The Seattle Dog

What our society can learn from hot dogs with cream cheese on them

They are trying to start sports again. They want to do it in empty stadiums, or keep all the athletes in giant compounds in Florida and Arizona. The whispers are getting louder and louder. Scott Boras, the baseball super agent, wrote in the New York Times that baseball is ready to do its duty for the country as if this is some kind of necessary sacrifice and not a way to kickstart his commission checks.

I’ve written about this here before, but I think that sports played in a bio-dome or however they want to do it will be garbage. The corporate execs may only see sports as a TV show, but for sports to even be convincing as such they require the verisimilitude that comes with real fans, real crowd noise, real vibes. I’ve watched some Taiwanese and Korean Baseball in empty stadiums. It’s weird. The absence of fans is just a constant reminder of the presence of everything else -- the virus, the economic devastation, the failing federal government, and everything else wrong with the world right now. 

It’s extra tragic/funny that the BRING BACK BASEBALL NOW crowd has tried to use nostalgia as a reason to do it. As if the whole world is going to open its windows during the 7th inning stretch of the first eerily quiet Tigers-Rangers game and belt out Take Me Out to the Ballgame in unison. What we crave isn’t the suspension of disbelief, it’s actual belief; it isn’t fake unity, it’s actual human contact. Real peanuts, real crackerjacks, and real hot dogs, which are of course the subject of this week’s Sports Stories.

We’re going to have to wait for human contact. We’re going to have to wait on the chance to eat all this junk food while crammed together shoulder to shoulder, breathing in the smell of horrible garlic fries and stale beer. But in the meantime, it’s okay to missthat stuff in a visceral way. It’s okay to be unsatisfied with life as it is right now. It’s okay to linger in the absence of these sensory experiences. The absent sensory experience I’m lingering on right now is a hot dog with grilled onions and cream cheese on it. This creation was invented in Seattle, perfected in Seattle, and remains popular pretty much only in Seattle. 

My first experience with the Seattle Dog was outside of a Mariners game. My friend Janelle (not yet girlfriend Janelle, or wife Janelle, or part-time Sports Stories editor Janelle) used to work at a hot dog stand outside of Safeco Field (shout out to her boss Joe Jeannot of Hot Dog Joe’s aka the Mayor of Seattle). She felt, and still feels, very strongly about this. I was skeptical at first, but quickly came to agree that cream cheese hot dogs were a terrific idea.

I want nothing more right now than to drive up to Seatle for a Mariners game, to buy a hot dog and eat it in three massive bites as I wind my way through the line and into the home plate gate. Then to pick up another one (discounted, obviously) on the way back to my car. 

There are a few things about the Seattle Dog that are beautiful to me. One is the way it tastes. You’ll just have to trust me on this, or add the ingredients to your next grocery list and find out for yourself. Another is the story of its origin. Another is the chill, no- too-particular set of rules that actually define it as such. The rise of the Seattle Dog sort of traces the rise of Seattle itself in the recent American imagination.

The most complete history of the dog was written by Hannah Raskin for Seattle Weekly, a publication I wrote for one single time, and that sadly no longer exists. Raskin tracked down a man named Hadley Long (the article spells it Longe, but I’m pretty sure it’s Long.) Long was a self-described “bagel man.” He worked for a bagel shop in Pioneer Square, a neighborhood on the southern end of Downtown Seattle. The short story is that he had an insane idea: to set up a cart and try and serve bagels to drunk people coming out of bars and nightclubs where a certain famous musical scene was in the process of being born.

Finally, Long decided to start selling hot dogs. He would put them on a bialy with cream cheese. Suddenly, business was good. Here’s Long explaining himself to Raskin:

“I didn’t want to be a hot-dog guy. I wanted to be the bagel man. So even though I sold hundreds of bagel dogs, I always waited for the person who would still want a veggie bagel.”

