Since this week's opponent is the Charleston Southern Buccaneers, I got in touch with a friend who lives in the "Holy City" to ask about local or popular foods that Charlestonians count among their regional delicacies. He passed me on to a friend of his that he considered an authority on the city's culinary scene. As of this writing the friend of the friend hasn't gotten back to me.
I don't blame him. My restrictions on what he could nominate were pretty severe. First of all, it had to be something that could be cooked outside. Secondly, it could not be a low country boil. That second condition about ripped the rug out from under him.
I'm not opposed to a low country boil per se. For those that don't know, a low country boil is a backyard party favorite along the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina that is basically a big pot of shrimp, sausage, corn, and potatoes boiled and then seasoned with Old Bay or some similar seafood spice mixture and then served on Coronet.
I can attest from some time spent living in Savannah, that region takes their boils seriously. Like Italians with tomato sauce, everyone has their own way of doing things and everyone else's is suspect. The final results can be pretty amazing.
No. The problem with a low country boil for an Alabama Crimson Tide tailgate post is that with the exception of a handful of home brewers, no one in our state has the necessary Holy Roman Emperor sized stock pot or the oversized Bunsen burner looking thing-a-ma-bob needed to heat it up.
So rather than a Charleston specialty, I figured I'd introduce those of you not from Birmingham to one of my town's culinary gems: The Special Dog.
I know I did corn dogs a few weeks ago for the corndog game, but this is completely different.
Birmingham experienced a wave of Greek immigration a few generations ago. It's probably more correct to say that the city experienced several waves of Greek immigration but this is more anecdotal than scholarly so bear with me.
Be it the spirit of enterprise in recognition of a particular vacuum or that a portion of those who came to Birmingham in search of opportunity had a background in the industry, a lot of our Greeks opened restaurants. Oddly enough, very few of them opened Greek themed restaurants. Many went straight for American or regional favorites.
My dad hates soccer, but he is very much a fan of the U.S. national team because he likes the last names. They didn't always show what colors the teams were wearing on the score icon in the upper left corner of your television, but if you started watching in the middle of a match (I know - Flagged for soccer terminology) between say, Spain and Poland, and you see a player in red wearing a jersey with the name Krzyzewski, you knew that Poland was wearing red. If you first saw that a player wearing white was named Juarez, you knew that Spain was wearing white.
Not so much with the U.S. team. The first jersey you see may say Juarez, it may say Krzyzewski, or Pyeong, or Guilliam. If you don't follow the teams, you need corroborating jerseys to be certain which side is which when our team is playing. There is something joyously American there.
You expect Bar-B-Q joints to have names like "Billy-Bob's" or "Johnnie Ray's." In Birmingham we have those Southern central casting names too, most notably the very-generous-with-his-time Rusty's Bar-B-Q, but thanks to the influx of Greek restauranteurs, we also have the wonderfully named Demetri's BBQ. There's something joyously Birmingham about that.
Anyway, back to hot dogs. I got to talk to a woman who wrote a book about the history of restaurants in Birmingham but foolishly didn't buy a copy so there are vagaries and likely errors in my narrative. But the thrust is more or less on point. Again, anecdotal.
Two brothers or cousins named Pete and Gus decided to go into the hot dog business. Such was the closeness of their family that Pete named his son Gus and Gus named his son Pete so that by the time the progenitors had passed and inheritance scattered the empire, a man named Gus owned Pete's Famous and Sneaky Pete's while a man named Pete held title to a variety of locations under the title Gus's.
The thread that ties them all together is (or was, as some have closed shop) the Special Dog. It's a grilled hot dog served on a steamed bun with ground beef, sour kraut, mustard, and "Greek" or "Special" sauce depending on the location.
The sauce is the key. It's been described as half way between a "Coney" sauce and a "Greek Onion" sauce, neither of which means anything to me. Each location has its variation, but I've read that the closest to the original died with Constantine "Gus" Koutroulakis in 2011, who of course owned a place called Pete's Famous Hot Dogs and never shared his recipe.
I've tried numerous hot dog stands' versions of the special sauce. What follows is my attempt to recreate, with some considered borrowing from a variety of others' attempts that were posted on the internet, the iconic Birmingham hot dog.
