We’ll keep this relatively brief, for reasons that should become obvious when you scroll down to the Q&A portion of the proceedings. S. Epatha Merkerson is probably best known for playing Lieutenant Anita Van Buren on the flagship Law & Order. Merkerson is credited on 391 episodes of the series, the most of any cast member, besting Sam Waterston by 23 episodes. But that’s far from her only credit. Currently, she’s appearing as Dr. Sharon Goodwin of Chicago Med (and thus also sometimes appearing on the other Chicago shows); she also picked up a wagonful of awards, including an Emmy, a SAG award, and a Golden Globe, for her brilliant work in HBO’s George C. Wolfe-directed TV movie, Lackawanna Blues.
This week, she’ll be on the documentary series Finding Your Roots, now in its fifth season on PBS, for a very different kind of appearance. Hosted by Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., the series always features Gates sitting with a celebrity or celebrities, who then learn about the origins, histories, and secrets of their family trees courtesy of Gates and a team of researchers and genealogists. To say too much about Merkerson’s episode is to diminish its power, but suffice it to say it’s affecting stuff, and well worth your time.
Also worth your time: This, one of the best answers to this dumb question we have ever seen or shall ever see. This... is its story. (Chung chung.)
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
The Takeout: Is a hot dog a sandwich?
S. Epatha Merkerson: I can’t tell you if it’s a sandwich, but it is one of my all-time favorite things, a hot dog. And I’m going to tell you, Chicago does not make a good hot dog.
TO: That is sacrilege.
SEM: Can I say that?
TO: Can I print that?
SEM: You can.
TO: Then please, continue.
SEM: Pink’s, American Coney Island in Detroit, and Nathan’s in New York, those are hot dogs. Pickles, and all that other shit? You don’t put that on a hot dog. I think in Chicago, a hot dog might be a sandwich.
TO: God, that’s good. So a Chicago dog is a sandwich.
SEM: It must be.
TO: And everything else is a hot dog.
SEM: Because they put lettuce and tomato and pickles on hot dogs in Chicago. [Editor’s note: No lettuce!]
TO: And sport peppers.
SEM: And why is that? I don’t understand that. On the dog! Why?
TO: Now I’m exposing myself, and people are going to be mad, but when I moved to Chicago from Michigan, it was like, “What is this bun? Why are there peppers? There are whole tomatoes. Why are there tomatoes on this hot dog?”
SEM: Yeah. When I see that... [shakes her head]. So to answer your question, in Chicago hot dogs are a sandwich.
TO: Okay. God, that’s a good answer.
SEM: New York, Detroit, I mean I grew up on [coney dogs]. When I go home to visit my family [in Detroit], that’s something I do with my brothers, every trip.
TO: Coney dogs?
SEM: They have a place in the airport. I’ll get a dozen and take them home to my mom, and my brother and I will sit and pig out. And I order them online from American Coney Island.
SEM: They come to my house!
TO: I’m assuming that the Coney sauce is separate?
SEM: They put it in a little plastic container. They give you the dogs, they give you the buns, they even chop up the onion.
TO: I’m writing it down.
SEM: I’ll tell you what else Chicago doesn’t do—
TO: Please, tell me.
SEM: —that New York does better than anybody in the world.
TO: You’re about to say pizza, aren’t you?
SEM: You know it.
Chicago Med airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on NBC. Merkerson’s episode of Finding Your Roots airs Tuesday, February 5, at 9 p.m.