It would be falsely modest to claim that I appreciate the hot dog on any level beneath that of connoisseur. No foodstuff will ever rival the hot dog in either portability nor potential for self-expression, those two categories being of supreme weight in selecting The World’s Most Perfect Food. The hot dog is the Walt Whitman of street food: it contains multitudes. It is patriotic and also erotic, transgressive yet wholesome. The casing of even a half-decent all beef dog will snap when bitten, opening onto a mauve core glistening with liquid fat. Yet the hot dog bestows upon its wielder, like Neddy Merrill smacking the bronze backside of Aphrodite, an air of ‘youth, sport, and clement weather.’
The silliest of meals with a rap sheet of names, the hot dog is a joke in and of itself. It is, by anyone’s estimation, the dish with the most generous sense of humour. Yet its pedigree is as Old World dignified as the most sepia images of New Amsterdam. Hot dog detractors – snobs, weaklings, and worrywarts all – have supplied us with infinite anecdotes and ingredient lists meant to undermine the quiet dignity of the dog. But in this era of pink slime apologia, the hot dog has long quit offering excuses for its eyelids and assholes. And our appetites are only bolstered. Our label-reading brain may resist, but the truly human heart is all cured meat.
Taking my own rates of consumption as representative data, the average American consumes five hot dogs per week. Many of these she procures at her favorite local restaurant, Food Ave Express, more widely known as the snack bar in the Target in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania. Here, she is offered modest condiments: relish packets, mustard packets, ketchup packets. This is all she will ever need for a successful hot dog: an all beef frank embellished with two or three packets of yellow mustard, half swathed in its foodsafe foil and enjoyed whilst perusing, in an irony lost on her, the Champion brand women’s exercise apparel. If it has been a long day she will want to be alone with the hot dog, savouring it in the privacy of her VW Jetta in the Target parking lot.
Because the grace of the hot dog lies in its simplicity, it was with wonder and some trepidation that I placed an order with BoDawgs, a gourmet hot dog truck in Sparks, Nevada. I came upon this operation in the food truck food court—an institution that has always struck me as antithetical to the independent freewheeling ethos of a food truck, but that is another topic entirely. This was at the Whole Foods Sparks Farmer’s Market, née the Sparks Hometown Farmer’s Market, held each summer Thursday in the shadow of John Ascuaga’s Nugget, a ‘truly family operation’, according to the Basque Oral History Project, named for its bootstrapsy, Basque, cattle rancher president .
The Sparks Hometown Market was a summertime stomping ground of mine from 2003 to 2007, when I went to college in Reno. This was back when the decay of Reno-Sparks was charming, before the sad mall on Plumb Lane was razed, the subsequent gravel lot haunted by a colony of ominous white gulls. Back then we would bike down Fourth Street – the notorious red light thruway that led visitors to mistakenly believe prostitution was legal – to Victorian Square, whose quaint name has never fooled anyone. The Sparks Hometown Farmer’s Market was itself misleadingly named, as the event was less a farmer’s market and more a rowdy monument to day drinking, with the hardscrabble purveyors of Fallon cantaloupes and Yerington onions banished to the hinterlands of asphalt. The rest of Victorian Ave, aka Fourth Street, was swamped with boozy beer tents, twangy alt-country bands, DIY tie-dye booths billowing with naag champa, old-timers waxing their classic cars in the parking lot of In-N-Out Burger. It was here that my roommate shared his roasted corn on the cob with a police horse before its mountie, a local boy, asked that he not; here that I clung to the waist of my best friend, atop a camel, both of us in sundresses, inadvertently flashing our panties to the children waiting for their turn; here we smoked a joint on the platform of the replica Southern Pacific Depot outside the Sparks Museum; here we feasted on Thai chicken satay skewers, Day-Glo gelato, vodka Slurpies; here every bar was open and thronging with townies – and we aspired to no office higher than that of townie. Here we watched our mountie friend taze a frat boy just like on YouTube, and here we careened through the hot throbbing crowds playing drink when you see a tramp stamp; drink when you see a tribal; drink when you see a nipple ring; drink when you see a cholo, a juggalo, a shitkicker; drink because it’s 2006 and even your feminist theory prof owns a mortgage company and you are considered a great asset there because you have a knack for forging borrowers’ signatures on disclosure documents; drink because this is a land of boom and bust and all you know is boom, so much so that you wonder why they bother reporting the stock market, since the only way it goes is up; drink because everyone you love relies on construction or tourism to eat, to pay their bills, to keep their homes; drink because you are barely twenty-one and have talked your own stepfather into a subprime mortgage, which he will use to buy a house he cannot afford and which will eventually be taken from him; drink, because you have earned a hefty commission from this.
