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Northwestern University

The Great Ketchup Controversy

Associate Professor of Instruction Bill Savage tackles one of Chicago’s most heated debates: does ketchup belong on a hot dog?

Associate Professor of Instruction Bill Savage has tossed himself — willingly, mind you — into one of Chicago’s most heated debates: if you put ketchup on your hot dog, can you really call yourself a Chicagoan?

Savage’s program, titled “Ketchup: The Condiment of Controversy,” highlighted the opening day of this year’s Chicago Hot Dog Fest at the Chicago History Museum Aug. 7-9.

A native Chicagoan whose research and teaching focuses on Chicago literature, Savage says no other condiment defines a Chicagoan’s civic identity quite the way ketchup does, opening a range of spirited questions about history, food culture, popular culture and identity in the Windy City.

“No one cares if you take an Italian beef wet or dry or with peppers, but putting ketchup on a hot dog is something altogether different,” says Savage, who takes his hot dog with mustard and onions. “One aspect of this ‘controversy’ is that people aggressively disapprove of what others put on their dogs, which is over the proverbial top.”

Savage breaks down the ketchup controversy and, as a special bonus, offers up a few of his favorite Chicago hot dog joints:

What’s the gist of your program at Chicago Hot Dog Fest?

It’s a general outline of the hot dog as the American street food and its ties to Chicago history, culture and identity. I push pretty hard that you should be able to put ketchup on a hot dog and feel free to eat it however you please.

What got you thinking about this?

I’m interested in writing about culture – analyzing everyday things and thinking about them in more serious ways. In Chicago, the hot dog is as everyday and everyman as it gets.

What sparked the hot dog-ketchup controversy?

The best explanation probably comes from [Chicago Sun-Times columnist and Northwestern alum] Neil Steinberg who contends that the controversy mutates from an old gag in 1940s-era cartoons in which ketchup was viewed as the boorish condiment of people who didn’t know their food.

Thereafter, it’s really up for historical debate and, like any cultural marker that gains momentum, it eventually becomes a self-evident fact. It’s silly, yes, but silly things can have serious undertones.

Why do Chicagoans get so worked up about this?

I think it’s something that the popular press stokes, but also something that people with an investment in the hot dog business promote. The ketchup controversy inspires plenty of debate and keeps the hot dog center stage.

What are some of your favorite Chicago hot dog stops?

Johnny O’s [in the South Side’s Bridgeport neighborhood] immediately comes to mind. It’s a true hot dog stand where I don’t even have to get off my bicycle to order and enjoy. Thereafter, places like Jim’s Original [near the campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago] and Byron’s on Irving Park Road are some other favorites.

But, honestly, as long as you have Vienna Beef and fresh condiments – even ketchup! – it’s hard to go wrong.

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