Hot dogs are as All-American as you can get. They conjure up images of 4th of July barbecues, camping (though I’ve never actually had one roasted on a twig over a campfire), and street vendors selling them from carts under blue and yellow umbrellas on city sidewalks.
Another All-American culinary institution is the diner. Having grown up on Long Island, I am familiar with the form. There is a diner at the center of every town, and it’s where families gather for birthdays, graduations, or just as a weekly ritual. Nothing fancy, but rather the reassurance of the familiar: laminated menus listing countless items ranging from breakfast to steaks, and truly everything in between. The decor usually involves a shiny chrome exterior and an interior outfitted with vinyl-upholstered booths and formica tabletops, livened up by bright overhead lighting and a tall glass case containing a revolving display of larger-than-life desserts. Besides the comforting unfussiness of diners, an added bonus is that many of them are open late into the wee hours of the morning, or even around the clock.
Diners trace their roots as far back as the late nineteenth century, when they took the form of horse-drawn wagons. The first recorded diner, in 1872, served hot food to the employees of the Providence Journal in Rhode Island. After those origins, the institution of the diner owes a lot to Greek immigrants, particularly on the East coast. According to historians, Greek immigrants developed the modern diner from the kaffenion, traditionally a hole-in-the wall where men gather to talk over coffee and shots of ouzo. When 350,000 Greeks immigrated between 1900 to 1920, they brought this tradition with them, and it evolved over time to what we consider the All-American diner. Just as our population has grown more and more diverse, these days, many of the Greek diners are changing ownership into the hands of newer immigrants, from Asia and Latin America.
The hot dog and the diner have more in common than simply their places in the American appetite. Their connection is Coney Island. I am referring not to the part of New York known for its boardwalk and Nathan’s hot dogs, but to the specific type of diner popular in Michigan where the “Coney Island” hot dog was created. In other parts of the country this is known as a chili dog. It’s also called a hot dog with “Greek Sauce,” in recognition of its immigrant creators. Besides the Coney Island hot dog, the other popular menu item at Coney Island restaurants is the gyro, the Greek pita-wrapped sandwich of shaved lamb combined with tzatziki, tomatoes and onions. That’s my kind of sandwich: savory, garlicky, and tangy.
To mingle these two parts of the American culinary landscape, the hot dog and the diner, I have envisioned a Greek Hot Dog. I am not reinventing the Coney Island/chili dog, which is already well-known and well-loved. Instead, I am bringing to this 4th of July barbecue a hot dog with the flavors of the gyro. It combines spiced lamb sausages and tzatziki, and is garnished with sliced onion, tomato and crumbled feta.
As they say in Greece, Opa!
* * *
Gyro Lamb “Hot Dogs”
6 lamb sausages*
6 hot dog buns
1 cup tzatziki (recipe follows)
3 tablespoons crumbled feta
1-2 ripe tomatoes, diced
1 medium white onion, finely sliced
1. Grill sausages and hot dog buns, preferably over a charcoal grill.
2. Place cooked sausages into toasted buns.
3. Top with a few spoons of tzatziki, chopped tomatoes and onion, and finally, crumbled feta.
*Note: my vegetarian friends can substitute TofuPups or other vegetarian hot dogs for the lamb sausage, and non-lamb eaters can substitute their favorite hot dog. The tzatziki and toppings supply the essence of the flavor.
1 pint plain Greek yogurt
1 cucumber, unpeeled and seeded
1 tablespoon salt
Freshly squeezed juice of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 teaspoons minced fresh dill
Pinch freshly ground black pepper
1. Coarsely grate the cucumber and toss it with the salt. Place it in a sieve, and allow it to drain for an hour or more.
2. Squeeze out as much liquid from the cucumber as you can.
3. Add the cucumber to the yogurt.
4. Mix in the lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, dill, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and pepper.
5. Chill for several hours in the refrigerator to allow the flavors to blend and for the sauce to thicken.
6. Serve as a sauce with Gyro Lamb Hot Dogs or as a dip with pita bread or pita chips.
“The Kaffenion Connection: How the Greek Diner Evolved,” The New York Times, April 14, 1996.
“Diners in Changing Hands; Greek Ownership on the Wane,” The New York Times, March 16, 2008.
“Coney Island (restaurant),” Wikipedia
“Coney Island hot dog,” Wikipedia
© 2010 Linda Shiue
Published June 29, 2010 on Salon.com