“Wine tasting” might call up images of tight-collared suits and rich old men swirling, spitting and saying things like “succulent, dark purple berries,” or “This will be beautiful in fifteen years.” For us, it usually means working sommeliers, scared out of their beds at an unfamiliar hour (before noon!), seated around our tasting table, where they might groggily (but accurately) say things like “This smells like hot-dog water.”
On a recent panel, the second wine to get pinned with that tasting note smelled like very different hot-dog water than the first. It smelled exactly like the hot dogs that were sold at the concession stands for my high school’s sporting events. They are the best dogs I’ve ever had—the quintessential sausage. Snappy casing, the right balance of smoke, probably a good hit of nitrates given the pink-tinged burgundy color. A healthy slather of yellow mustard, some diced white onion on top and you’re ready to heckle some kids from the private school (if they let us; at one point, we were told we couldn’t chant “airball” to the opposing team). I hadn’t had one in at least eight years, but the memory was immediately brought back by a taste of chardonnay.
Our panel didn’t recommend the wine, but now I wanted a hot dog, and the dirty-water dogs of the streets in New York City wouldn’t cut it. I needed some full-on Wisconsin-style meat smokery. The PTA ran the concessions stands, so I called my mom, who was active in the association while my brothers and I were in high school. She had to contact some old PTA friends, but she found the brand: Salmon’s Meat Products.
“Meat products” means a very different thing in today’s Beyond Burger era, but Salmon’s is a family business with roots back to the early 1900s, and its name dates to the 1950s, when brand names stated what they sold. Located in Luxembourg, Wisconsin, the Salmon family sells a variety of sausages reflecting the state’s mix of European heritages: kielbasa, braunschweiger, Italian sausage, mettwurst, Belgian tripp and—of course—plenty of bratwurst. Salmon’s also sells “meat sticks,” a sort of Ur–Slim Jim. Everybody on the street I grew up on called them “hot sticks” whenever somebody made the run to Konop’s, another old smokehouse that didn’t even distribute to grocery stores. The neighbors would take turns, tallying orders from each house on the street before making the 20-mile trek. I never found them particularly spicy, but I could not dispute their stick-ness.
I had a very American upbringing in regard to food. We always ate together, but I wasn’t expected to help out beyond tossing a salad or setting the table. There was no flour-dusted nonna yelling at me if I tried to sneak out of the kitchen without rolling the pasta; no red-handed babushka wordlessly placing a vegetable peeler and a bag of beets in front of me and my computer. For whatever reason, after I moved to New York and fell backwards into the restaurant industry, it was easier to remember the misses—the boxes of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese (with a Kraft American single melted in for extra cheesiness) or the “octo-dogs” (frankfurters with the ends snipped into quarters so they curled like tentacles)—instead of the hits, like the Friday fish fries (they weren’t only for Catholics!), or the concession-stand hot dogs. New York, in contrast, was serving up only the hits (my first real meal after I arrived was Misoya ramen; it didn’t look much like the Maruchan packets I knew from home).
There’s a notion I’ve happily adopted that everything good comes to the rest of the US through New York. Looking into my breadbasket of memories of the plains of Wisconsin, I fell in with the idea that good culture progresses on a linear track and that I’d hit the Candy Slide and jumped forward to the promised land, where people argued about the best halal carts, the best slice or the best red-sauce joint (all while they’re “walkin’ heah!”).
To be sure, there is a diversity and a wealth of options in New York City that doesn’t exist in Wisconsin. I had bought into the idea that the Midwest was the land of casseroles and cheesy broccoli, and New York had advanced to a buzzword-laden locavore cuisine.
It’s not that simple, though.
Growing up, I wasn’t always eating locally but I did eat locally a lot: concession-stand hot dogs, a Kroll’s butter burger, Zesty’s frozen custard, venison jerky. Local food traditions survived in little pockets even as everything else started to come pre-packaged.
As for Salmon’s, they may not have hired a copywriter yet (“Salmon’s Meat Products will process your venison”), but they hold to a tradition. And they gave me the best hot dogs I’ve ever had, $1.50 a pop, pulled out of a hotel pan of hot water and placed unceremoniously in a white-bread bun.
Hold the chardonnay. I’ll take a Salmon’s, please.
This story appears in the print issue
of August 2020.
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