Chicago Hot Dog Fest is coming: Have you spoken to your kids about ketchup?

This week’s blog post is by The Paternity Test co-host Matt Boresi, who lives in the Edgewater Glen neighborhood of Chicago with his wife (“Professor Foster”) and their 5-year-old daughter, Viva, who is a Windy City condiment heretic.

On Aug. 11-13, the Chicago History Museum sponsors Chicago Hot Dog Fest, an ever-growing three day event in Lincoln Park featuring speakers, live music and our city’s favorite amply garnished encased meat: the Chicago Style Hot Dog. It’s a family-friendly event; a chance to see beloved fest-friendly bands like “16 Candles” and fresh local acts like “Yoko and the Oh-Nos.” The speakers will discuss topics ranging from the history of meatpacking in Chicago to myths about the hot dog to whether or not we should dislike the Cubs even more now that they won something. (Okay, I’m mangling the intent of that last one.) Best of all, it’s a chance to eat “frankfurter sandwiches” until you have to catch your breath.

It’s definitely hot dog season right now — the fest is coming up and this past week was both “National Hot Dog Day” (which I’m pretty sure was invented by the tube steak industry to sell more dogs) and the day that Heinz rolled out a prank/marketing ploy to encourage Chicagoans to end their decades long embargo against ketchup on hot dogs. Their premise is simple: Heinz feeds you something called “Chicago Hot Dog Sauce” and they get you to say you like it, then they reveal that it was ketchup all along and you are a big, sugary-tomato-glop loving rube.  Don’t fall for it, true believers! And warn your children of the wily ways of Big Ketchup and our hallowed traditions before you head to the fest. Ketchup simply does not belong on hot dogs.

So, why does ketchup not go on a hot dog? Let’s first look at the history of the (usually all beef) hot dog here in the Hog Butcher of the World. The hot dog first came to our fair city during the Columbian Exhibition of 1893. I mean, duh, of course it did, because EVERYTHING in our city started at the Exhibition. I don’t know if anything has been introduced, invented or discovered since the Columbian Exhibition, except maybe Groupon and the Son of Svengoolie. While the “Chicago style” schema didn’t apply to these frankfurters at first, it was Germans that brought the best of wursts to us, so they put mustard on them. Mustard on dogs goes all the way back.

Over time (and in a way I’m not historian enough to figure out), Chicago-style came to mean the following seven condiments: (yellow) mustard, (raw, chopped) onions, sport peppers, tomato slices, a dill pickle spear, “atomic” relish and savory celery salt. What is not one of the seven?  Ketchup. Seven is a holy number. It’s a perfect number in Hebrew. It’s also the day when the Judeo-Christian Biblical God rested when creating humanity. It’s a mystical number of the Kabbalah and a lucky number in gambling. Ketchup is so unholy it isn’t one of the seven condiments EVEN THOUGH PICKLES ARE KIND OF ON THERE TWICE.

That’s how bad ketchup is.

It’s not just history that makes us beholden to the ketchup-free dog, it’s our goal of preserving the individuality of Chicago. There are precious few things that delineate a city’s home grown culture anymore. Cities are so filled with chain stores that there is very little local color anywhere. Our hatred of ketchup is one of the few things that makes us Chicagoans and your child should understand that we need to hold on to SOME reason for people to come to Chicago. New York has filthy Elmos, St. Louis has ruined raviolis, Las Vegas has being buried alive in corn fields, Philadelphia has throwing batteries as ball players and Los Angeles has the Lucas Museum (Thanks for nothing, Friends of the Park!). We have hot dogs sans ketchup. 

Beyond history and identity, we don’t put ketchup on hot dogs because ketchup is bad. As an Italian, I hold the tomato sacred. To make it into ketchup is blasphemy to the platonic form of the tomato which resides in the ether. What a tragic, tragic fate for a tomato to end up in a squeeze bottle being smacked on the butt by some yokel about to eat a plate of hashbrowns. That tomato could have been in a caprese salad, and instead it lies in sugary ruin. There’s nothing you put ketchup on that wouldn’t be better with something other than ketchup. Mayo on fries, mustard on hot dogs, steak sauce on hamburgers, NOTHING on steak. 

The National Hot Dog and Sausage Council (It’s tough to argue with an authority like that.) suggests that it’s all right to have ketchup on a hot dog if you are under 18. I would contest that number, though, as no self respecting teen should be eating ketchup on a hot dog like a poor, ignorant toddler. Barack Obama once said that it’s okay for kids under eight. (Trump puts ketchup on his steak, so he is an animal and gets no say in the matter.) I’m very, very sorry to say that I’ve thus far had no luck getting my 5-year-old daughter to eat anything on a hot dog but ketchup. Mustard, she insists, is too spicy. (She’s lying, she eats much spicier food than that. Maybe she hates the color yellow, like a pint-sized Green Lantern corpsman?) So, she ruins the beefy goodness with ketchup. She also regularly puts her shoes on the wrong feet, so I’m going to give her a pass for a little while longer, but I cringe every time I have to ask for a hot dog with ketchup in a restaurant or at a stand. (I usually make sure to hold her as I order so I can nod ashamedly towards her to indicate to the proprietor of the stand that “It’s not for me.”)

I’ll keep working on my daughter. You keep working on your loved ones. It’s not fair to allow them to continue to wander in the desert of inappropriate toppings, and if they want to stay in Chicago, they really need to make peace with the seven appropriate hot dog condiments. It’s all we have.

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If you go

Chicago Hot Dog Fest takes place at Stockton and Lasalle.

Food and drink are available for purchase using Dog Dollars. ($1 USD = $1 Dog Dollar, but you can buy them online at a 20 percent discount before the festival.)

There is a $5 suggested donation and a $20 suggested family donation at the entrance. 

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