I eat a plain hot dog every time I go to a baseball game. And I go to a lot of baseball games, primarily because they promise bountiful hot dogs, to be enjoyed al fresco. So, you can trust me when I tell you that you’re probably buying the wrong hot dogs when you’re at the ballpark.
At the start of baseball season each and every year, I find myself making the same mistake, failing to remember the lessons learned from the prior year: I head right for the nearest hot dog stand at Guaranteed Rate Field (whose concessions, I might add, far surpass those of Wrigley Field in both quality and price). The prices call out to me amidst a crowded concourse; though the cost of a plain hot dog has risen steadily over the years, it’s still one of the cheapest meals you can get at the park, satisfying and more portable most of the flashier delicacies. The ketchup and mustard are complimentary and self-serve—insert requisite joke here about how no self-respecting Chicagoan goes anywhere near the ketchup. I, meanwhile, don’t go for either. I trot off with the plain hot dog, ready to dig in.
The moment I pick it up from its cardboard boat, I’m livid. The bun, rather than yielding to my grip, is stiff and sturdy, stale in all the ways that count. Isn’t a hot dog stand at a crowded ballpark a high-turnover situation? How are the buns going stale when we know these vendors go through several packages per night?
I can only assume this happens because of all the exposure to open air—the bag of buns never gets closed between orders because vendors much reach into it constantly to pull out the next bun. The result is that the bun’s bottom seam immediately crumbles, leaving you with two rigid halves of bread that can no longer contain the hot dog, rolling around the cardboard boat.
I try adding some mustard or grilled onions to my order, thinking the moisture might make the bun softer. No dice: the stale bun rapidly absorbs the condiments and collapses into a mess of paste and quasi-crouton. I curse myself. Hope you like eating your ballpark frank with your fingers like it’s a cocktail weenie, you fool.
By the second or third ballgame of the season, I’ve learned my lesson once more: The best hot dogs are the ones sold straight from the vending box, hauled by dedicated ballpark employees up and down the aisles between each section of seating as they shout tantalizing phrases like “HOT DOGS HERE” and “VIENNA BEEF.” Why are these better? Because the hot dog comes packaged with the bun already around it, meaning the bread gets steamed by the warmth of both the meat and the sterno-heated metal box. No dry, crumbly bread to be found!
Typically, the price differential between aisle dogs and concourse dogs, if one exists, is minimal; I paid 50 extra cents for the privilege of consuming the superior sausage. Those who require condiments can get ketchup and mustard from the vendor, or pop over to the concourse to apply toppings more liberally. (But seriously, try it plain just once. If it’s a worthwhile dog, the experience is second to none.)