Forget the Mason-Dixon line. West Virginia has a “slaw” line. It stretches from Sistersville to Clarksburg to Elkins and on to Virginia.
Order a hot dog with “everything” anywhere south of that line and be prepared to have a mound of creamy coleslaw plopped on the weenie.
In the border areas—such as Buckhannon—coleslaw is available, but you have to request it.
In both panhandles, slaw on a hot dog is practically unheard of.
“Slaw is not a given in West Virginia,” says a man who goes by the pseudonym “Stanton”. He’s a non-profit executive in Charleston who runs the Web site.
Hot dogs here are controversial, what with the north-south slaw divide, so Stanton doesn’t want to give his real name.
“About I think 40 counties in West Virginia, if you order a hot dog with everything you’re probably going to get slaw on it,” Stanton continues. “The rest of the counties vary somewhere between, it’s available as an option if you ask for it to ‘What? Slaw? What are you talking about?’”
Stanton and a few contributors provide reviews of hot dog joints all over the state. His Web site produced the slaw map.
“Chili is different all through the state,” Stanton says. “If you are in the southern part of West Virginia, you’re going to find it more meaty and a little sweet maybe. And the closer you get to Fairmont, Clarksburg, it’s going to be much spicier.
“And it’s also going to be called differently too. In Huntington they call it sauce. In Charleston, we call it chili. And most of the state calls it chili, but there again, when you go up I-79 up to Fairmont, it’s sauce again, so it’s hard to know what you call it.”
Sharing a hot dog (or two) with Stanton at Charleston’s Swiftwater Café, it’s obvious he’s a connoisseur.
First, there’s the presentation: he smiles. It’s a bit messy, but he kind of likes that.
Then, the taste: yum. He likes the meatiness and spice of the chili, and the sweetness and texture of the slaw.
Then the mess. We both dig into our two hot-dog special and try to avoid releasing an avalanche of hot dog toppings onto our laps.
According to Stanton, a true West Virginia hot dog comes with mustard, onions, slaw and chili.
The two main ingredients, slaw and chili, he says have to be carefully planned and executed.
“I will say that the best hot dogs, the slaw has to be kind of designed to go with the chili,” he says. “You can’t just take good chili and put it with good slaw and have a good hot dog. They have to be in a little bit of a synergy there. They have to be intentionally put together.”
But in many places throughout America, it’s not all about the chili and slaw. Different places use their regional hot dog differences to form an identity, says Lucy Long. She teaches American culture studies at Bowling Green State University.
Appalachians have endured years of being stereotyped as backwards hillbillies, she says. So the adoption of a signature hot dog may be a response to that.
“So there’s kind of a consciousness of our standing in terms of America, the U.S. in general that kind of makes us more sensitive to what images we have,” Long says. “And on one hand, it’s more modern to have a West Virginia hot dog than a West Virginia possum bake.”
Arizonans eat hot dogs wrapped with bacon and covered with melted cheese and jalapenos. Midwesterners get their fix of tubular meat in the form of Coney dogs with chili, mustard and onions.
Janet Riley is the president of the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council and self-proclaimed “Queen of Wien.” She says no matter the way you eat a hot dog, most Americans are fiercely loyal to their local variety.
“Hot dogs are so strongly associated with memories,” she says. “They’re the foods that we grew up with. We ate them at our birthday parties, or our ballgames, picnics. It’s like the hometown baseball team. We always think it’s the best. We think our hometown hotdog tastes the way it should.”
What, you may ask, is the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council? It’s part of the American Meat Institute, and it’s sole purpose is to promote the use and enjoyment of hot dogs.
“We do hot dog detective work here, because we find that people move from New Jersey or Boston and they go retire in Florida and suddenly no hot dog tastes right,” Riley continues. “So very often we’re asked to run down a particular hot dog and tell somebody in Florida how they can mail order the hot dogs they grew up with so they can get a hot dog that tastes right.”
The hot dog that tastes right for many West Virginians is reliant on the coleslaw, an ingredient not found on hot dogs throughout much of the country. Bruce Kraig is a food historian and professor emeritus at Chicago’s Roosevelt University.
“Coleslaw is a standard feature of rural American cookery from the nineteenth century onward,” he says. “So you’re going to find that as a condiment almost everywhere, church suppers and every other kind of public place or buffet kind of dining. And so it’s just natural to put that on a hot dog.”
Stanton of WVHotdogs.com traces the coleslaw phenomenon back to 1930s Charleston.
“According to legend, slaw started to be a hot dog topping at the Stopette Drive-In on Route 21 just outside of Charleston,” he says. “And this was back in the era of the Great Depression. And apparently it was such a hit there that other area restaurants started putting it on their hot dogs and then it spread like wildfire, even into the south. I believe as people started the exodus on the iconic ‘Hillbilly Highway’ I think that they took with them the slaw of their hot dogs.”
Kraig isn’t so sure. He says he’s not sure where the slaw phenomenon started.
“If West Virginia wants to claim it, great,” he laughs. “It’s fine with me. I don’t see why not.”
They disagree on a few details, but local and national hot dog experts alike agree on one thing:
“We believe you should never ever put ketchup on a hot dog after the age of 18,” Riley says. “It’s got a real sweet taste and hot dogs are sort of spicy, and mustard is a nice compliment to them along with onions and chili and those kind of condiments.”
“Well I think [ketchup is] anathema,” Kraig says. “It’s a no-no only since about the 1950s, where some stand owners, old curmudgeons would say ‘you don’t put ketchup on a hot dog because it destroys the flavor of all the other things that are on it.’ So then it becomes mythologized.”
“Ketchup is basically an abomination for hot dogs,” Stanton says.
But perhaps that’s the allure of hot dogs. People seem to love to disagree about the best way to eat one. Just ask the folks on each side of the slaw line.
To view the West Virginia slaw mapping project, go to WVHotdogs.com.
To view a video on hot dog etiquette, go to YouTube.