Friday, January 21, 2011

Wienermobiles and Whistles

A few days ago I posted my paean to bacon and so I have been thinking a lot about meat lately. And how can you think about meat and not reflect fondly on the hot dog? It is perhaps the most American of foods, a staple of summer picnics and cookouts. Humphrey Bogart once stated that “a hot dog at the ball park is better than steak at the Ritz." I can’t imagine going to a ball game and not finishing off a dog or two washed down by an ice cold beer. And growing up in the Midwest, I cannot think about hotdogs, or bacon for that matter, without evoking the name of Oscar Mayer, who, come to think of it, is also the King of Bologna as the 1973 advertising jingle reminds us - “My bologna (pronounced “baloney”) has a first name, it’s O-s-c-a-r, my bologna has a second name, it’s M-a-y-e-r . . . .” Can you see where I am going with this?

And who can forget the well-known 1963 “wiener song”?
Oh, I wish I was an Oscar Mayer wiener,
that is what I'd truly like to be,
'cause if I were an Oscar Mayer wiener,
everyone would be in love with me.
I have very fond memories of Oscar Mayer hotdogs in my youth. Hot dogs and Oscar Mayer went together. Our refrigerator was always stocked with its hot dogs, bacon (oooooooo . . . bacon), and other sliced sandwich meats in packages displaying the familiar red and mustard yellow Oscar Mayer logo.

These meat products trace their origins to the German-styled charcuterie produced by the Mayer brothers who brought their recipes from Germany to America shortly after the Civil War and who worked in the meat-packing business, first in Detroit and later around the stockyards on Chicago’s South Side. They later established a meat market on that city’s North Side and sold their meat products under the “Edelweiss” trademark, beginning in 1904. This changed to “Oscar Mayer Approved Meat Products,” in 1918, and the following year the brothers purchased a meat packing plant on the east side of Madison, Wisconsin. A few years later they opened a similar operation in Milwaukee. The rest is history.

In 1912, the company began to use a Model T Ford to deliver meats in and around Chicago, and in 1936 it came up with a new marketing strategy . . . using an automobile chassis onto which an oversized body in the shape of a hot dog was affixed. Dubbed the “Wienermobile,” this 27-foot motorized hot dog originally traveled around Chicago promoting the company’s “German-style wieners” and the wholesome goodness of its meats.

I got up close and personal with the Oscar Mayer Company (which is now a division of Kraft Foods and probably owned by the Chinese if you look deep enough), in the summer of 1965, when my family moved to Maple Bluff, an insular suburb of Madison on the shores of Lake Mendota. Prevailing winds out of the east would bring with them a redolent reminder of the company’s packing plant - the scent of countless cookouts and breakfasts gone by. The kids of the corporate chairman, a great grandson of the original Oscar Mayer, and the then company president were my classmates at Sherman Junior High School (later Sherman Middle School and now the Malcolm Shabazz City High School) which stands almost in the shadows of the packing plant, as does the old ice arena on Commercial Avenue where I use to play hockey after school.

I had heard of and seen pictures of the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile when I was a youngster, but it was during my time in Madison that I saw one up close for the first time at a fall festival held at Tenney Park. I had always thought that there was one Wienermobile driven by the one and only Little Oscar. That is how it all started out, anyway. As it turned out, by the time I had my first encounter of the Wienermobile kind, it was one of a growing fleet of Weinermobiles piloted by a phalanx of Little Oscars. And on that day in Tenney Park I discovered that the father of one of my other classmates was a member of the Little Oscar fraternity and in command of the Wienermobile on site. At the end of the day, I had the honor of riding with my friend and his dad on the trip back up Sherman Avenue to return the Wienermobile to its garage near the packing plant. As a parting gift, Little Oscar (at least the one I got to meet and talk to) gave me my very own Wiener Whistle cast in the image of the iconic Wienermobile.

Now the Wienermobile fleet is crewed by “Hotdoggers” trained at Hot Dog High, in Madison. What I would have given to have a diploma from HDHS to go along with my Wiener Whistle. A few years later, when I attended high school in Richmond, Indiana, we regularly played Frankfort High School, the “Home of the Hot Dogs.” I guess that might have been the next best thing.

The Wienermobile has been updated and modernized several times over the years. Al Unser took one of them on a test lap at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1988 and clocked speeds in excess of 90 mph. Now, that is a fast wiener in anybody’s book. In these hard economic times a wise shopper tends to select store brands over the big name products. I seldom buy Oscar Mayer products anymore, but every time I see the familiar logo I think back to the old days and the backyard cookouts and the Wienermobile with Little Oscar at the wheel. Maybe in my next life I will come back as an Oscar Mayer hotdog. Everyone would be in love with me.

1 comment:

  1. I think the Moxie Mobile deserves some space in a future blog Steve