Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Dogs of War

The last Friday of the month meant two things to me back in grade school: air-raid sirens and hot dogs. Both of these things disturbed me.

I never got used to the melancholy wail of those sirens, which were strange box-shaped speakers tucked into odd corners all over Los Angeles, where I grew up. They went off on the last Friday of the month, my parents said, because people were testing to make sure they worked.

"Why do they have to work? What are they for?" I asked.

"In case there's a war and bad people want to drop bombs on us, that's when they'll turn them on," Mom said. This was during the twilight of the Cold War – at this point, those sirens were probably tested more out of habit than need – so Mom never bothered to mention the N word: nuclear.

The sirens always went off just before noon, when I was in school. My teachers pointedly ignored the rhythmic keening outside, urging us to focus on our lessons. My classmates never seemed to notice the sirens, for noon on the last Friday of the month signalled something far more portentious: Hot Dog Day!

Hot Dog Day was a big deal because our school was so small -- the student population hovered at just over 100. In the following years, the school would grow into a high-powered private academy catering to the children of Hollywood executives, but during my years there, it was still experimental, funky and low budget. The school was too small to have a cafeteria or vending machines, so students were responsible for providing their own lunches (no soda or candy, please) – except for the last Friday of the month, when we were treated to hot dogs!

On Hot Dog Day, several volunteer moms set up big white electric steamers full of hot dogs on one of the picnic tables in the outdoor lunch area. On a nearby table were paper plates, bags of buns, and squeeze bottles of ketchup and mustard. There were also carrot and celery sticks, individual bags of potato chips, and usually, individually-wrapped cups of ice cream for dessert.

Oh joy.

I didn't understand why everyone loved hot dogs. Something about the combination of a cold gummy bun and a random rubbery sausage just failed to move me. And I hated, just hated, the assumption that just because I was a little kid I was supposed to adore them. "You don't know what you're missing!" the Hot Dog Moms would scold as they watched me toss my nearly-untouched dog in the trash every month.

But one day, in fifth grade, my hot-dog-loving classmates experienced a life-changing crisis of faith.

Adam, one of the popular kids, came running into our classroom just before roll call in a wide-eyed panic, clutching a dog-eared copy of the most recent Consumer Reports. In it was a scathing exposé on hot dogs: many national brands tested by Consumer Reports, including the one we ate every Hot Dog Day, were filled with contaminants such as rat droppings! We'd been eating rat droppings!

The terrifying news went viral. By lunchtime, all but the youngest kindergarten kids were up in arms about the feces-filled hot dogs. What should we do?

Because this was the pre-No Child Left Behind era, our teachers were free to throw aside their lesson plans and turn this crisis into a teachable moment on consumer rights and civic responsibility. First, we discussed the credibility of our information source: Consumer Reports was, sadly, a very credible source, so it was probably true that we'd been eating rat poo.

Next, we discussed our options. I don't remember exactly how the discussion unfolded, except that it involved a lot of class votes. In the end, our class decided to compose a petition to the principal asking that we change hot dog brands – there were a few brands that got glowing reviews from Consumer Reports, and we proposed these as alternatives. I'm sure our canny teacher worked a lesson on rhetoric and composition into this somehow.

The principal, impressed by our diligence, passion, and proper use of punctuation, agreed to change hot dog brands. (Given the brands involved, this probably doubled the school's monthly hot dog expenditures.) But the next time the air-raid sirens wailed and the white electric steamers came out, we circled the picnic tables warily. The moms running the operation had saved the wrappers from the hot dog packages to show any skeptics.

And as usual, I took my hot dog and tossed it after a few polite nibbles. It still didn't do anything for me. But at least this time, nobody gave me any lectures about what I had been missing.


I got over my hot dog hatred in junior high, when I discovered chili. Chili makes everything better.

I also figured out a few general points about hot dogs: First, the buns have to be warm, preferably toasted. Second, just as I learned in fifth grade, the quality of the dog does count. Third, the relation between the hot dog and the bun needs to be mediated by stuff. Lots of stuff. Chili is one of the best things one can use to marry a dog to its bun. My former home town of Los Angeles is arguably the world capital of putting stuff on hot dogs: Chili! Bacon! Pastrami! Guacamole! Cheese! Cole slaw and sauerkraut and kimchee! All of the above! The stuff that goes with hot dogs in Los Angeles can even be abstract, as in the case of Law Dogs, a stand that offers both hot dogs and legal advice.

My version of a dressed-up dog was born of two influences: the curried mincemeat rolls my husband used to enjoy during his school years in South Africa, and the German fast-food treat currywurst (sausage served with a spicy-sweet curry-flavored sauce, with or without a bun). My dog is like a chili dog in spirit, but with a different flavor profile, one shamelessly ripped off from other culinary traditions and made into something that would most likely be unrecognizable back in the lands of its origins.

And nothing could be more American than that.

Afro-Teutonic Dogs

For the sauce:

2 tablespoons neutral oil, such as canola

3/4 pound ground beef

¼ cup finely diced onion

1 small clove garlic, minced

½ large tomato, seeded andfinely diced

1-1/2 teaspoon curry powder

½ teaspoon cayenne

¼ cup tomato ketchup

¼ cup water

The rest:

6 hot dog buns

6 good-quality hot dogs

finely diced onion and tomato for garnish (optional)

To make the sauce:

1. Heat the oil in a large saute pan over medium heat. Add onions and garlic; cook until the onion is translucent.

2. Add the ground beef to the pan. Break it up with a spoon or spatula; cook, stirring, until the meat is no longer pink.

3. Add the tomatoes, curry powder, and cayenne; mix thoroughly with the meat.

4. Add the ketchup and water, mix thoroughly with the meat and simmer, over low heat, about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes are dissolved and the flavors are blended.

To complete the dish:

1. Toast the buns and heat the hot dogs in the manner of your preference.

2. Spoon some of the sauce inside a toasted bun, top with a hot dog and diced onion and tomato if desired, and enjoy.

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