The new Whole Foods Farmers Market is truer to its name. The cantaloupes and onions remain, but gone are the cholos, gone are the shitkickers, gone are the tazing mounties and their tazees. Gone are the camel rides and the beef-tasting tent and most of the yard art. We had to settle for the last vestige of the old Hometown Market’s bawdy parade: four food trucks arranged in a circle, like wagons, a strawberry daiquiri tent off to the side, a singer my beau aptly described as black Dave Mathews rasping about changing the world.
Perhaps the vim and vinegar of John Ascuaga stirred within me as I approached BoDawgs, and heard Paul, the dog slinger there, claim the truck had ‘reinvented’ the hot dog. ‘Really made it our own,’ he said, and perhaps it was the casino mogul, the son of a Basque immigrant whispering in my ear: You cannot make the hot dog your own. The hot dog belongs to no one.
But Paul was a local boy, born and raised, and my beau and I were cranky with hunger, so I said, ‘Fix me your favourite.’ It’s become quite fashionable to serve highbrow versions of low-class food, and BoDawgs boasts an ‘island flavour’, so I braced myself for a gussied-up version of the World’s Most Perfect Food. Indeed, Paul’s favourite dawg was a rather pretentious rendition – a red-hot Polish sausage brimming with not one but two secret sauces, banana peppers, pineapples and neon pink pickled onions.
But it was also tasty as hell.
Between slurps of neon-pink onions I asked Paul why things seemed so quiet in Victorian Square. He shrugged. ‘Fucking economy,’ he said, kind not to add ‘you doofus.’
Fucking economy indeed. Back in 2007, Nevadans were fond of saying that if you divided the state of Nevada in half – spliced her along the thirty-seventh meridian, say – southern Nevada would be the fastest growing state in the union, northern Nevada the second fastest. Now, Nevada has new numbers: the highest rate of unemployment in the country; the highest rate of home foreclosure in the country. People here cite these often, and it’s easy for the phrases to get drained of meaning, to forget that what we’re saying is that all over the state people can no longer afford their homes and are being forced out of them. One unexpected result of all this bullshit is, it seems, a street food scene wherein even the unapologetic hot dog has developed a social conscience; a prominent decal on the BoDawgs truck boasts their belief in ‘the movement of for-profit-business models that use the purchasing power of individuals to benefit the greater good’. Apparently, a morsel of currency from every high-brow dawg sold is donated to the Northern Nevada Food Bank, to ‘support and feed local elementary school children that don’t have enough food to eat over the weekends’. Thus, perhaps, Black Dave Mathews warbling, ‘Be the chaaaange . . . ’
There’s the essence of the new solemnity in Reno-Sparks. (They’re calling it Reno-Tahoe now.) I wanted camels sauntering down Fourth Street, I wanted the gaudiness of boom times. But the panty-flashing parade of white trash debauchery has been trimmed from the budget. The city’s new ethos looks more like the highbrow hot dog, still fun, but with new, lofty ideals. Basically: Be the change, bro.
Battleborn is published in the UK by Granta Books.
Photo by AlishaV