Sunday, November 15, 2009

Where Have All the Corn Dogs Gone?

Back in May and June I used this forum to expatiate on my love of various cheeses, including curds which are a key ingredient for "une maudite poutine," yet there is still another favorite delicacy deserving of special tribute. It goes by different names depending where you encounter it, but growing up in the upper Midwest I have always known it simply as the corn dog (or corndog). My wife, a native Floridian, also recognizes it by this rather definitive sobriquet. A corn dog is, after all, nothing more than a hot dog (wiener, weenie, frankfurter, or frank) impaled on a sharp stick and then plunged into cornbread batter and deep fried to a golden brown. There are some that are satisfied with factory-prepared, frozen, and ready to eat corn dogs after you warm them up. I guess, if that’s all you have, then this will do. But nothing tastes better than a freshly-cooked hot dog dipped into freshly-made cornbread batter, and then fried in freshly-heated oil. That’s a corn dog in my book!

Hot dogs in their many local variations have been served throughout the United States since the late 19th century, and now they have adapted to the tastes of other countries as well. Corn dogs, however, did not emerge until the late 1930s and early 1940s - the Texas State Fair claims to be the first place to serve corn dogs - and from what I can tell, they seem to be found almost exclusively in this country (although I have eaten a Canadian variant known as a "Pogo Stick" and have heard of sausage dipped in batter containing large chunks of fried potato served as Korean fast food). Processed corn dogs are found in grocery stores just about anywhere in the USA, and I have been known to eat them, but their consumption has not produced in lasting memories. I will order a freshly prepared one whenever I can, but they seem few and far between. I am not sure why this is, but take my word, they are not easy to find.

My earliest encounters with corn dogs were limited to the store-bought kind. I don’t really recall eating a made-from-scratch corn dog until my days as a graduate student at the University of Arizona, in Tucson. Just outside of the campus’ Main Gate, at the corner of East University Boulevard and North Park Avenue, was a tiny hole-in-the-wall corn dog shop. You would place your order at a small service window and then the individual working inside the cramped quarters would cook the corn dog to order. They also served cheese on a stick dipped into the same batter, and a tall cup of soda with ice made for a perfect three-course lunch. Once Sally Ann, who worked at the campus library across the street, and I discovered this place, we frequently gravitated to its beck and call at lunchtime. Add to this the fact that the food was cheap - less than a buck for a quality corn dog - and we were poor made the draw even more attractive.

These corn dogs were such a hit that we began to prepare them at home in our tiny apartment. We did away with the necessity (and expense) of serving sticks and instead cut the hotdogs into small, bite size servinsg which we then dipped into the batter using long fondue forks before submerging them into the fondue pot for cooking. That pot, which we still have and use occasionally, turned out to be a favorite wedding present as we quickly discovered that we could have corn dogs - or in this case, corn puppies - any time we wanted. What fond memories. Life was good!

Perhaps I was a bit hasty when I stated that I have no lasting memories of the ready-to-eat corn dogs I have eaten over the years. These were found rotating on those ubiquitous roller grills found in gas stations, quick-stop markets, movie theaters and sports arenas across this great country of ours. Usually what you find there are your standard hot dogs, bratwursts, Polish sausages, kielbasas . . . but every once in awhile you are lucky enough to stumble across a golden brown corn dog. The only problem with these, however, is that the breaded coating is sizzling hot, yet the dog inside is still stone cold, a fact you don’t discover until you have taken your first bite. But that’s another matter. The consumption of these parvenu corn dogs can evoke strong memories, but these are usually associated more with the circumstances in which said corn dog is consumed and not the corn dog in and of itself. Perhaps it was eaten while on a memorable road trip, or while watching a favorite movie, or during a game in which the home team took it to the visitors. In Gainesville, Florida we discovered a place that prepared a half-way decent processed corn dog at a food court and we would order a couple before going to see a movie. Again, memories in which a corn dog played a key role.

A couple years ago Sally Ann and I were on an extended road trip exploring the Great Plains. We had spent a night in Sioux Falls, South Dakota and the next morning we drove westward past miles of dormant cornfields to Mitchell, SD, the home of the Corn Palace, formerly known as the Corn Belt Exposition when the original building was constructed in 1892. This place - the current Corn Palace was erect in 1921 and expanded in 1937 covering almost an entire city block - must be seen to be believed. Each autumn over a quarter million ears of corn in various colors are used to create a thematic mural on the entire exterior facade of the building. Much of the interior decoration also consists of ears of corn. Even though it was only mid-morning and nothing was going on when we arrived and toured the place, we were pleasantly surprised to find the "Corncessions" stand open. There, on the top of the menu, were corn dogs served using homemade cornbread batter! Breakfast was only a couple hours behind us, and lunch time seemed far off, yet we ordered a couple corn dogs - real honest-to-goodness corn dogs from the heart of America’s Corn Belt - which we savored there is the bowels of the Corn Palace. Big, fat corn dogs at $1.50 each! Hmmmmmm. I can still taste them.

As much as the corn dog is primarily an American innovation, I am somewhat perplexed and saddened that I am unable to find a good corn dog in our Nation’s Capital . . . my home for the past 30+ years. Sure, there are the dirty water hot dogs and half smokes sold by downtown street corner vendors. And there is Ben’s Chili Bowl, that venerable institution up on U Street, which offers fantastic half-smokes served with a generous helping of chili and cheese. But no corn dogs! I did score a couple of factory-produced corn dogs at the Washington Nationals’ new stadium when Boston was in town earlier this summer. They were soggy and lukewarm and like everything else there highly over-priced. I did get to see my Red Sox play, but it would have been nice to have better tasting corn dog to go with the game! So the search continues for a good local corn dog; I will let you know if I ever find it.

NEXT WEEK: An Evening Among Gentlemen


  1. Big Dawg and Corn Dawg. Love it, Bro Steve. Hanker

    Ps (ask us to describe u in on eword. c my post)

  2. My best corn dog--State Fair of Texas in Dallas! Thanks for a delicious reflection.

  3. Do you eat your corn dog plain or dip it in yellow mustard? Yummm..memories of the Florida State Fair in Tampa.