A summer staple at my 1960’s family barbecues was the ritual hot dog competition not in competitive eating but dissecting who made the best toothsome well turned frank.
The mouth-watering aroma of grilling franks wafting through the suburban air sparked the inevitable debate about who made the best hot dog.
There was fierce loyalty and intense competition.
The faithful kosher deli coalition whose Hebrew National dogs were grilled flat on a gas griddle to a crispy puckering finish, scoffed at the sacrilege of the “dirty water dogs” languishing in a warm water bath sold by the city street vendors, whose devotees swore by the steamed Sabretts, heaped high with rich day-glo orange-colored sweet-tart onion sauce.
Loyalists to N.Y.C.’s West Side Gray’s Papaya formed an unlikely alliance with their East Side rival Papaya King, both of which thought it blasphemous to wash down a frank with anything but papaya juice, certainly never an orange drink, even if the frank dressed with mustard relish and nestled in a buttered toasted bun was “Good…like Nediks!”
For some the pontificating took on the seriousness of a rabbinic argument, though in actuality it more closely resembled a bunch of kids arguing over which were the best baseball cards, Topps in the nickel wax pack or Bazookas cut from panels on the gum boxes, and like both discourses, no one ever won the dispute.
But on one point they agreed.
No one dared tamper with that most sacrosanct of hot dogs the one consumed on Coney Island on Surf and Stillwell Avenues – Nathans.
It’s the Wurst
With the dexterity and skills of a fencer, Dad nimbly poked and prodded the franks on the grill. Normally the only dogs to sizzle on our Weber were those approved by a Higher Authority, Hebrew National, but as a surprise my grandfather had brought us cartons of gen-u-ine New York Yankee- approved-Stahl Meyer hot dogs direct from their Ridgewood Queens factory.
The boxes of pork and beef frankfurters were more than likely a token of thanks to my pawnbroker grandfather from a Stahl Meyer delivery truck driver with a penchant for poker who had pawned his Timex for the umpteenth time.To show his appreciation for my grandfathers leniency, he had made an unscheduled “delivery” to Edelstein Brothers Pawnshop on his regular route supplying dogs to Yankee stadium
The very mention of a Stahl Meyer hot dog brought boyish grins across generations of Dodger and Giants fans, instantly transporting my curmudgeon great Uncles and their broad beamed sons from the comfort of their webbed aluminum lawn chairs to the hard, gray painted, wood slatted seats of the bleachers of the old Polo Grounds and Ebbitt’s Field.
Even those observant Jews like my Great Uncle Leo who would never dream of eating a hot dog that wasn’t kosher, crossed a sacred boundary with ease at a baseball game.
Like eating at a Chinese Restaurant, age-old prohibitions were suspended for the day, as he willingly succumbed to the enticing aroma of a steamy Stahl Meyer dog fished out of rapidly cooling water by vendors dressed in white lugging around iron trays shouting “They’re skinless and boneless and harmless and homeless” as they bounded up and down the narrow aisles.
Not everyone was so enthralled.
As Dad casually nudged the plump Hebrew Nationals to one side of the grill, my great Aunt Rena watched like a hawk making certain that a rogue Stahl Meyer frank did not accidentally defect over to the other side of the barbecue. It wasn’t just that these franks were not sanctified by rabbinic law, no it was far worse.
These dogs had Deutschland written all over them.
As if the factory was on the Rhine and not Ridgewood Queens, Aunt Rena shuddered at the thought of some former Bund Deutscher Madel blue-eyed blonde, meat-packing Fräulein fondling the Fuher’s frankfurters in their natural casings, while lustily humming the Nazi anthem “Horst Wessel song.”
Ridgewood, where the hot dogs were manufactured was a notoriously German neighborhood.
Not surprisingly, Aunt Rena was not the only family member who was convinced its many multi family row houses built-in the 1920s by Germans for Germans , brick by golden-colored Kreischer brick, was still populated by men in brown shirts, black Jack boots and wide Sam Browne Belts, rank and file members of the German American Volksbund who 25 years earlier, believed in Nazi power and strength to conqueror the world who still refused to embrace Aus der traum.
As the Stahl Meyer dogs rolled perilously close to the Hebrew Nationals, a shiver of terror went through some of my relatives, as if Joseph Goebbels himself had cheerfully stuffed those plump terra-cotta tubes with not only pork and spices, but a hefty serving of Nazi propaganda for good measure.
When it came to Germany, a wall had already been built by my family, beating the Russians by a full decade.