Chicago is a city where putting ketchup on a hot dog is as ignorant as thinking the Cubs will win the World Series. It's a place where dog drive-in Superdawg petitioned the President of the United States to add a hot dog emoji to the country's icon-based rhetoric; and where hundreds of diehard fans waited in line, in the rain, on the sidewalk outside of Hot Doug's for over 26 hours to savor the last bite of owner Doug Sohn's meat.
These people are idiots, but their dedication is indicative of a primal appreciation of encased meats that only red-blooded Chicagoans understand.
Although Sohn closed his namesake meat emporium in October, he hasn't stopped stroking that sausage. "If I wasn't paying any attention to longevity, I would have a couple every day," he says. Calling the hot dog the perfect food, Sohn waxes poetic about the Chicago-style dogs. For all you noobs, that's a beef hot dog topped with mustard, chopped onions, a dill pickle spear, sweet relish, tomato, sport peppers, and celery salt. The balance of salt, fat, creaminess, crunch, sweetness, and vinegary tang wrapped in a soft bun can bring a grown man to tears.
As part of his quest for the dream dog, Sohn's scarfed down everything from chili dogs at Pink's in Los Angeles to bacon-wrapped, cheese-filled Hungarian smoked sausages in Budapest. Few can compete against the Chicago staple—especially in Europe, where Sohn suffered from a serious case of limp meat after being served the canned Vienna sausages that often replace the snappy American version. "The lore is that it's all the scraps," Sohn says. "It might be true there." Not to be confused with Vienna Beef—the premiere all-beef hot dog producer based out of Chicago—the imposters are tasteless, mushy, and lack the crucial natural casing that gives worthwhile dogs the distinctive snap.
Back in the States, Sohn has a soft spot for the dirty water dogs slung by street vendors throughout New York City. "I like the Sabrett hot dogs, because I know what I'm going to get," he says reminiscing on childhood trips to New York City where a hot dog and orange soda often constituted breakfast. "It's because it's there. I've been walking a lot and am kinda hungry. Lunch is 10 blocks away, so I might as well have a hot dog along the way. It's much more necessity, or a fuel aspect, than I'm really craving a hot dog."
If anyone can deliver a meal's worth of meat, it's Rob Leavitt—a certified intestine-stuffer and owner of The Butcher & Larder. He has been handling a sausage teaser (the three-pronged tool used to puncture casings so moisture can escape) since it was unsafe to enter the phrase in a search engine. "Before it was a thing where everyone was making sausages and charcuterie, somehow I got interested," Levitt recalls. "There wasn't a lot of information. I was Googling something sausage-related and it brought up some interesting results that were not what I was looking for and actually crashed a computer."
Since then, Levitt has secured a new computer as well as a 3,000-square-foot, whole-animal butcher shop. Like Sohn, Levitt wants you to know that sausages and hot dogs alike are not made from mystery meat, but rather, a delicate ratio of protein-rich meats and hard fats. Usually, it's 70-30 meat to fat, so there is enough fat to keep the sausage juicy and absorb flavors, whether that is smoke or spice, but not cause the dreaded flaccid dog. "There's nothing that anyone's going to do that makes a sausage better than the sum of its parts," he says. Bad meat makes bad sausages, it's as simple as that—but less so when it comes to cooking them.
"Teaching people how to handle a sausage has become part of our repertoire," Levitt says. Naturally encased meats have a tendency to suffer from shrinkage or spontaneous combustion if exposed to too much heat too fast. Who hasn't been there before? Avoid both by placing sausages in a pot of cold water, brining it to a simmer, and then letting it cool. Continue to grill or broil as desired. Or just follow this butcher's sure-fire sausage method of throwing them in a toaster oven heated to 350 degrees [Fahrenheit] while drinking a beer. "By the time I'm done," he says, "the sausages are done."
Once you've finished wiping mustard off your chin, it takes a true prude to not derive carnal pleasure from sinking their teeth into a taut dog, whether it's a few barbeque'd brats or the beloved Chicago-style red hot. As Levitt says, "Sausage is something that you will see on a fancy restaurant menu and sausage is something that you will see on a street corner, at a ballpark. It's everywhere. Like everything else, we want ours to be the best."