No one escapes high school without internalizing the idea that America is a melting pot. But recently, as I ate my way through New Jersey, I realized there’s a more accurate analogy that describes our national character. America is actually more like a hot dog cart. Look closely at this humble foodstuff and you can see how generations of hungry immigrants and food traditions from the whole world converge on the bun. And there’s no better vantage point from which to examine the hot dog than the annual New Jersey State Hotdog Tour.
The Garden State, so near the hub of Ellis Island, is the hotdog capital of America. Sure, New York’s venders are more visible in movies and the Chicago dog, piled with veggies, gets more attention in the pages of foodie magazines, but a trip up and down the Garden State Parkway reveals the hotdog’s real identity.
This tour, now its 9th year, started on online forums where the hotdog obsessed gathered to trade opinions. Today, members make their online home in a private Facebook group dedicated to their tubular calling. The group revolves around the annual tour.
John Fox, the leader of the group, has been featured in the New York Times and is probably the utmost hot dog authority on earth. Fox began the tour as an informal 20-person carpool, but now it’s a highly organized 100-person event, with two rented buses and a $35 price tag.
On September 22, I embarked on my first Jersey Hot Dog Tour not really knowing what to expect. The group met at in Union, about 10 minutes south of New York City, and began the tour with Galloping Hill Inn’s original recipe franks. A dog grilled with sauerkraut, spicy relish, and brown mustard is the specialty of the house.
Back on the bus, conversations quickly turned to heated hotdog debate. By our second stop, Marci’s Dog House in South Union, we knew each other more by our condiment convictions than our names.
Marci’s owner, Rob Marciano, cooks everything from scratch aboard his truck, including his signature strubelkraut, a slaw of fresh sauerkraut blended with four kinds of mustard and sweet relish before being stewed for six hours. The Clicquot-colored cabbage is crunchy, tangy, and sweet—a striking contrast to the smoky dogs.
For our next stop, we moved south to Colonia, parallel to Staten Island, in search of another truck. Uncle Petey’s Weenies lives in the narrow parking lot off bustling St. Georges Avenue where Pete Orcinoli and his family-run truck serve up classic examples of New Jersey hot dogs.
The two dogs offered here, a standard snappy Sabrett, and a mammoth nearly third-pound butcher-shop frank, were stellar under the Tex Mex style chili and piquant, red onion sauce. Petey’s were my favorite dogs of the entire day. I had to be talked out of getting back in line for more. It was a good thing, too, because the onslaught was just beginning.
In gritty Elizabeth we found two walkup stalwarts of the hotdog scene: Jerry’s and Tommy’s. Jerry’s Famous Frankfurters were the best deal of the day, ringing in at a mere two dollars each. Here, the defining technique involves poaching the dogs in water before crisping the skins. The chili at Jerry’s is thinner than others on the tour, with flavors of clove and cinnamon that advertise Jerry’s Greek roots.
Three storefronts to the left is Tommy’s Italian Sausage and Hot Dogs. Italian dogs start with bread made from a pizza-style dough, practically an empty calzone, and are stuffed with a hot dog plus sausage, potatoes, peppers, and onions. These Italian dogs are as much about the technique as they are about the ingredients. Each component inside the pizza bread must be deep-fried.
The dog shrivels and contorts in the fryer, while the onions and peppers soften and infuse the oil with a savoriness that is absorbed by the crispy potato disks. The whole crew is stuffed into the bread and it’s up to you how to attack. Some use a fork, others awkwardly turning their heads as if going in for a first kiss before finding a comfortable approach.
The influences on dogs like this span countries and generations but the effect of this over-the-top sandwich, which layers starchy ingredients with meat and fat and makes unrestrained use of the deep fryer, is utterly American.
The tour culminated back in Union at Manny’s Texas Weiners. Texas weiners have nothing to do with Texas, but originated in the kitchens of immigrants in Paterson, New Jersey, in the 1920s. The Greek Sauce is more of a highly seasoned ground meat than proper sauce, and the star in an “Alll the Way” dog along with mustard and chopped onion.
Five hours and I-don’t-want-to-know-how-many calories later, we headed south back to Philly with full stomachs and a new appreciation for a slice of American culture that is all but lost amid so many identical fast food and convenience store chains.
The 10th Annual New Jersey Hot Dog Tour is already booked for Saturday, September 21, 2013. Apply to join the Facebook group if you want to stay up to date on the latest news.