Dog Days and Good Country Cookin'
Reprinted from the July issue of PineStraw magazine.
For better or for worse, in sickness and in health, till death do us part, I hail from a clan of serious Southern cooks and consumers.
Being the food-loving son of a rural Piedmont clan of small farmers who believed good eatin’ was right up there with clean livin’, I grew to voting age attending church suppers and family reunions where the only thing holier than grace and a paper fan with a barefooted Jesus were the heaping platters of sweet white corn and bowls of fried okra, succotash, seasoned green beans, collard greens, real mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole, cornbread and enough sweet tea to float a good-sized bass boat. There was usually fried chicken and sometimes pork chops floating in skillet gravy, sometimes a pot roast with turnips, and always some kind of homemade barbecue.
Every year when I attend the Old Bethesda homecoming or the annual Kirkin ceremony and dinner on the lawn of the Presbyterians over in Red Springs, I’m reminded powerfully of whence I come — and of the food that made (and possibly ruined) me.
Keep in mind that I haven’t even mentioned the groaning dessert tables you typically find at such family affairs, bowls turgid with real homemade banana pudding, rice puddings striped with cinnamon and nutmeg, red velvet cakes and cobblers of every fruit known to the tongue of ancient Dixie. Just thinking about them, lord, makes me gain five pounds.
Even after I grew up and moved off to Atlanta, I took this kind of rich country eating largely for granted because just across from my office and the World Congress Center on Marietta Street was the sweetest little hole-in-the-wall called Thelma’s Place, a soul food emporium like no other. Thelma’s famous fried squash patties and pecan pie were about the best things I’ve ever tasted.
Of course, if you’re a Southerner north of 50, especially one who has roamed around the old Confederacy at all, you’ll recall a golden age of eating when every place in town was “local,” how just about every crossroads in the South of basically any size had a café or two anchoring its town square or main drag offering a daily “meat-and-three” noon meal, happy code words for a traditional entrée and three homemade vegetable dishes that were so good you’d slap your grandmother.
Unfortunately, about the time I up and moved to Northern New England, Sunbelt prosperity meant new highways, and commercial development brought new tastes and franchise culture to the South in a pervasive way — golden arches were just the beginning of the invasion. National burger chains and seafood franchises replaced local drive-ins and soon the beloved meat-and-three itself was a thing of the past.
Everytime I came home to Dixie to visit the home folks and get a decent holiday meal as a bonus, it seemed like local restaurants specializing in authentic home-style food were scarcer than ever on the ground.
Up in Maine, meanwhile, because I married a Yankee woman of Scottish descent who knew her way around the kitchen, I admittedly continued to eat well, though decidedly differently. The coastal town we called home north of Portland, moreover, was near a picturesque harbor called the “Lobster Capital of the World,” justly famous for its seafood shore dinners and reasonable prices.
Anytime my Southern friends and kin came to visit, including and especially my dad, they insisted on consuming their approximate body weight in lobster meat, with steamers and fried clams running a close second. The taste of lobster is one of those things that has somehow always eluded me, but I was happy to oblige our summer visitors — even if the prices nearly doubled during the annual July tourist occupation.
For a time I actually considered taking over a beloved but failing local burger drive-in called Ernie’s and transforming it into a genuine Southern-style lunch and supper joint specializing in Piedmont-style North Carolina barbecue, a daily meat-and-three dish, real sweet tea, my mother’s famous collard recipe, Thelma’s fried squash patties, and free sweet potato pie. I planned to call it Stinky Jim’s House of Genuine Southern Cooking, owing to the hickory woodfires I planned to cook on and probably smell like. Not unimportant to this dining, I also planned to serve a Carolina-style hot dog with chili, mustard, onions and a small pickup truck of mayonnaise slaw.
Sadly, Stinky Jim’s never got off the drawing board. In retrospect, failure to launch may have had something to do with the name. I probably should have called it “Smoky Jim’s” or decided not to write books.