I don't normally toot my own horn, but damn. This was my first go at making anything like this. If this recipe is scalable I'm dumping this whole real estate thing and becoming a condiment baron.
Birmingham Special Dog Sauce
1/4 Medium Onion, diced
3-4 cloves Garlic, smashed
2 cups Water, with more as needed
2 tbsp. Tomato Paste
2 tsp. Corn Syrup
1 tsp. Corn Starch
1/2 tsp. Kosher Salt
1/4 Red Pepper Flakes
1/8 Cup Distilled White Vinegar
In addition to the above, I kept some dried oregano and Tabasco sauce on hand in case I needed it. In the end I decided that neither was necessary, but neither would be out of place if you decide you want to go that way.
Start at home a day or two before the game with a few glugs of olive oil and saute the onion for four or so minutes over medium heat, stirring frequently. Add the garlic and let cook for one more minute.
Add the water, tomato paste, corn starch and syrup, salt, and red pepper flakes. Bring to a boil, whisk until more or less uniform, and reduce to a simmer. Let cook for 45 minutes, whisking gently every five or so minutes.
Next, add the vinegar and let simmer an additional 30 minutes, whisking as above. If it gets too thick in the first 20 minutes, add water as needed and allow to reduce.
Strain into a bowl using a spoon or ladle to press the liquid from the solids. Put the bowl with the liquid in the refrigerator to deheatrify.
Save the solids from the sauce. They have no further use in this recipe, but it's a mass of garlic, onion, and spicy tomato product that has to be useful somewhere else. I was planning on stirring it into some scrambled eggs the next day but I accidentally threw it out. I'm a bit ticked off at myself for that.
When the sauce is no longer steaming hot, take it from the fridge and add it to a 99 cent squeeze bottle from Walmart. Label and date.
Brown some ground beef with nothing more than salt and pepper. When browned, remove from heat and let cool.
Pack everything up and head to the tailgate.
In addition to the special sauce there is a chili specifically geared to smother a hot dog that is common, although slightly different across town from Greek founded place to place, is clearly derived from a master recipe.
I made my derivation from the Indo-European of chilis while I was still thinking this post should be about a Charleston staple so there are no pictures. Sorry, but the web site wasn't in mind. It's fairly straightforward though.
Brown a pound or so of ground chuck with half a diced yellow onion, two minced cloves of garlic, a pinch of salt, and a few grinds of pepper. When browned, add 28 oz. of canned plum tomatoes, torn by hand, a deseeded diced jalapeno, and a can of beer.
Don't get fancy with the beer. Triple bock will ruin this in a hurry. There are times when simple, cheap, American lager rule the roost and this is one of them. I prefer, and in running with a certain Alabama blog's former slogan, the Champagne of beers.
1 tbsp. cumin, 1 tsp. cayenne pepper, 1 tsp. chili powder, and 1 bay leaf complete the stew. Simmer until the meat clumps and there is little liquid. We don't want this soaking our bun.
There is one place in Birmingham that uses a dash of cinnamon in their chili dog chili and it is spectacular. I can't recreate it. Don't go down that rabbit hole. I've tried repeatedly to mimic that subtle flavor but no matter how little I add the cinnamon takes over. What I have works without it, but I know that there is an elegant (as hot dog chili goes) flourish that is out there. It's another case of the perfect as the enemy of the good and I need to occasionally admonish myself to skip the damn cinnamon (STDCB).
When you have the coals going, toast the buns. The ground beef (and chili if you made it) can be warmed in separate pans set on the grill top.
Cook your dogs, a little scorch is good.
Serve one up with sour kraut, ground beef, and a healthy dose of special sauce. If you made the chili too, load another with that and add a sprinkling of raw onion.
If you are going to be authentic to the local flavor, you need to add yellow mustard to both dogs, but I think they do better without.
Roll Tide, no injuries, cross your fingers and send me positive energy on that whole condiment baron thing, and enjoy.
P.S. If you live in the Brimingham you could skip a few steps for just $2.99.
But you would earn my eternal scorn.