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Collection Working in Paterson: Occupational Heritage in an Urban Setting

The Hot Texas Wiener and Its Preparation

In its simple, classic form, the Hot Texas Wiener is an all-beef hot dog "blanched" or par-cooked in 350-degree vegetable oil in a fry basket for a few minutes, cooked by another hot vegetable-oil bath in a tilted steel pan until done, and then placed in a bun, topped (in strict order) with a spicy, ballpark-style mustard, chopped onions, and a chili sauce containing ground beef, tomatoes, more onion, and a "secret" blend of spices, including (I believe) cayenne, cinnamon, allspice, and cumin. Hot Texas Wieners are available with any combination of these "classic" toppings (e.g., without onions, with only chili, and the like) as well as pickle relish and sauerkraut. The chili sauce is also sold in refrigerated pint- and quart-size containers, to take home.

Wieners pre-cooking in vegetable oil.

The shorthand jargon used in wiener restaurants to describe orders for the many possible variations on the Hot Texas Wiener is a distinctive part of this local tradition. If you were to enter one of the area's many Hot Texas Wiener restaurants and ask for "one," you would be served the food item I've described. If you were to ask for "a hot dog without onions," you would hear your counter-person yell back to the preparation line, "one no onions," and you would receive a wiener with mustard and chili sauce.

If you were to ask for "four hot dogs, two with everything, one with just mustard, and one with everything but no onions," you would hear your counter-person yell back, "one mustard, one no onions on four." "On (number)" at the end of a Hot Texas Wiener order indicates the total number of wieners ordered; in the example, subtracting the number of wieners ordered with special topping combinations (two, in this case) will tell those on the preparation line the number of wieners (two) to be served "with everything." On a simpler order, such as four wieners without mustard, the counterperson may shout back to the preparation line, "Four no mustard four," to emphasize the total number ordered.

Tom Doris cooks and dresses Hot Texas Wieners.

Like many occupational traditions, the system of jargon used in Hot Texas Wiener restaurants has both a practical and an artistic importance. Practically, it standardizes orders so that they can be communicated clearly by voice (for the most part orders are not written down), especially in the midst of a lunchtime rush; but beyond this, knowing and using this folk speech has become the distinctive mark of the Hot Texas Wiener working world, and is stylistic evidence for those in the business of insider knowledge and occupational accomplishment.

The common side dish for Hot Texas Wiener orders is French fries, which used to be ordered only plain or with ketchup, but in recent days are more often ordered with wiener-style toppings: mustard and chili sauce, and so on, and is also often served with gravy in a mid-Atlantic, urban style. Hot Texas Wiener restaurants customarily also serve a number of other foods, including hamburgers, cheeseburgers, bacon-lettuce-and-tomato sandwiches, and the like, along with soups and salads.

Finished wiener orders being picked up.

Some of these have been served at Hot Texas Wiener restaurants for many years. According to Chris Betts and Nick Doris, the five main foods of the old-time menu were wieners, hamburgers, cheeseburgers, French fries, and roast beef sandwiches. A photograph visible today on the Pepsi machine at Libby's, depicting that establishment in the 1940s, shows a long sign running along the restaurant's roof listing these five items in large letters. (Libby's is one of Paterson's oldest Hot Texas Wiener restaurants.) The other items on the typical Hot Texas Wiener restaurant menu are newer arrivals, added to satisfy a clientele more interested in "lighter" eating. Wieners, however, are by far the most important product, in terms both of sales volume and of local cultural significance.

Hot Texas Wieners are served in several dozen restaurants in the Paterson-Clifton area that specialize in them, most of which are owned and operated by Greek Americans, and many of which have been in business for some time. People in the Paterson-area Hot Texas Wiener business told me that this food is served only in the Paterson area and has never been successful elsewhere, but I have learned from natives of western Connecticut and Allentown, Pennsylvania, that Hot Texas Wieners are served there also: this probably represents the farthest geographic spread of this tradition to date.

The customary local term identifying a Hot Texas Wiener place is "grill," as in the Hot Grill, the Haledon Grill, the Colonial Grill, and so on. This usage is interesting, since the preparation method for Hot Texas Wieners does not include grilling: unlike many other wieners, Hot Texas Wieners are not grilled or boiled (in Hot Texas Wiener restaurant jargon, the "grill" is the part of the preparation line devoted to hamburgers and cheeseburgers) but, as described earlier, are deep-fried in two stages.

Most, if not all, Hot Texas Wiener businesses include the concocting of what is regarded within the business as its most important ingredient, the spice mixture for the chili sauce. At the Hot Grill, and at the wiener businesses with which Chris Betts was and is involved, and at many--if not all--other local wiener restaurants, only owners know how to perform this exacting task correctly and consistently. Both Chris Betts and Nick Doris, in talking about their work, repeatedly referred to this mixture as the "secret recipe."

As we discussed wiener preparation, both Betts and Doris listed a number of the ingredients that are included in the spice mixture: cayenne, chili powder, cumin, cinnamon, and the like. What it wouldn't have been appropriate for them to tell me was the proportions of each, and, perhaps, some especially important secret ingredient. In discussing the matter of secret recipes, they agreed that while the recipe for a given business was, or should be, consistent over time, the recipes differed from business to business.

As evidence for the importance of these recipes and their secrecy, Chris Betts told a story about his contribution to his son's Haledon Grill business, which opened in the late 1980s. The contract that established the business arrangement between Betts, his son, and his son's partner stipulated that Betts would not provide the spice recipe to the partners until the business had been in operation for five years, so he could be certain that the partnership would be a lasting one. Until that time, Betts himself mixed the spices.


"One all the way": Hot Texas Wiener Jargon.