The idea was simple. A small group of area business leaders was getting together for a hot dog safari, and I’d go along for the ride. Warned to bring my appetite and that drinks would flow freely, I prepared my wife for the possibility that she would have to pick me up later that day. This was not exactly what she wanted to do late on a Friday afternoon in May, but she has learned that sometimes my line of work makes strange demands on me.
I had been eating mostly plants for two months (see this month’s letter from the editor) and hadn’t had a glass of anything harder than kombucha in … a year? The publisher still owes me a bottle of bourbon, and I’ll drink that when it arrives. Otherwise, I was in for a rowdy afternoon of overeating, cigar chomping and Scotch swilling.
When I pulled into the parking lot at 10 a.m., the participants were dressed in business suits. As I approached their vehicle, I heard someone announce that there was plenty of ginger ale for everyone. I’d been misled, except for the overeating part.
The six passengers, myself included, loaded themselves into the back of a Trinity EMS van. Six hot dog stops lay ahead.
My resting heart rate, according to my Fitbit watch, was 63.
John Chemaly, the excursion’s de facto leader, is Trinity’s president and co-owner. Chris Dick, Trinity’s director of business development and marketing, was the “designated driver.” Dick possesses a boyish enthusiasm when it comes to frankfurters and, despite a slender physique, a voracious appetite. He told us how he enthusiastically informed his wife the night before: “I feel like it’s Christmas Eve! I’m so excited about this.” As he assumed control of the van, he hopped a little in his seat, eager to get going.
Chemaly and Dick claim to eat four to five hot dogs a week. Chemaly eats them for breakfast. Dick orders a “table dog” as an appetizer when he goes out to eat with his family. A table dog, he is often forced to explain to waitstaff, is meant to be cut up and shared. If the term catches on, consider it a Merrimack Valley original.
You can see why Chemaly would choose, when he had a rare afternoon of spare time, to round up a group of friends and take to the highways. Hot dogs are tasty, filling and unpretentious. They evoke childhood memories of baseball and summertime. Still, this seemed like something more than that. When I asked him about his motives, he said, “I do this for the camaraderie.” He paused to think. “I have a lot on my mind,” he continued. Every few months he takes a short trip with business associates, enabling him to put aside his everyday concerns and let his guard down.
Joining Chemaly and Dick were Mark Cochran, president and CEO of Jeanne D’Arc Credit Union; Mark O’Neil, the credit union’s senior vice president and chief administrative officer; Will Soucy, the owner of Soucy Industries; and Terry Flahive, the president of Princeton Properties. Flahive would later draft me as his hot dog teammate and hand me his unfinished portions. This meant I got more than my share of mustard and cured meat that day.
Now, to answer an important question. What do some of the most powerful people in the Merrimack Valley talk about when crammed into a van on a hot dog safari?
It turns out they talk a lot about hot dogs. I mean, they really talk a lot about them. Like how best to serve them — steamed, grilled or fried? Buttered or unbuttered buns?
The consensus was that a dog served with ketchup alone is not suitable for adults. “It’s not right,” Chemaly asserted with a straight face.
The first stop was Flo’s hot dog stand.
Cape Neddick, Maine, seems a long way to go for a hot dog, but it served as a spiritual starting point for our pilgrimage. Flo’s refuses to serve ketchup-only dogs to anyone over the age of 15. This policy is noted on a sign inside the cramped shack. Flo’s is a place that, excuse the pun, relishes its past and its traditions, and we were treated to stories about its history from Flo Stacy’s granddaughter Kim Coleman as she busily prepared our order.
Everyone got a double helping of the house special, which is served with Flo’s secret relish, mayonnaise and a shake of celery salt. A few members of the group contemplated ordering a third, but it was collectively agreed that this would be a bad idea.
From there, we returned to the Merrimack Valley to visit Raff’s Cafe in Haverhill. A long table was waiting for us, and the food arrived quickly. It seemed like a nice place to settle in, but the pressure was on to keep moving during our short afternoon together.
At Barron’s Country Store in Andover, we piled into the roadside location and called out our orders. Barron’s offers fried and steamed options. Dick, the last to order, loudly requested “just ketchup!” The other men groaned. His status as hot dog historian and Virgil to us Hot Dog Dantes allowed him to get away with such heresy, if only for a stop.
From there, we headed south to Ed’s Weenies in Littleton. Even if you’ve never eaten there, you may have noticed the distinct yellow and red trolley shack in the parking lot of Gary’s Farm Stand on Route 119. It was our fourth stop, and the first time I noticed that Chemaly and Dick seemed to be on a first-name basis with nearly everyone we met.
As the day wore on and blood sodium levels rose, the energy level among my companions was diminishing. Talk turned to naps and coffee.
I had been warily eyeing my Fitbit as my resting heart beat rose at each stop. 70. 80. 90. Would it top 100? As I polished off another frank and a half at George’s Delicatessen in Lowell, it hit 103. I was not daunted. The final destination was coming up.
Elliot’s Famous Hot Dogs in Lowell is a Merrimack Valley landmark and the place where I crossed the Dozen Dog Line. I ordered my final frank of the day, with sauerkraut. Fermented foods — they’re healthy, right?
With weary hearts and full bellies, we got into the van and returned to the parking lot where the trip began six hours earlier. I was sent away with hugs and handshakes.
The next day, I gathered up my family and we set out in search of the new vegetarian restaurant in Manchester, N.H. As we drove north along Route 3, I found myself wondering what other hot dog stands were out there, and how long they would be around, and whether I would one day take my daughter, now on the eve of her first birthday, on a hot dog safari of our own. Or would all hot dogs of the future come via a food delivery service, brought to us as we hide lonely in our homes? Either way, they are out there now, waiting to be discovered.
Just remember to hold the ketchup.
The Six Stops:
Cape Neddick, Maine
Barron’s Country Store
Elliot’s Famous Hot Dogs