The Gastrointestinal Gamble: Eating A ‘Dirty Water Dog’ In New York

I was feeling adventurous. After all, it had been a whole month since I’d had food poisoning. On a recent trip to India I got the infamous “Delhi belly” – not once, but twice. And here I was sitting in my West Village apartment feeling the need to play Russian roulette with my stomach all of a sudden. And that’s when I slipped on my sneakers and pointed myself toward Union Square.

I was going to eat a dirty water dog.

Dirty water dogs, more popularly known around the world as hot dogs, were once an ubiquitous street food staple around the Big Apple. I didn’t take my first trip to Gotham City until I was 28 but up until that time one of my main images of the city – besides, ya know, people having harsh violence inflicted on them – was locals and tourists alike standing pleasantly in front of a hot dog cart while the hot dog vender garnished dogs with condiments (of course, a minute later they were probably pummeled and robbed by New York thugs). I’d seen the image of people buying frankfurters in New York on TV and in movies so many times that it just seemed like the thing to do when one visits or lives in the Big Apple.But I’ve lived here 10 years and had never even considered eating a hot dog on the street. These particular hot dogs have earned the nickname “dirty water dogs” because the tubular meat sits in warm, murky water all day until enough daring people either can’t find anything else to eat or they actually want to get sick.

On my way there, I looked for the familiar blue and yellow umbrellas that sit on many street corners. Instead, I walked by six hallal chicken sandwich and kabob carts, three taco trucks, two pretzel carts and one homeless guy trying to sell me a half-eaten doughnut that he’d named Jesus.

But by the time I got to Union Square, there it was: blue and yellow on the southwest corner. I put my index finger in the air indicating I wanted a hot dog. The Hispanic hot dog vender asked: “ketchup, mustard, onions, relish, sauerkraut?”

I went with a Teutonic combo: mustard and sauerkraut.

“This is my first dirty water dog,” I said. “Should I assume I’m having a date with my toilet tonight?”

The hot dog vender looked up and said: “ketchup, mustard, onions, relish, sauerkraut.” This time without the question mark.

“How many hot dogs do you sell per day?”

“Ketchup, mustard, onions, relish, sauerkraut.”

I was starting to get the sense that these might be the only five words of English he knows. Or was this some kind of code? Did he think I was part of a tubular meat-loving terrorist sleeper cell and now, after hearing the Five Condiments, I’d have to strap frankfurters to my body and blow myself up in a vegetarian restaurant?

Fortunately, not. He handed me the hot dog and smiled. I walked down 14th Street, eating my first dirty water dog. Was it good? Was there any gastro-intestinal retribution? It was really just a hot dog, one that I probably won’t eat again. But that’s beside the point. I just acted out a childhood fantasy. Next up: making Daphne Blake from “Scoobie-Doo” my next girlfriend.

I finished the hot dog and turned the corner at W. 14th St. and Sixth Avenue, where the homeless man once stood. He was gone but there was Jesus, the doughnut, sitting on the sidewalk unloved and still only half eaten.

[Photo by David Farley]