In Chicago, the rules are firm and shouted from rooftops: absolutely no ketchup on hot dogs. It’s a popular (albeit stubborn) rallying cry for Chicagoans. But I’m not here to relitigate the merits of the Chicago dog, a variant with seven unyielding toppings. I don’t just think ketchup shouldn’t be on a Chicago-style hot dog; I’m in favor of hot dogs with no toppings whatsoever. Allow me to make the case for the completely plain hot dog.
There is almost no wrong way to eat a sausage: The bacon-wrapped, mayo-slathered Sonoran dog, the cream-cheese-squirted Seattle dog, the chili-topped Detroit Coney dog, even the cosmopolitan foie gras dog with truffle aioli all have their esteemed place in the encased meat canon. But the plain hot dog—just meat inside bun—is its own minimalistic delight. If you find that statement distasteful or consider it gratuitously contrarian, then it’s possible you’ve never had the pleasure of a high-quality dog to begin with.
That’s the key: A high-quality hot dog wiener (Vienna Beef, Nathan’s Famous) inside a fresh, yielding, warm bun. Both components must be on point; there is nowhere to hide a subpar ingredient. With the sausage either boiled or grilled, the snap of the casing surrenders to a wave of juicy, summertime savory flavor; it’s an enigmatic, salty punch of nostalgia. In this glorious season of cookouts, baseball, and a host of other warm-weather clichés, the joys are simple. Nude inside its bun, the plain hot dog is the simplest joy of all. Devoid of sweet ketchup or powerful mustard or competitive raw onion, it’ll pair better with your light summer beer, too.
I’m certain there remains skeptics, so let me frame this differently: A salami on cracker also does not require additional accoutrements. Neither does a sheer slice of prosciutto wrapped around a crisp grissini bread stick. The plain hot dog is wholly in service of the wiener; the bun is the pedestal, the holster, the throne. And it keeps your hands sanitary.
I should emphasize that I’m not a picky, childlike eater—in fact, I’m middlingly adventurous, becoming more so every day. There’s just an undeniable palatal purity to eating a hot dog and tasting a hot dog, the basal layer of a treat we usually pile high with other distractions. With our nation currently riding a trendy wave of indulgent pork belly and ubiquitous prosciutto—a flavor experience that even herbivores hope to replicate—it’s only surprising that more of us don’t opt for maximum meat flavor as we bite into our humble hot dogs. But in doing so, in fact, we may be missing out on one of summer’s purest, plainest pleasures.
This Fourth Of July, treat yourself to at least one unadulterated dog and savor the delights of the wiener bare and unadorned. If you find that I’ve misled you terribly, then congratulations on having an excuse to fix yourself a second.