But Long was not just any hot dog guy. He was the cream cheese hot dog guy. He was outside the Kingdome when the Mariners and Seahawks played, and when the Final Four came to town in 1989. Slowly, word of his hot dogs trickled to other parts of the city. The ‘80s became the ‘90s. Hot dog vendors in Capitol Hill and Belltown were getting asked about the cream cheese. 

Some people will dispute that Long invented what later became known as the Seattle Dog. Raskin acknowledges the murkiness of the origin story in her oral history (there are others who claim to be the first to come up with the concept), but it’s also clear she believes that Long is the guy. Indeed many other hot dog vendors seem to credit Long -- including Dante Rivera, who is a Seattle hot dog fixture and the guy who had idea of using a caulking gun to apply the cream cheese to the dog. But these are sensitive issues, and it’s not like people were taking extensive records of late ‘80s Seattle street food traditions.

Anyway, the ‘90s happened. Seattle nightlife boomed and tech boomed and Ken Griffey Jr. boomed and the SuperSonics boomed (except against the Bulls). But the real boom, said Joe Bernstein, a hot dog vendor Raskin spoke to, came with the 2001 Mariners: they won 116 games, it was Ichiro’s rookie season, Safeco Field was still only a couple years old. Hot dog stands were everywhere. The cream cheese dog was everywhere. 

In the two decades since, it simply hasn’t gone away. Around 2009, cream cheese dogs started to pop up on food blogs and in alt-weeklies. The food writer John T. Edge put cream cheese dogs in one of his cookbooks in 2012. If you’re around the Puget Sound, they are just a thing -- not even a remarkable thing. You can buy them out front of the massive Amazon compound in South Lake Union. You can buy them anywhere. But you can’t buy them from Long, who moved to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho years ago. (I reached out to him for this issue but didn’t hear back.) 

And this is the other thing I love about the cream cheese hot dog: it doesn’t really matter who invented it because it is a democratic food. Enjoy it how you want to enjoy it. I have asked around, and there seems to be no one set definition for what makes a Seattle Dog a Seattle Dog. This isn’t Chicago, where you’ll get beer thrown on you for ordering a hot dog with ketchup. You have the hot dog (100 percent beef seems to be the preference but if you don’t eat meat, veggie is cool too), you have the cream cheese, you have the bun (or bialy). I think almost everybody would argue that grilled onions are a must (but Seattle is too passive-aggressive to actually say that). Some other folks would tell you jalapeños are mandatory. But not really. You can put tomatoes or cucumbers or sriracha or ketchup or mustard or kraut or banana peppers or all of the above. Whatever vibes you’re feeling -- that’s the hot dog. 

And in these times, we must learn from the Seattle Dog. We must be adaptable. We must be willing to accept new things, and to build new traditions. 

Share

Related Reading

Once again, if you want the full serving of history on the Seattle Dog, check out Hannah Raskin’s piece from Seattle Weekly. It’s a delightful read.

Condiments

  • For a long time, oddly, you couldn’t actually get a Seattle Dog at Mariners games. Only outside. But now they are on the menu at the fancy sit-down restaurant inside T-Mobile Park, the Hit it Here Cafe. Partisans in the age-old debate of whether a hot dog is a sandwich might be interested in knowing that it’s listed under sandwiches

  • I also feel the need to also shout out Japan Dogs, which were a big thing when I lived in Seattle a decade ago, and are also very good. Basically imagine a Japanese fusion hot dog

  • But the best hot dog I’ve ever had was a Sonora Dog in Hermosillo, Mexico at the Serie del Caribe

  • It’s also important, I think, to state here that when it comes to the world’s most important hot dog related feud, meaning the one between Takeru Kobayashi and Joey Chestnut, Sports Stories is 100 percent, officially on Team Kobayashi  


This has been Sports Stories by Eric Nusbaum (words) and Adam Villacin (art). If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, please reply to this email or contact enusbaum@gmail.com. We’d love to hear from you. 

Sports Stories is 100 percent free. If you enjoyed this week’s newsletter, and want to show your appreciation, the best way to do that would be to sign up, share it on social media, or forward it to someone you think might enjoy it too.