Hot dogs, that very symbol of culinary democracy took on a special meaning during the cold war, especially in the summer of 1961.
The fate of Nathans Hot Dogs hung in the balance.
Summer barbecues were a family staple in my childhood suburban backyard, and they often took on the precision of a military exercise.
With the precision used to plan a bombing mission in the south pacific, Dad calculated the wind velocity, temperature and cloud coverage when making the perfect fire, skills learned as a meteorologist in the Army Air Corp while serving in New Guinea.
While wives stayed safely behind the lines, the men folk were recruited and deployed to the front, where Dad was CO in charge of the Barbecue Brigade.
Well fortified to do battle with gin and tonics firmly in hand, they mobilized around the Weber grill in a primal huddle of their own as they anxiously awaited orders.
Like the infantry sent to do battle, these buttoned down bar-b-que enthusiasts, combat ready in their comfort-in- action-perma- press Bermuda shorts, gathered on all sides of the roaring fire.
The torch had indeed been passed to a new generation, our war hero President Kennedy had informed us, and passed directly into the hands of these bespectacled men in clingy ban-lon, all of whom had served our country in the Second World War.
Strategically wielding the Big Boy barbecue tongs, Dad was ready for any BBQ maneuver. A king size cigarette dangling from his lips, barbecue apron round his regulation plaid Bermuda shorts, his smart masculine styling rated a fashion 21 gun salute.
GI Joe in Suburbia
That summer as the melodic sound of Connie Francis longingly asking “Where the Boys Are” drifted over the lilacs from a neighbor’s transistor radio, the men at my family barbecue could be found shvitzing over the red-hot coals of the grill, shooting the breeze.
When tired of arguing the un likelihood of N.Y.C Mayor Robert Wagner running for a third term successfully without the backing of Tammany Hall, libations were replenished as the men brooded over the storm gathering in Berlin.
As the world poised for a showdown between those two cold warriors the USA and the Soviet Union, the risk of military conflict between them heated up that summer of 1961 over the crisis in Berlin. The city divided up between the victors of WWII was located deep in the Soviet occupied parts of Germany and now the Soviets were threatening to drag it behind the iron curtain.
Only sixteen years ago these sunburned suburban schmoozers had all been soldiers who had happily helped defeat Der Fuehrer in that greatest of all wars WWII.
Now with their missions done, their tooth-notched stainless steel rectangular dog tags with the letter H embossed on them safely tucked away, the roar of guns and bombs a dim memory now displaced by the whirl of a Lawn Boy mower and the effervescent bubbling of Canada Dry quinine water, they seemed willing to risk nuclear war to protect the former capital of that former enemy country from the evil clutches of our former comrades in arms, the Russians.
As if shifting gears between enemy and ally was as effortless as the automatic transmission in your Chevrolet, the considerable fury and fear that had fueled our hatred of those bloodless Nazi had been seamlessly and swiftly re-routed to those God-less Russian Commies.
A Hot Dog Makes You Lose Control
Eagerly biting into a tongue scalding frankfurter hot off the grill, Mom’s cousin Milton, a short and stubby man, his GI regulation washboard abs having long gone AWOL leaving his ever-expanding belly stretching the outer limits of his Acrylan shirt, offered up a compelling reason why we needed to step up and protect West Berlin from the clutches of the soulless Russians.
“I have just one word for you-Nathan’s!” he stated firmly, gobbling his hot dog with as much gusto as he perceived the Soviets would gobble up Berlin.
The men nodded knowingly.
A Wonderland of Wieners
Ignoring the fact that the former Wehrmacht was a wonderland of wieners and wursts, its rowdy, German beer gardens filled with boisterous, red-faced patrons washing down their bratwurst with thirst quenching weizen glasses of dark amber Dinkel Acker, if Berlin got dragged behind the iron curtain, he argued, the poor Berliners would be deprived of one of life’s great pleasures – noshing on a Nathan’s hot dog.
No one needed reminding of that near-international incident a few years back when Assistant Secretary of State Averill Harriman went to the Soviet Union and was denied a simple request.
N.Y.’s patrician former governor had asked the hot dog mavens at Nathans to airmail their specialty to him in Soviet Union, but the heartless Russians stopped the shipment of juicy franks at the border, fearful perhaps that if they let the poor Soviet people get even a whiff of good American hot dogs they’d revolt.
Nathans was banned behind the Iron Curtain.
That was ironic considering those same Nathan franks had once catered the big “Carving up the Post War World” party hosted by FDR at Yalta where along with Churchill and Stalin, the 3 big powers greedily chowed down on some red hots while redrawing the map. Only a few years earlier, Roosevelt had successfully served those “Kings of Coney Island” to British royalty, the King and Queen of England at his home in Hyde Park.
The poor Russians may have been deprived of a good American dog, but that didn’t stop Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev from enjoying a hot dog on U.S. soil when he visited in the fall of 1959. During the same trip in which he promised to “bury us” pounding his shoe on a podium of the UN, the rotund premier devoured his first American hot dog in Iowa declaring it “excellent.”
Tear Down That wall.
Thirty years later as the Cold War began to thaw in 1989, not only did the Berlin Wall finally come down, but Muscovites could finally chow down on some genuine Nathans hot dogs. That same year as the wall fell, the cry of “Get your red hots comrades” could be heard when Nathan’s began selling their famous dogs in the heart of Red Square. Credit Perestroika for helping to bring the King of Dogs to the Soviet Union.
© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.