The Universal Notebook: Hot dog! It's summer!

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By the time you read this (unless you’re reading it online, in which case you’re probably too early), I’ll be up at the church cooking. The sun came out today for the first time in a month, so it may finally be summer. Around here that means the Yarmouth Clam Festival (July 17-19) and the Yarmouth Clam Festival means hot dogs.

That’s right, hot dogs. Not everyone can afford fried clams and lobster rolls, but everyone can afford a hot dog. And I grill up a mean dog, if I do say so myself.

Most years I take the parade shift on Friday nights, because once the parade ends, the crowd turns around three and four deep and demands cheap eats. Sometimes we can’t cook ‘em as fast as they can eat ‘em. So a veteran hot dog chef is a must.

When you’re trying to stay ahead of demand, you need a system. Every year some neo-frank tries to impose his or her own system on the hot dog operation, but those of us with seniority soon set them straight. You need one person grilling the dogs, one buttering and grilling the rolls, and one assembling them, putting them in cardboard sleeves, and passing them up to the servers.

Actually, it’s usually inexperienced servers who mess things up. Not a lot of folks in town have experience waiting on the public. They’ll try to pass food and make change, a sanitation and logistical no-no. Visit any serious hot dog stand and you’ll see what I mean, and I’ve visited them all.

If you’re real good, like Mark Gatti at Mark’s Hot Dogs in Portland’s Old Port or Jess Cady down on Commercial Street, you can probably do everything yourself, but most dog joints break the labor down into discrete chores. I’ve never had anyone at Danny’s on the Green in Brunswick, for instance, both fill my order and take my money. And my order is usually the same – one with mustard and relish, one with chili, and a root beer.

Personally, I’m a steamed dog man. Both Mark’s and Danny’s serve great steamed hot dogs, hot and snappy, as do Flo’s on Route 1 in Cape Neddick, Dunton’s Doghouse in Boothbay Harbor and Simone’s in Lewiston. But out on the church lawn, we grill them, as do Wasses in Rockland and Belfast and Bolley’s Famous Franks in Hallowell. To paraphrase the song, if you can’t steam the one you love, eat the one you grilled.

Of course, hot dogs have about as much nutritional value as the napkin they’re served on, but hot dogs aren’t about nourishment, they’re about filling the void. They’re comfort food. I love them, but I will never again make the mistake of trying to subsist on them, as I did during my sophomore year in college.

My roommate Roland and I had a little electric hot dog cooker with prongs that stuck into each end of the dog. Close the lid and, zap, dinner was served. Our weekly shopping consisted mostly of hot dogs, buns, and a few bags (yes, bags, five bottles to a bag) of Rheingold beer. After two months of this sophomoric diet, Roland had to carry me home, where I spent the next semester recovering from mononucleosis and trying to make up all my math homework.

These days, of course, I’m more mature and much more circumspect about what I eat. I only eat hot dogs in season. And, being an enlightened environmentalist, I try to eat local whenever possible. Then again, what’s more local than a hot dog?

beem-edgar-op.jpgThe Universal Notebook is Edgar Allen Beem’s weekly personal look at the world around him.