The 12-foot-tall colorful couple atop the stand has become a Chicago icon. He is clad in a leopard-skin wrestling tunic, flexing his muscles to impress his more demure, blue-skirt wearing partner, who has her hands folded sweetly in front of her. A bright lightbulb in one of his eyes is set to wink every few seconds, giving off a confident bit of insider braggadocio in a turf war that suggests, “Yeah, we’re the best dog around.”
Not hot dog, mind you. Superdawg®. Maurie Berman, who started this joint in 1948 with his wife Flaurie, made that distinction on more than one occasion to people ordering. “We don’t have hot dogs,” he’d say – and pause to enjoy the look of confusion on the face of a customer who had just borne witness to the giant hot dogs just above her – before smiling and proudly declaring, “We have Superdawgs®.
And so they did. With a proprietary blend of spices (you can detect a bit of extra garlic, a little extra snap, and a more sizable dog than most other hot dog joints offer) the Superdawg® emerged on top of its weight class and was unique in a city rife with hot dog stands.
Maurie Berman, who died yesterday at the age of 89, had the muscle and wherewithal to create something unique when he returned from World War II. Hot-C and I enjoy chowing down on a Superdawg® with everything when the opportunity presents itself, which is often, since we live less than a mile from the Jefferson Park location.
The box that the Superdawg® comes in is a bit of packaging theatrical wizardry, and the copy reads, “With pride, we have gently placed within your Superdawg, contentedly cushioned in Superfries®, and formally attired in mustard, relish, onion, pickle, and pepper.”
A word about that pepper. The restaurant calls it “memorable,” and that it is. It’s not a pepper at all really, but a pickled green tomato, and it is remarkable. With sport peppers, I will typically eat small edges of them at a time so as not to overwhelm the other flavors in a “dog with everything.” With the tomato pepper, there is no need. It’s tangy, crisp, and not too pucker-inducing. Perfect.
The Maurie and Flaurie statues atop the building are genuine Chicago icons, featured on many Food network shows and books on Americana, hearkening to the lure of Route 66 roadside attractions – the supersized spacemen, the pink elephants, and the giant balls of yarn. They remain up there, showing off, beckoning.
English majors (and now anyone who has ever binge-watched “Breaking Bad”) are familiar with Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias.” The statue of Ozymandias, more commonly known as the Egypt Pharaoh Ramses II, was said to be the largest in Egypt. Its inscription read, “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings/Look on my works ye Mighty, and despair!”
Of course, the great irony in the poem is that there is nothing left of the statue. The “lone and level sands stretch far away.” It saddened me, but only briefly, to drive past the Superdawg muscleman this morning, in his full-strength revelry and glory, and recall the lines of “Ozymandias,” imagining the day when the desert will once again reclaim its own. I hope that day is a long, long way off.
What survives, as always, is the memory of a smile from the real-life Maurie and Flaurie, who have been best friends, business partners, and pals for 68 years –– and who have attained a certain immortality in Chicago culture.
I will miss Maurie but cherish my times there. To paraphrase his box copy, “Thank you – from the bottom of my pure beef heart.”
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