CHARLES TOWN -One of the first things I learned at Marshall University still sticks with me vividly more than a quarter-century later: I’d spent my life eating hot dogs all wrong.
My “usual” – with mustard, onions and relish – provoked enormous eye-rolls from my newest friends as we lunched in the Holderby Hall cafeteria.
Didn’t I know anything? A hot dog has to have sauce, those in the know told me. And on the sauce there must be creamy cole slaw.
Leaving the Eastern Panhandle to study journalism in Southern West Virginia, I’d anticipated an adjustment as I ended my carefree high school daze and moved into an independent, adult life.
What I didn’t expect was a full-bore culture shock. After all, I was a lifelong West Virginian attending a West Virginia school.
But those of us in the Eastern Panhandle in many ways aren’t in touch with “real” West Virginia. We’d definitely never gotten the memo about how to create a proper West Virginia dog.
Given the insistence of those around me on this topic, plus the influence of Stewart’s, The Varsity and other amazing Huntington hot dog institutions, I soon found myself fully adopting the sauce-and-slaw lifestyle. “When in Southern West Virginia, hot dog as the Southern West Virginians do.”
That plan worked for me through college and then for my years living in Charleston. But in Cleveland, no eatery served hot dogs that way and once I moved back to the Panhandle in 1996, I knew I was settling in for a slawless hot dog future.
Then in 2006, when Hollywood released “We Are Marshall,” the film detailing the devastation of the school’s football team in a 1970 plane crash, I found myself thinking about Huntington-style hot dogs again.
One of the early scenes of the film shows actor Matthew McConaughey (as Marshall’s new coach Jack Lengyel) chomping into a sauced, slawed dog at The Varsity. If filmmakers had gotten the hot dogs right, I felt confident they’d tell the full story properly, too. And they did.
Ever since, I’ve found myself craving the hot dogs I remembered from my college days. Here in the EP, there’s just no duplicating those exact tastes. In fact, it’s difficult even to achieve agreement on what’s ideal.
Writers on Hillbilly Hot Dogs, The West Virginia Hot Dog Blog and other online forums endlessly debate just what constitutes the quintessential West Virginia dog: whether the sauce can include beans, whether it’s OK for beans to show up whole or if they need to be smashed into a paste, whether the beef in the sauce must be boiled or can be browned, whether the cole slaw can include grated onions, how best to achieve the softest-possible bun, and on and on.
Literally hundreds, perhaps thousands, of possible variations to the West Virginia dog exist, and what I’ve discovered is that it’s fun to experiment and see what appeals to your own Inner Hillbilly.
My personal IH finds hot dog satisfaction this way: first and most important is a top-quality, all-beef dog, such as Nathan’s. I grill or pan fry it, then add a beef sauce (browned beef is fine; typically I don’t include beans). If you don’t want to make your own, consider picking up a container of West Virginia-made Custard Stand-brand Hot Dog Chili, which is 100 percent beef.
On top of the sauce goes a strip of creamy slaw (on the sweet side but made without onions), and then as the finale, a bit of chopped white onion. There’s no yellow mustard involved and no cheese. I don’t steam the bun, but I do use fresh, soft white bread to achieve that pillowy softness I remember as a key to the Huntington hot dog experience.
The following how-tos for sauce and slaw may not get the thumbs up down South, but they’ll get you in the ballpark. You’ll also find recipes for an easy side dish and a cobbler to end your authentic West Virginia meal on a sweet note.
Heavenly Hot Dog Sauce
1/4 cup olive oil
1 lb. lean ground round
3 Tablespoon chili powder
1 teaspoon cumin
3 Tablespoons tomato paste
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 cup white onion, finely chopped
1 cup beef broth
For roux, 1 Tablespoon olive oil and 1 Tablespoon flour
In a Dutch oven (or any pot with a capacity of 2 quarts or more), heat olive oil and saute onions till translucent. Remove and reserve. Add ground round and cook over medium heat until beef is browned. Drain off fat.
Turn heat to low and to meat stir in tomato paste, chili powder, cumin, salt, garlic, onions and beef broth. Simmer, covered, for 15 minutes, stirring often.
To thicken the sauce, create a roux by combining one tablespoon olive oil and one tablespoon flour in a separate bowl. Once the roux is mixed well, add it to pot. Simmer another five minutes or until sauce is thickened. If a tangier sauce is desired, add cayenne pepper or chopped jalapeno.
Perfectly Creamy Cole Slaw
1 pound green cabbage (about half a medium cabbage)
1 large carrot
1 Tablespoon white vinegar
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 Tablespoon milk
1 Tablespoon white sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon celery seeds (not celery salt)
Chop and set aside cabbage and carrot.
In a large bowl, whisk together remaining ingredients for the dressing. Stir in cabbage and carrot. Place, covered, in the refrigerator to chill for at least an hour to allow flavors to blend.
Crockpot Baked Beans
6 to 8 strips bacon, cut into one-inch pieces
3 cans (16-ounces each) baked pork and beans
1/4 cup light brown sugar, packed
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
¼ cup ketchup
¼ cup barbecue sauce
Fry bacon until crisp; drain well on paper towels. Combine all ingredients and transfer to crockpot. Cover and cook on low 4 to 5 hours.
1 large (28- to 32-ounce) can of sliced peaches in syrup, drained
3/4 cup peach syrup (reserved from can)
2 1/4 cups flour
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon clove
3/4 cup butter, melted
1 1/2 cup milk
Spread peaches evenly in an 11-by-15-inch baking dish. Combine dry ingredients; add milk peach syrup and butter; mix until blended. Pour batter over peaches.
Bake at 350 degrees for 45 to 50 minutes. Serve with real whipped cream.
— Happy West Virginia Day! If you have thoughts on this column or the newpaper’s Life section, we’d love to hear them. Write to Christine Miller Ford at HYPERLINK “mailto:Christine@SpiritofJefferson.com”Christine@SpiritofJefferson.com.