With rue my heart is laden
For golden fries I had,
For many a Polish sausage
When I was a Chicago lad.
The Hudson River valley, where I live, is a beautiful place. There are gentle rolling meadows, picture-book farms, and pleasant forests. From any hill-top you can see the blue Catskills in the distance. Hawks circle overhead–sometimes an eagle–and I often see deer on my morning walk. Too bad these things mean nothing to me.
Well, they don’t mean nothing–they just aren’t as important as some other things. I didn’t know this until last week. If you had asked me, I would have said I was happy and fulfilled. I had forgotten who I was and what was what, where I come from and, in general, what is the meaning of life.
Now I know. I’m a man in touch with his inner reality.
This is what happened. Jill and I were driving down Route 9 toward the southern part of Dutchess County. We don’t go down there very often–it’s your typical suburban commercial blight–mall after mall, traffic and congestion. There was formerly a city there–Poughkeepsie–but feeble- minded planning cut the heart out of it in the 70′s, and now there’s nothing but the edges, with no center.
In the midst of this hoplessness, in a tatty strip mall we found a little enterprise we hadn’t noticed before. Herschel’s Chicago hotdogs.
“Shall we give it a try?” Jill asked.
Now I am from Chicago. I know what a Chicago hot dog is. It bears only the most general resemblance to the New York street frank, the sphere of influence of which extends as far as Boston and Baltimore, and all up and down the eastern seaboard.
“Sure, lets’ try it,” I said, but only out of desperation. I knew the best we could hope for would be something less than a complete disaster.
For those unfortunates who have never had one, I will attempt to describe a Chicago hot dog. Words aren’t adequate to the task, but I will try:
First, it’s on a poppy-seed bun which is doughy and substantial, but not heavy. The bun is lightly steamed at the point of serving.
The hot dog is all beef, spicier than the New York variety. It is steamed and has a natural casing. It snaps when you bite into it, and squirts hot deliciousness. A variant is the Polish sausage which the gods ate on Olympus.
This is what goes on it:
- Yellow mustard.
- Bright green pickle relish.
- Chopped onion.
- A kosher pickle spear.
- Two slices of tomato.
- Two tiny but devastating peppers.
- And all-important, celery salt.
All of this is fitted together with fiendish cleverness enabling the eater to get most of it in his mouth, and only a little on his shirt. If there are fries, they are hand cut, skinny and glorious.
The chance of encountering a genuine Chicago dog in this part of the state, where even the New York city dog is relatively unknown, and the natives delude themselves with those pink skinless things on supermarket rolls, seemed vanishingly small–but so lonely and desperate and miserable and starved for some vestige of culture were we, that we marched in, and ordered one apiece.
They looked right. They smelled right. We carried them to a little table and made ready to address them. I cautioned myself not to be a sucker yet one more time. Repeated experience has taught me to hold back a little enthusiasm to tide me over the inevitable disappointment that lurks behind most experiences.
I took my first bite. It was completely authentic. It turns out that Herschel is guy who retired from a big job in the recording industry, and created an Chicago hot dog stand by way of a hobby business, and work of art. The hot dogs, the buns–everything, even the mustard is imported from Chicago.
As I munched, thirty-five or forty years rolled back, compressed, extended, and realigned. A flood of clear and distinct memories that had been locked away suddenly became immediate and accessible. The meaningless suburban highway transformed, became a street–with streetcars. The next errant breeze might carry the sound of distant cheering at Wrigley Field, or the redolence of the stockyards. I let on that the tears in my eyes were because of the peppers–but it was not so. Only the ringing in my ears and the itching of my scalp was because of the peppers–the tears were about something else.
The next day we were back. As can easily happen, we went to the wrong strip mall, and in the spot that should have been Herschel’s was a vacant store.
“I knew it!” I said. “It’s gone.”
“Like Brigadoon,” Jill said.
But we soon realized our mistake. In the next little retail outcropping, there was Herschel’s, dispensing the genuine article. And the experience was not diminished when repeated. More little rents in the fabric of memory were closed up, while I filled up.
I’ve been back several times now. It’s working like a high-speed deluxe Psychoanalysis, with the option of grilled onions. The days of my childhood and adolescence, those critical moments which set the course for the rest of my life, are all linking up like…Vienna sausages.
I think I have the makings of a novel here. Marcel Proust, eat your heart out.