolution based on speed and affordability.
The internet offers lots of reasons for this — bun-size storage issues, shelf life, preparation methods — but the consensus seems to be that Kroc, who took McDonald’s from a small, local hamburger chain into an international brand that led the industry for decades, thought they were disgusting.
From his 1977 autobiography Grinding it Out: The Making of McDonald’s:
“[T]here’s damned good reason we should never have hot dogs. There’s no telling what’s inside a hot dog’s skin.”
But Kermit’s Hot Dog House, a small, independent fast-food storefront in the Waughtown area of the city, came of age on a timeline parallel to the one established by the big chains, which in 1966, the year Kermit’s opened, were just beginning to swallow national market share. McDonald’s had just launched its first national advertising campaign when Kermit Williams built his carhop on Southern staples like biscuit breakfast, rudimentary sandwiches and “All American” hot dogs that tied in with the place’s patriotic décor.
“All the way” at Kermit’s means chili, slaw, mustard and onion, and that’s how my server slid them to me at my booth by the window, along with a chocolate milkshake that I ordered because I hate myself.
The dogs came less than two minutes after I put in the order— in contrast, dogs at Skippy’s could sometimes take 20 minutes — wrapped in signature wax paper, the fanciest thing about the entire meal.
And maybe it’s because I had already eaten a couple hot dogs that day, or maybe it was because of my snobbery or the giant milkshake I had just slammed, but I found them barely edible. The dog itself was more pink than red, a basic grocery-store number, pale and shiny with too much artificial smoke flavor. I suspect they may have even been turkey dogs, which are only acceptable at children’s birthday parties.
And though hot dog lovers all over the Camel City swear by them, after years of Mike’s dogs, Kermit’s came up short for me.
Here’s the thing about hot dogs: They’re supposed to be kind of gross, the sort of thing a cartoon hobo would cook on a stick over an open flame or a competitive eater stuffs into his mouth two at a time.
The Lucky Dogs of New Orleans’ French Quarter— sold on the street in giant, hot-dog-shaped carts and made famous in the novel Confederacy of Dunces — were even more famous among those of us who worked on Bourbon Street as the most disgusting of comestibles on that filthy street. I threw up immediately after consuming a Lucky Dog. Twice. And those weren’t the last ones I ate that summer.
Even the best hot dogs are made from scrap meat — just a couple clicks above offal — and the worst, according to the FDA’s Defect Levels Handbook, have an acceptable amount of mammalian excreta to them.
It wasn’t always like this. When I was a kid my grandfather used to buy hot dogs straight from his German butcher, who made them from the same recipe he used for bologna. I remember my grandfather used to eat them cold from the refrigerator, and so did I.
But at this time in the North Carolina Piedmont Triad, there is no such thing as an artisan hot dog.
With the realization of that glaring hole in the local marketplace, I decided to pull one more invasive action in the Wiener Wars of Winston-Salem, pointing my car west towards PB’s Takeout, an old-school lunch counter with enough emphasis on hot dogs that an anthropomorphic frankfurter is painted on the white stucco outside the building.
PB’s harkens back to the era before the hyper-commercialization of cheap and fast eats, before the vertically aligned supply chain, Happy Meals and indoor playgrounds homogenized the industry.
It’s a little like a Dairy Queen, without the advertising and signature menu items, and upon entry I was heartened to see the grill man maneuvering hot dogs the color of actual meat on an ancient griddle, blackened by time.
Foregoing tradition — and because I had eaten more than three hot dogs that day — I ordered just a single dog, served up all the way in a small, red basket atop a sheet of wax paper.
I poked inside the bun to see the delightful charred skin, noted that the bun itself had been buttered and toasted. I took a third of it in the first bite and leaned back to chew.
It was remarkable: the well-cooked dog interplayed with the toasted bun; the chili was no mere sludge but had actual heat and meat going on, working with the cool slaw nicely.
It was nothing like the dogs I was raised on, nor did it bear much resemblance to the ones I grew to rely on at Skippy’s. But man, it sure was tasty. And now that Mike Rothman has hung up his spatula, it maybe the best bet in town.
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