We call it Awesome Sauce: Birmingham Style Hot Dog Sauce

[This entry is cross posted at ordinary-times.com]

“Nobody, I mean nobody, puts ketchup on a hot dog.”
– Harold Francis Callahan

If you like to cook you’ve experienced the private joy of making something from scratch that you usually buy pre-made, finding that homemade tastes better than store bought, and saving money in the process. Simple marinara is a good example of what I’m talking about. It’s remarkably easy to put together. Cheap too. Buy a can of plum tomatoes for a couple of bucks and combine with ingredients – olive oil, garlic, oregano and or basil, a splash of white wine, red pepper flakes, and salt – that you probably keep in the pantry and you have made sauce. You’ll have to wash a knife and cutting board in addition to the pan you’d have to wash anyway if you reheated an eight to ten dollar jar of whatever the grocery shelves have on offer, but since you were in charge it’s exactly as herby and salty as you like it. People will say things like “You made this yourself?” and you can act demure and pretend that it was not that hard but a little harder than it was. That’s just one example. There are plenty more.

If you really like to cook you’ve experienced the mania that drives you needlessly to replicate something that mass market food providers do very well and in the course of replicating you’ll spend at least twice as much as you would grabbing a bottle of whatever and there’s suddenly clean up where before there was screwing a cap back on. Most of the time this type of cooking is done just to say that you’ve done it. I made ketchup once. I’ll never do it again. The recipe called for more onions than tomatoes. I didn’t expect that. Hot dog sauce is a favorite condiment of mine so I figured I’d give it a go. It was disappointingly easy to make with only a modicum of mess but even though most of the ingredients are pantry staples I was able make it cost more than the three bucks I would have shelled out for the fruits of somebody else’s labor. The problem here is that even though there are great products out there I like my sauce better. Now I have to make it a lot.

Birmingham had an influx of Greek immigrants in the first half of the last century and a surprising number of them opened restaurants. You’d think that means that we have a bunch of Greek themed restaurants. We don’t. We have some, just not as many as you’d think. These guys were Odysseus shrewd. They looked around to see what people wanted and filled the niche. One of the city’s needs was a quick and affordable lunch option so two brothers or cousins – I forget which – named Gus and Pete separately opened up hot dog places. All their locations were similar; shotgun retail spaces no wider than a train car with a grill and workspace down one length and a narrow bar with stools on the opposite wall. The guys were technically competitors but they stayed out of each other’s way. Downtown had enough clientele for all but, I suspect, they divvied up the suburban villages. I’ve heard various contradictory histories but my favorite is that the two men were close as can be and when Gus had a son he named him Pete and when Pete had a son he named him Gus. That’s how, by the second generation you have a bunch of Gus’s Hot Dogs owned by a guy named Pete while a guy named Gus had the keys to Sneaky Pete’s and Pete’s Famous Hot Dogs. I like the story so I’m not going to check any further. Let sleeping dogs lie.

Over several succeeding generations ownership broke up and some were sold, but you can still find a Gus’s or a Sneaky Pete’s around. Gus’s Original Hot Dogs, his first location, is a just outside of a comfortable walk from my house but I drive over there all the time. Like all the former empire of Pete and Gus this shop has a “Birmingham Dog.” That’s a grilled dog on a steamed bun with spiced ground beef, sourcrout, mustard, and special sauce. I get mine without mustard because ewww, but I double up on the special sauce. It’s described as a Coney onion sauce by those, unlike me, who have had Coney onion sauce. There are variations from one place to the next but they all obviously got their start from the same mother recipe. A few internet food sleuths tried their hand at recreating it and I took a bit here and there from published attempts, got close to the restaurant version, and then fiddled around to make it my own. Now when I go out to get a hot dog with people and somebody says that this or that place has the best sauce, I nod but mention that I add a little more cayenne and a touch of cumin to mine. They’ll say something like “You make this yourself?” and I act demure and pretend that it’s not that hard but a little harder than it is.

Birmingham Style Hot Dog Sauce

  • 1/4 medium yellow onion, diced
  • olive oil
  • 3-4 cloves garlic
  • 2 cups water, more if needed
  • 2 tbsp. tomato paste
  • 2 tsp. corn syrup
  • 1 tsp. corn starch
  • 1/2 tsp. kosher salt, more if needed
  • 1/4 tsp. ground cayenne pepper or to taste, sub red pepper flakes if need be
  • 1/8 cup distilled white vinegar
  • oregano, to taste (optional)
  • chili powder, to taste (optional)
  • cumin, to taste (optional)
  • painter’s tape (optional)
  • black Sharpie (optional)

Start with a few glugs of olive oil in a medium sauce pan over medium high heat. Add onion and sauté until translucent and aromatic, 3 or 4 minutes, and then add garlic and sauté for another minute or so but be careful not to let the garlic brown.

Now add everything that’s not listed as optional – water, tomato paste, corn syrup, corn starch, salt, cayenne, and vinegar.

Bring to a boil, reduce to a low simmer, and cook for 45 minutes stirring occasionally.

You’ve made a basic sauce so now you can add whatever you want. If you’d rather a taco sauce than a hot dog sauce add chipotles and/or hatch peppers and maybe a little annatto powder. Green peppers and Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning would be amazing with fried seafood. For hot dog sauce I add about a tsp. of oregano and half as much each of chili powder and cumin but feel free to increase, decrease, or omit as it suits you.

I don’t use a whisk very often because I don’t regularly make stuff that needs one. This is a great opportunity to whisk something so do that if you get bored. Simmer on low for another 30 minutes whisking or stirring occasionally.

After 30 minutes, strain through a wire mesh sieve into a bowl. Use the back of a spoon to press as much liquid from the solids as you can.

You can throw the solids away, but they’re great on top of scrambled eggs so put them in a Zip-Loc or something. It should be fine in the fridge for a couple of days.

Taste the strained sauce and correct for salt.

Now you have hot dog sauce. Put it in a nice bowl and set out with whatever other condiments you have to offer.

Better yet, spend $.99 on a squeeze bottle. Funnel the sauce into that and using painter’s tape and a Sharpie label and date so as not to get it confused with all the other squeeze bottles you have filled with home made condiments. Bowls are nice, but this is more hot-dog-joint-like. Gus and Pete would be proud.

I have no idea how long this stuff keeps in the refrigerator. I try to use it up in a week but that’s me being cautious. Mass produced vinegar-based sauces have about the shelf life of a well attended classroom goldfish but I’m convinced there’s a preservative used that corporations keep hushed up to limit lawsuit vectors. Fortunately, my sauce is also good on burgers, chicken, steak, fish, pork, eggs… all the stuff that most hot sauces list on the back of the label. I usually only throw out a third of it.

We call it Awesome Sauce at my house. Hope you enjoy it.

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