Small Bites

According to wiener taxonomists, there are no fewer than two dozen regional variations on the snack, from northeastern Massachusetts’ boiled Frankfurt rolls to Seattle’s cream-cheese-wearing dogs. In the 150 years since an entrepreneurial German-American (historians debate over whether to credit Charles Feltman of Brooklyn or Antonoine Feuchtwanger of St. Louis as inventor of the nation’s favorite stand-up-and-eat treat) plopped a sausage in a bun, the hot dog has emerged as an edible tabula rasa. Let other cultures produce fancy art and architecture — the chosen medium for communal expression in the United States is hot-dog toppings.

Western North Carolina’s take on the frank calls for chili, coleslaw, mustard and finely chopped onions. But, nobody really knows why: There’s been a remarkable lack of scholarship on the hot dog. Maybe people are too busy eating them to make any serious study: According to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, last year, Americans gobbled up 20 billion hot dogs. But not everyone’s eating their allotted 60 dogs: Residents of Western states — who apparently aren’t big on processed meats — are notorious under-indulgers. So it’s up to Southerners to pick up the slack: A full 25 percent of hot dogs are downed on this side of the Mason-Dixon Line.

One of the nation’s few hot-dog researchers contends that’s because the slaw dog, as it’s known in places where coleslaw isn’t a standard condiment, is irresistibly delicious. “Have you ever tried one?” writes Stanton in response to an e-mail pressing him to explain the Appalachian appetite for hot dogs. “And you have to ask?”

(Such is the stature of hot-dog scholars that Stanton, the brains and belly behind www.wvhotdogs.com, uses just one name to protect his reputation. “I am a somewhat highly visible person in my community and my employer doesn’t want me to be known as the Hot Dog King,” he writes. Toiling in anonymity, Stanton has meticulously charted the West Virginia slaw dog’s popularity by county.)

Stanton has a theory as to why mountaineers reach for the coleslaw whenever the sweet aroma of dogs cooking wafts beneath their noses. And since he’s the only hot dog aficionado willing to venture a guess — albeit under a pseudonym — his hypothesis seems worth sharing.

Hot dog eaters

According to Stanton, the tradition of slawing dogs started in the early 1920s at The Stopette Drive-In on Route 21 outside of Charleston, W. Va. “During the Great Depression, when weenies and cabbage were two of the most plentiful and affordable food items, every eatery in the area copied them,” Stanton writes. He believes the signature dish moseyed down the Hillbilly Highway as West Virginians in search of work migrated to other mountain states.

But even Stanton can’t explain the chili — the slightly spicy, beanless meat sauce that completes the slaw-dog flavor meld that mystifies Northern hot-dog fans. To a Chicagoan, who dresses his all-beef dog with pickle relish, sport peppers and celery salt, the slaw dog — in which no element can be so distinctive as to overwhelm another — is a maddening proposition.

“All you keep telling us is they have slaw on them,” grumbled one member of Chowhound.com who stumbled upon an online discussion of Southern hot dogs. “What else, if anything, is on a ‘Southern’ dog? What type of roll? Who manufacturers these dogs? Is this ‘Southern’ dog beef or all meat? A natural casing or skinless? WHAT ARE YOU PEOPLE TALKING ABOUT???”

The answer, of course, is right here in Asheville, where every day hundreds of lunch breaks are spent in joints serving up dogs swaddled in tight-fitting buns, painted with chili and doused with sweet, buttermilk-based slaw. While many local restaurants offer Appalachian-style dogs, the following are the only (presently open) spots I found within — or very close to — Asheville city limits that specialize in hot dogs, most of them good enough to make your annual 60-dog quota seem slightly less daunting.

The Hot Dog King (on Biltmore)
No matter how many color-coded maps Stanton issues, he’ll never be known as the hot-dog king around these parts. That honor goes to this 29-year-old institution, which stays busy ladling out its 99-cent dogs. Outlets of this Buncombe County franchise are independently owned, and the owner of this location — who also supervises operations at the Hot Dog in Chandler — is obviously doing something right. The dogs here are a model of the genre — well-balanced presentations that play cold against hot, spicy against sweet and wet against dry. They go down easy: I confused the counterwoman by ordering just one. 63 Biltmore Ave.; 253-0448

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