By Katje Sabin (mamagotcha)
When I first landed on the Northwest Side four years ago, my sister quickly planned a trip to visit Chicago for the first time. And one of the ways she and I get our bearings in a new place is to dig in to the traditional foods of the area. So, naturally, our first foray into my new hometown’s offerings included a pilgrimage to Superdawg.
There was also much sampling of pizza, Italian beef, giardiniera, and — Chicago being the largest Polish-populated city outside of Warsaw — a healthy dose of pierogies and paczki. But the one item she chose to make room for in her luggage on the return trip? A jar of the neon-green Chicago-style sweet relish that had adorned her hot dog.
There is no neutrality about this condiment; people either abhor it or adore it. The tangy topping has earned its way into the “Chicago Seven” (a term not to be confused with the moniker given to the defendants in an infamous 1968 trial). For food lovers, this phrase refers to the ingredients a Chicago-style hot dog traditionally wears when ordered with the works or “dragged through the garden”: yellow mustard, chopped white onions, bright green sweet relish, a dill pickle spear, tomato wedges, pickled sport peppers, and a dash of celery salt, on an all-beef dog in a steamed poppy-seed bun. These elements together create the iconic local dog coveted by locals and tourists alike.
Hot-dog historian Bob Schwartz, a vice president at Vienna Beef and author of Never Put Ketchup on A Hot Dog, explains its appeal: “It’s the color, the feel, the onions and tomatoes, the pickles and the peppers, as well as the meat. It all kind of flows together. It’s just a work of art when you make a Chicago-style dog,” he said.
You’ll note that Schwartz’s book title explicitly directs diners to omit ketchup, and asking for it will get you either a derisive eye roll or a nod of sympathy for having to cater to your kid. Yet relish and ketchup are culinary cousins: both are popular condiments made of common garden vegetables preserved with vinegar, sugar, and spices; both made their way into Western kitchens via European explorers traveling the Far East in the 17th century; and both are omnipresent in American refrigerator doors.
Curious about the history behind the beloved verdant pickle mix, I found the earliest Western mention of relish came from intrepid English cooks who had embraced the new foods arriving from India and South Asia. Hannah Glasse offered her version of “Paco-Lilla or India Pickle” in her 1758 tome The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, and Elizabeth Raffald included pickles and relishes in her 1769 book, The Experienced English Housekeeper. This volume contained the first published reference to piccalillo, which called for cabbage, cucumbers, and “colly-flower” packed with salt, mustard seed, and turmeric.
Salt-and-vinegar-brined veggies flavored with ginger, garlic, pepper, mustard seed, and turmeric became a staple of English kitchens. Piccalillo, piccalilli, chow-chow, relish — and their fruity relation, chutney — all rose from the traditional pickled dishes imported from the East. As European immigrants populated the New World, American kitchens also began to import and then put their own spin on homemade piccalillies, and commercial versions flourished as well.
The largest supplier of both meat and relish to many Chicago hot dog stands, Vienna Beef, acquired the Chicago Pickle Company in 1984. But there is evidence that the addition of pickle relish was popular long before ChiPiCo changed hands: the 5¢ Depression Sandwich sold by Fluky’s in 1929 included all of the above-mentioned Chicago Seven condiments except the celery salt. And Maurie and Flaurie Berman, owners of Superdawg, told DiningChicago.com that piccalilli has been an integral part of their hot dogs since the place opened in 1949.
Today, the various viridian versions of relish are mostly comprised of the same ingredients: cucumbers, peppers, sweeteners such as sugar or high-fructose corn syrup, vinegar, salt, “flavorings and spices,” a few preservatives like sodium benzoate and alum, and a couple of stabilizers like xanthan gum and guar gum.
When blue — not green — artificial dye was added sometime in the early ‘70s (some sources claim Fluky’s was the first to offer the fluorescent hue), the brightly colored substance was dubbed “atomic relish” by fans. If you want the neon-green Chicago-style experience on short notice, you can add a drop of liquid blue food coloring to your favorite sweet pickle relish (and maybe yellow, if you’re feeling exuberant).
But if the flavor stays the same, then why are Chicago-style dogs incomplete without that tell-tale green glow?
“It’s not radioactive!” Schwartz assured us in a recent phone interview. “I’m not sure that the taste is all that different, but the color definitely accentuates the experience.”
And the experience is a necessary one for anyone visiting the Windy City — not just because visitors should try a Chicago-style dog, but also because the city’s hot dog stands often offer better fast food than what you get elsewhere around the country, Schwartz insists. There’s an oft-quoted statistic (from Sam Weller’s Secret Chicago, published 2002) that the 2,000+ hot dog stands in Chicago outnumber the local McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Burger King franchises combined.
“Chicago fast food is fresh fast food,” Schwartz said. “It’s a higher quality than the norm. It’s lasted longer because of that quality.”
And it looks like relish, in all its bright-hued glory, is an indelible mark of that quality. It’s also part of what makes eating a Chicago dog a mandatory experience for anyone who wants to eat authentically in my adopted hometown.