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Book Wed Aug 14 2013

The Truth, the Mystery, Hot Doug's: The Book

Hot Doug's: The BookYou may have heard that Hot Doug's: The Book is not a cookbook. This is not true. There are two recipes. One is the basic template of a hot dog (bun, dog, condiments). The other is for how to make the most celebrated encased meat emporium in the world.

It begins with an origin story. Hot Doug's the store, grew out of a conversation owner Doug Sohn had with Paul Kelly, a colleague in the publishing company he then worked at, about whether there was such a thing as a bad hot dog (verdict: yes) and what could cause such an abomination.

The conversation turned into a lunch club that scoured the area for the best hot dogs, which were graded and critiqued and served, unwittingly, as the market research for what would become Hot Doug's. Readers are introduced to the members of Hot Dog Club, who each tells his or her own part of the origin story.

This all sets the tone for what is to come -- an oral history of this unusual hot dog stand's creation, the early days in Roscoe Village, and its ascendance into restaurant royalty. We learn the origin of the famous phrase, "There are no two finer words in the English language than 'encased meats,' my friend," and who Secret Robbie is; how duck fat fries came to be and some great stories from a couple of the early "guest cashiers." Ever wonder why Hot Doug's is cash only? Sohn gives you two pages worth of his philosophy behind it.

The early days section ends, of course, with a whole chapter devoted to the fire that nearly shut down the restaurant for good, which in turn sets the stage for its triumphant return at a new location, which brings us into the present day and constitutes the middle section of the book.

Hot Doug's: The Book is thorough in its cataloging of the restaurant's many quirks. The new wall menu is discussed in depth, replete with a chart of the name changes over the years. One surprising fact that I think qualifies as a myth debunking: Charlie and James Sohn are not Doug's kids, but rather his brother's. Doug is childless (as far as he knows) and unmarried (though not single).

There's an explanation of exactly who all those celebrity sausages of the day are named after and why you've never heard of most of them. You find out all about Sohn's musical taste, and the story behind the "Theme from Hot Doug's." (Disclosure: in an odd twist of fate, I clap and shout "Hot Dougs!" on the track, which was recorded by a friend of a friend.)

And of course, the line. The long queue outside the store began in the modern era, after "Check, Please!" and other TV shows brought the restaurant to the attention of those far beyond Chicago's borders. The devotion expressed through hour, two-hour, two-hour and 45 minute waits leaps out of the pages. As artist Tony Fitzpatrick puts it, "The line is necessary, Bunky. Part of the ritual...the preparation. The Journey. Part of the communal experience that is Hot Doug's."

The third section of the book is devoted to the community. It's a little odd to think of a community surrounding a hot dog stand, but there definitely is one. From the camaraderie in line to the lifelong devotion embodied in a tattoo -- which, yes, entitle you to eat free for life -- it's clear that Hot Doug's means much more to people than just encased meats. That connection is detailed in stories throughout the book, and especially in the chapter devoted to engagements, babies and birthdays. Turns out a lot of those celebrity sausages are named after newborns.

No, you're not going to learn how to make Hot Doug's sausages at home. But Hot Doug's: The Book rises far above the average souvenir book, and stands tall as a document of a cultural phenomenon.

 
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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

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Drive-Thru is the food and drink section of Gapers Block, covering the city's vibrant dining, drinking and cooking scene. More...
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