Today is a special day, as we celebrate a uniquely American food. Yes, today, July 23, 2014, is National Hot Dog Day. Americans consume some seven billion hot dogs between Memorial Day and Labor Day, according to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council in Washington.
Increasingly, hot dog vendors in Maine and elsewhere are coming up with some exotic takes on this classic cuisine - and giving the dog its due.
I seriously love hot dogs. If I were stranded on a desert island, I would gladly eat them all the time. And as far as the best dog I've ever had in my entire life, that was at Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs. A Chicago-style, all beef job. A beaut of a dog, smothered in grilled onions, sweet relish and mustard.
So I'll admit it: When it comes to hot dogs, I'm something of a purist. But hot dogs are going gourmet, with all kinds of crazy toppings. To explore this a little more, I've come to The Moody Dog, a hot dog cart just off Main Street in Belfast, where owner Raymelle Moody-Guthrie is prepping some grilled onions.
"I think that the hot dog, to me, has always been, like, a fun vehicle for all sorts of different kinds of toppings," she says. "And I like the idea of branching out and doing some interesting things that might make people go, 'What?' "
Maine has its share of classic, straight-ahead hot dog stands. Simone's in Lewiston, Bolley's Famous Franks in Hallowell, Wasses in Rockland and Flo's in Cape Neddick come to mind. Maine, of course, is also home to the red snapper, those dogs, dyed red, that snap when you bit into them.
Jay Field: "You have a red chalkboard."
Raymelle Moody-Guthrie: "Yes."
Jay Field: "Let's run through the menu."
Raymelle Moody-Guthrie: "We have, at the very top of course, our classic dog, with either our housemade ketchups or mustard, grilled or raw onions and also a pickle relish."
Moody-Guthrie buys her dogs from the Maine Family Farms Meat Company. The further down the chalkboard you go, the more creative things get. "We also are offering, as specials right now, the Quick kimchi Dog, which is our house made kimchi with Napa cabbage. We drizzle a little bit of Sriracha on that as well."
There are veggie dogs, a dog on a bed of Morse's Sauerkraut, a tomato, basil and mozzarella dog and the American As Apple Pie Dog, topped with apple butter and cheddar cheese.
At 12:30, a customer walks up to the cart.
"I was actually wandering around, looking for my car, 'cause it's really hot and I'm disoriented," says Terry Bradshaw. "I'm supposed to be gardening out on Isleboro and now I'm having a hot dog cause I'm really hungry. And I was like, 'Wow! Perfect! The Moody Hot Dog! Let's check it out!' "
Bradshaw, who lives in nearby Belmont, orders a classic dog with homemade green ketchup. As he waits, I ask about the best dog he's ever had, his Wrigley dog. "The Crystal Hot Dog," he says. "And it was famous!"
They served it at a diner from the depression onward, somewhere near New Brunswick, New Jersey, where Bradshaw grew up. A pork and beef hot dog, he says, smothered in some sort of sauce with chopped ground beef. A chili dog, without the spices.
"Oh, that's so cool. Look at that bun. That's a nice bun," Bradshaw says. "Thank you very much."
It's whole wheat and has some heft to it. As Bradshaw walks off, I do my own taste test. I order the classic dog. "She's putting onions on my bun. Here it comes - and the condiments are already on there?" I ask.
Raymelle Moody-Guthrie: "Yes, I put the condiments on the bun."
OK, it's not the Wrigley dog, but it's really, really good! The Moody Classic really snaps, just like those red dogs that are so popular. It's the one thing Moody-Guthrie says she knew she had to have to run successful hot dog cart in Maine: a dog that snaps with each bite.