The memory of loving a hotdog is kind of like that of a charming but alcoholic ex-spouse. Sure, you know they were bad for you, but O When Things Were Good, They Were Great.
So it is with the all-the-way dog at Yum Yum, the ice cream and hotdog joint on Spring Garden Road in the College Hill section of Greensboro, NC. I spent six years growing up just a few blocks away in the 1970s, and a Yum Yum dog with an RC Cola remains one of the most pure memories from my childhood.
Here's why they're different -- and for my money, better -- than any other hotdog on the planet: The Yum Yum all-the-way is a fusion of dog, chili, slaw, onion AND BUN into an enigmatic culinary unity, an elemental combination inexplicable by deconstruction into its original component parts. It comes wrapped in plain paper, two to a white paper bag, and each sells for just $1.50.
And so far as I can tell, the only thing that has changed about this meal is the RC Cola. Today it comes in a plastic bottle instead of a glass one.
The world outside the cinderblock interior has changed greatly. UNC-Greensboro's campus now sprawls all around Yum Yum, and sometime back in the 1990s the city did some serious curb-appeal remodeling of Spring Garden, replacing its bleached out concrete with new-urbanist brick streetscaping. Yum Yums was unfazed by these improvements and retained its stolid, predictably ugly appearance -- a wise move, considering that homeliness is practically the shop's branding strategy.
I smelled it before I saw it: a dense, seductive haze of onion and steamed bun that hung at the intersection, beckoning pedestrians and motorists like an olfactory siren: hotdog... hotdog... hotdog...
The decor is nothing to speak of, and the design work on bags and T-shirts and gimme caps is unintentionally retro. White cinderblock walls. Press-letter menu boards that haven't changed since I moved away from the Greensboro area 25 years ago. Cash only.
The service is neutral at best, with a reputation for being occasionally surly and combative. I remember going in for a dog and watching the guys behind the counter assemble my order without ever interrupting the argument they were having before I walked in. But on this Monday I got a friendly guy who didn't even mind my stammering as I looked for RC on the board.
Janet took pictures while I waited at the counter: faded old promos for the joint's excellent, made-on-the-premises ice cream, leftover fonts and appliances from other eras, signs and gumball machines, black and white photographs and laminated newspaper clippings. But my mind was on the hotdog coming together on the board.
This is what struck me about six weeks ago: Of all the things I remember from growing up, the only thing for which I have never found a comparable or better iteration is the Yum Yum all-the-way. Not in Germany, where they serve fantastic wursts on hard rolls, not in New York, Washington or even Chicago, where they serve them with with long pickle spears. And as soon as I realized this I craved one. Getting a Yum Yum dog became the secret focus of our trip to Greensboro for ConvergeSouth.
But would it be as good as I remembered? So many of my memories are counterfeits: girls who aren't as pretty in pictures as they were in my mind, big houses that shrink as soon as I look at them with adult eyes. Would it turn to dust in my hand, choke me, leave me bitter?
At first glance it's not promising. The wiener itself is dyed an artificial red that practically glows with toxic malice. The steamed bun is as wrinkled as a shar-pei, and the combination of all the ingredients is heavy and ... moist. The onion smell is almost strong enough to make my eyes water. Janet refuses the one I bought for her. "I'm not eating one of those things," she said. "We just ate breakfast."
And so... there is nothing left to do but eat. The first bite.
You know, sometimes there's a whole lot of history in a hotdog:
A girl I liked in junior high who could match me dog for dog... scraping together change to get something to eat on the way home from track practice... lugging an enormous trombone case through the straps on a backpack, turning sideways to get through the door... summer days when we'd go for ice cream... high school days when we'd stop by after hustling pickup basketball games for a Lincoln...
And it was all good. Every memory, every humiliation, every heartbreak.
I left Greensboro with mixed feelings in 1981 and spent a few last months driving a cab there in 1984 before I headed out for good. My family moved away while I was overseas and I've rarely returned since. Much of what I remember isn't pleasant.
But Yum Yum is, and it's just as good as it ever was. Because the best hotdog in the world is the one you remember fondly.