Mad About Hot Dogs
Luckily, though, New Englanders — especially Mainers — are completely mad about hot dogs in summer. Somewhere I once read that they consume roughly twice the number of hot dogs than any other region of the country. Given the general blandness of New England food, I have no doubt this may well be true.
Proof of this fact, in any case, came every summer. In July our town’s picturesque common filled up with a busy farmers market three days a week and sunburned tourists on an L.L. Bean shopping high, lining up at three different competing hot dog stands.
The hot dog wars, as locals called them, were a long-running story, and everyone had their preferred stand, their loyal dog.
The old timers preferred Duffy’s Dogs, run by a big fellow who looked like he’d devoted his life to eating a few dozen a day. Duffy’s dogs were bright red minimalist affairs; they came plain or at most with a dollop of mustard or sauerkraut. Duffy was the Dog King on the common, in more ways than one. He once told me the only civilized way to eat a real hot dog was plain — one dog, one bun, nothing more — dating back to Colonial times, precisely the way the Sons of Liberty liked them. I think he thought I was some dumb Southern Homer who’d just fallen off the turnip truck.
Speaking of civilization, I didn’t see the point of a half-dressed hot dog and told Duffy his dogs lacked the three “C’s” — condiments, commitment and character — putting in that this was just one more reason the South was forced to secede from the Union, in order to establish a more perfect hot dog. He thought that was moronic and downright unpatriotic.
The other popular dog choice was offered by a sweet couple that resembled Hobbits. They hailed from Vermont and advertised that everything they served was “Pure And All-Natural,” which is not only an oxymoron and a basic offense against nature but also explained why their “gourmet veggie hot dogs” tasted exactly like their “Gourmet Veggie Reubens,” which is to say a little like boxwood limbs put in a blender with chick-peas.
Search Goes On
One day Downeast Dogs opened quietly on the common and I happened to be making my noon-time run to the post office. I swung into a rare empty parking space to investigate.
They’d upped the hot-dog ante by offering an entire motherboard of different regional stylings, aiming for the cosmopolitan dog fan, one surmised, or at least those from “away” — New York and Chicago-style (which meant pickles), a California Dreamin’ Weenie (don’t have a clue), a Coney Island Cheese Dog, a Milwaukee bratwurst soaked in beer, and — Eureka! — something humbly called the “Dixie Dog,” a fiddle-anthem to my soul.
Needless to say I was intrigued but not a little worried. I once stopped to eat “real North Carolina-style barbecue” at a neon joint on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire, sucked in by the siren-call of home, hoping for a small taste of heaven. Truthfully, I would have been far better off buying an old pony saddle seat and grilling it with steak sauce.
Even so, I ordered my first Dixie Dog and watched the young woman expertly make it, happily not sparing the beanless chili, mustard or onions. Moreover, her onions were Vidalia sweet onions, her mustard French’s best. She explained that her daddy had been in the Navy and she’d traveled extensively through the South — she found North Carolina particularly fetching — and always liked the way they “dressed up a hot dog down there,” not to mention the way “everybody says Y’all down Yonder. It’s soooo sweet.”
In sum, I truly loved this gal’s Dixie Dog but had to set her straight on this other matter, pointing out that nobody in my gene pool of redneck Southern royalty ever dared say “Y’all” or “Yonder” and thus risk being denied a second Pabst Blue Ribbon with their pecan pie, children included.
Anyway, over the next decade, Duffy the Dog King had nothing on me. I’ll bet I ate my weight a dozen times over of those awesome Dixie Dogs on the common, particularly from July to Septem-ber and even into the early days of October, just before the last tourist vanished, taking the hot dog warriors with them.
The funny thing is, though many have come close, I’ve yet to find a Carolina-style hot dog down here that beats the Dixie Dog I loved up there. But the Dog Days of summer are here again and I’ll resume the search.
Award-winning author Jim Dodson, Sunday essayist with The Pilot and editor of PineStraw magazine, can be reached at email@example.com.
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