If there were a Girl Scout badge for picnicking—presumably the patch would feature two ants sharing a gingham blanket—I would have earned it last summer. Eschewing crowded restaurant patios with time limitations, I instead took to eating pretty much anywhere else in public.
I bought ice cream from the paleta vendors jingling by Lake Michigan, ordered to-go sandwiches and burritos to eat in the park. I learned to save the plastic containers from those orders and fill them with homemade appetizers. These snacks would be double- or triple-secured with rubber bands to be safely transported across the city by me, one of Chicago’s many new pandemic cyclists (I am sorry to many drivers and at least one pedestrian!).
Your tote bag held hand sanitizer? Great work, novice. My fanny pack had a wine opener, wet naps, and an extra bandana that could double as a sweat rag OR napkin, but never both (sometimes both).
But all those reusable metal straws and rogue mustard packets couldn’t save me from the joylessness of outdoor dining in the winter. As with most winter-related things in the Midwest, I learned the hard truth by way of disappointment.
In late December, I stood outside a bagel shop waiting for my order. By the time I got my sandwich, my hands had gone numb from the cold and I could barely grip the steaming bagel. The first few bites were nice and warm, but even as I scarfed it down like a deranged city squirrel, the sandwich progressively got worse. Eggs get cold fast (even when you eat them inside as God intended), and a steamed bagel, like many of us, loses its warm tenderness if left out in frigid temperatures too long.
But I did one thing right: I added hot giardiniera. For the uninitiated, this is an Italian vegetable relish that Chicagoans use to improve meals instead of just admitting the food isn’t that good. This proved to be my first lesson in what foods to eat when it’s cold out: The louder the flavors, the better.
That giardiniera kick was the last man standing in my sandwich’s flavor profile because, as it turns out, your taste buds need flavors to be absolutely HOLLERING at them when it’s cold. About 15 years ago, scientists published findings in the journal Nature that there are microscopic channels in our taste buds that determine how you perceive flavors at different temperatures—and the reaction of these channels is more intense when food is warmer. This is why ice cream tastes great when frozen but is teeth-curlingly sweet when melted: Ben, Jerry, Edy, Breyer, and all the rest have to add loads of sweetener for your muted taste buds to pick up on the flavors.
But in addition to our temperature-sensitive taste buds, there’s also the link between smell and taste. When you have a stuffy nose, it’s harder to taste flavors. So if you’re shivering in the cold, nose a-runnin’, you’d probably struggle to really appreciate the nuanced flavors of whatever taco is entering your maw.
The second lesson is to eat what will energize you, because there are no leisurely outdoor hangouts in the winter. Meet-ups consist of power walks or shoveling cars out of city-enforced snow drifts. For advice on this, we can look to the cold climate experts: Scandinavians, South Pole researchers, the guys who own bikes with thick snow tires who say nonsense like “If you hate it so much then why did you move here?” The rules around energy-inducing winter food are pretty simple: Fat is good, as your body burns through your fat reserves to stay warm. Sugar, though, is bad. It can give you a quick spike of energy, but your body temperature can drop once this is depleted.
The last requirement for decent cold-weather meals is a personal need: I don’t want to take my gloves off to consume it. I’m sure this is where you could make the case for soup in a thermos, but my loose gravel brain is unable to reconcile the taste of hot beef water when the act of drinking from a cup suggests the flavor of coffee or hot chocolate. This is confusing and bad when you’re already trying not to slide facemask-first into a parking meter.
All that said, these requirements—bold flavors, fat for energy, and mitten-friendly handling—all point to an obvious solution: hot dogs. It finally occurred to me, after all my research, that I only needed to recall the best meal I had on a chilly day in Iceland, at the Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur hot dog stand in Reykjavik (famous for that one time Bill Clinton visited).
Think about it: Hot dogs are typically sold wrapped up all snug for easy transport and handling, even in gloves. Granted, you may have to pull your mittens off for a moment to roll down the foil or remove the thin piece of wax paper some vendors use. But even if it’s served in a little paper hot dog boat, you can easily hold this with your gloved hands and tip the hot dog into your face. Plus a hot dog has that much-needed fat, and you can top it with any variety of flavor-forward condiments. And because they’re such a quick eat, there’s really not much time for them to cool down. Plus, a well-wrapped dog in its convenient, portable size makes it perfect for nestling inside of your coat or beanie for a little extra heat as you fumble toward spring.