I’m not quite sure what I was expecting on that early spring day, but I can tell you that waiting with all that anticipation was electric. I could see what was happening right there in front of me and yet it all still seemed to be a mystery. Finally it was my turn, I was going to see for the first time what the buzz was about, and not second hand from the others, but for myself… how was I ever going to be the same after this. It started out fine, I remembered thinking I might even enjoy this, then after about ten feet…I fell ass over tea kettle when the pony stopped unexpectedly dipping his head to the ground. I wound up flat on my back looking up at the curious pony who was slobbering on my forehead, while I lied breathless in a steaming pile of pony turds. I was about 6 or so and to this day, I don’t see ponies or horses the same way as other people do…this is now how I feel about the red dog highway in southwest Virginia.
I’m not sure what I was thinking but I lined up four hot dog joints to eat at on my drive from Tennessee to New Hampshire. Most sane people would pick out places that were evenly spaced along the drive that would take roughly fifteen hours. I guess that would be great if the Red Dog Highway ran the seven hundred or so miles, but it only runs roughly one hundred and twenty-ish. So in about three hours’ time I’d be taking down twelve hot dogs from the four different restaurants. I guess this says something about either my grit, determintation, or maybe it just says…man that Pav just doesn’t seem like a very bright fella!
This might have been easy when I was in my late teens and personally downed nine twelve ounce portions of prime rib when a local restaurant had an all you can eat prime rib promotion and yes I ate a salad, rolls and a baked potato and yes, nine was all they would let me eat before kindly asking me to leave. In all fairness I had brought several friends with equally large appetites. Nowadays if I had to eat one twelve ounce portion with the roll, salad and a baked potato I would be in “nap on the couch” mode in under five minutes. This hot dog pilgrimage wasn’t about quantity as much as it was about the quality of each hot dog, how they differed and more importantly…tasted.
The truth is, starting with The Corner Dog in Bristol and ending at Dude’s Drive-In in Christiansburg I didn’t find anything that was earth shattering or in my mind different. Let me tell you about my hot dog eating past to give you a frame of reference. I grew up eating natural casing hot dogs until I was in my late twenties throughout New England, mostly in the form of Essems, Sconland’s, (now both owned by Kayem and IMHO aren’t what they once were) Jordan’s red dogs and Grote and Weigel. In those instances it was all about the hot dog itself and the flavor of said dog.
I ate a good deal of these from the one and only “Hot Dog Man” in Keene, NH. I’m not sure what, or even if, he had a real name, but that’s what everybody called him so that’s who he was. My dad was always a sucker for a good hot dog and by extension so was I. Dad would stop once in a while when I was with him and he’d get three dogs…two for him and one for me. I’d finish mine and watch him eat his second like the most pathetic dog at a kitchen table. I remembered the hot dog man steamed his dogs in beer and only served a few different toppings so as not to distract from the dog. There was ketchup, mustard, celery salt, sauerkraut and I believe cheese sauce served seperate or imitation bacon bits that you had to shake on yourself, as the last two toppings were too much of a sacrilege for the hot dog man to do himself.
Then I lived in Houston, TX for roughly three years and in Birmingham, AL for eleven years where it was nearly impossible to find any natural casing hot dogs, or hot dogs of any variety that tasted decent. It was a virtual and literal hot dog hell for me with national brand crap dominating the meat case. You know the ones, the kind that kids would like to beeeeeeeee…really, kids want to be tasteless and rude? Ok, bad example…
The other ones were never served in my “ball park”, and if they would have been, they’d be hauled into the bathroom and slammed into the side of an ice filled pee trough. Actually I believe it is a skinless dog served in Fenway Pahk, but they’re filled with magic and pixie dust so that’s different…and if you’re lucky enough to sit atop the green monster (Left field wall for those of you whom have never heard of Red Sox baseball or I dunno… the earth being round) you can get a monster dog which is the size and shape of a nuclear submarine for which there probably isn’t a casing big enough for anyways.
Many folks in Birmingham told me, if you want a really good hot dog, we have the best right downtown at either Gus’ or Pete’s and right away everybody had a favorite. Anybody who has been to or lived in Alabama will concur; that there is no “middle” ground on anything… you are either Auburn or Alabama…Yankee or Southerner… and the same held true for hot dogs. Lucky for me I was a damned Yankee so no good sense would be afforded me anyways…so I tried both. After going to Gus’ I thought Pete’s would win hands down because the hot dog I had there wasn’t very good. Then after going to Pete’s I was convinced I would never go back to either as they were equally mediocre in my mixed up Yankee opinion.
I tried the knockoffs around town in the form of Gus’s and Sneaky Pete’s, and on the outskirts of town there are other hot dog joints all of which in my estimation, couldn’t hold a candle to what I grew up eating. It wasn’t that they were horrible, I guess at the time I just didn’t appreciate them for what they were…a regional style of hot dog. They both had the same type of hot dog, the same type of “sauce” and the same scope of ingredients which is to say…many. The only two forms of regional hot dogs I came to appreciate in the southeast were the scrambled dog (all the toppings you’d find in the southeast but the dog cut up and served mashed together, no roll but instead served with oyster crackers or saltines), and the slaw dog (just as it sounds, pretty much creamy slaw and hot dog on a roll). I appreciated them for what they were but never lost my taste for natural casing hot dogs.
So what do I have to say after three hours, four hot dog joints and twelve hot dogs? They were…tasty… in the same way I find Little Debbie oatmeal cream pies tasty. Is there a better oatmeal cream pie made in America? Yes, of course there are, just as there are better hot dogs and maybe that’s beside the point. They all had something that to me resembled Cincinnati styled chili, finely chopped onion, some kind of familiar nacho cheese sauce, creamy slaw, and tiny little red hot dogs buried under it all, and all of those were buried in quaint little towns that you couldn’t help but love served in the most humble of ways by really sweet people. So for what they were, they were tasty. Would I pick one over the other? Only from a standpoint of proximity, as in how close am I to each, and how hungry am I.
I don’t know how Hawk Krall managed to make distinctions between each of them as they pretty much all tasted the same to me and to my friend as well, but I guess that’s what makes Hawk an idiot savant of sorts for the hot dog eating world. Trying to pick one out of the four seemed an exercise in futility and a fool’s errand on my part. The winner had nothing to do with the taste, although the dogs there were as tasty as any of the four. Skeeter’s had charm in spades, and the two little ladies serving them were precious as diamonds. The place just felt like an institution, and I mean that in a good way as opposed to a shirt factory with sleeves so long they make you want to hug yourself with quilted walls to matchsort of way.
If you’re ever down in the southeastern U.S. and you are looking for a tasty snack or meal with a cute town and the chance to see something pretty cool, swing on into Skeeter’s and check them out. There you can get your hot dog (I’d recommend four, as eating one will probably only make you mad you didn’t order at least three) served on fancy linen wear (a plain white napkin) and get an iced cold Dr. Pepper with it while you take in the super cool ambiance of downtown Wytheville, VA. It’ll give you time to relax and enjoy little town America, while eating a southeastern classic…after that, you can go back out on I-81 and practice your truck dodging and road rage skills.
P.S.~ My favorite ways to eat a hot dog (I have two)…take a good natural casing hot dog, grill it until slightly charred, put it in a steamed non New England styled bun (as I only use those for Lobster rolls) and top with a tablespoon of Sambal Oelek. The other way is same as before but add Aunt Dodie’s cole slaw just a little (simple creamy slaw with cabbage and carrot) and one slice of thick cut apple or cherrywood smoked bacon…You are welcome…… So now that you’ve heard the best way to have a hot dog…what is your favorite?