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I trudge behind my husband through Rio de Janeiro’s eerily quiet downtown. Leblon, Ipanema, and Copacabana, where we’ve spent the week, has been heaving with street vendors selling everything from acai bowls and grilled corn on a stick to potent caipirinhas. But miles from the party zone, these streets are empty save for a handful of well-dressed office and government workers strolling between late afternoon appointments.
“We’ll catch the ferry and check out the Contemporary Art Museum,” Reuben suggests. He seems energized by the potential of exploring Niteroi on the opposite side of Guanabara Bay. I, however, having inexplicably missed lunch, am quickly unravelling. I am usually well-prepared for the day’s adventures, smuggling fruit from the breakfast buffet and over-priced chocolate bars from the minibar in my purse. But, in my rush to get out the door, I brought nothing. Soon, my goodwill shall suffer.
“I am going to need something to eat,” I warn.
There is nothing around but newspaper kiosks selling candy and potato chips—fine in an emergency, but not the memory-making lunch abroad I hope for.
We walk on. I fall a good 20 feet behind Reuben, settling into the homicidal mood only achieved when you pair travelling internationally with a spouse and low blood sugar. As we cross the plaza in front of the ferry terminal, a surge of people disembark from the arriving boat. Reuben sprints to the ticket office to purchase our fare before the ferry returns to Niteroi.
My desperate eyes scan the busy scene—transportation hubs are always reliable for fast and easy food. And there it is: the humble hot dog cart.
The grime coating the cart’s steel frame suggests it might not sail through a health inspection, but no one settles on processed street meat without an assumption of risk.
I rarely eat red meat at home and almost never eat hot dogs. Too processed! Unhealthy! Linked to cancer and probably fashioned from ground-up hooves, snouts, and bicycle tires. But I’ve always had a fondness for the nutritionally and ethically dubious frankfurter. Maybe it’s nostalgia. At baseball games loaded with mustard and relish. At barbecues with a side of potato salad. At the beach impaled on a stick and cloaked in corn batter. Even those too-blackened wieners cooked over an open campfire have their charms.
Bottom line: the hot dog is a harbinger of unpretentious fun. No one is serving hot dogs at a funeral.
In my twenties, my travels took me further and further from my hometown of San Francisco. In 2002, during a solo trip to Iceland, I encountered a late-night hot dog stand that set an impossibly high standard of street sausage quality and creativity. The hostel I’d booked was inconveniently located miles from downtown Reykjavik and its grocery stores and restaurants, so I didn’t have many options for meals. But, with the optimism typical of a 23-year-old, I figured the universe would provide. After a night out at the pricey downtown bars with some new friends, I tried to find a cab to take us back to the hostel and behold! I stumbled across the landmark Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, an Icelandic institution serving lamb hot dogs with toppings since 1937. In the moment, I hadn’t realised that this hot dog cart was famous. Still, I knew an excellent hot dog situation when I saw one and immediately got in line, despite it being 2 am. The taxi mission, and my new friends, would have to wait.
I wish I could remember what toppings I ordered. I don’t, but that late-night dog, eaten in the damp Icelandic cold with several international travellers/strangers, sparked a lifetime curiosity of how the humble sausage and bun tell their own stories—stamped with local flavours yet continuing to represent simple, joyful moments from around the world.
Everywhere I have travelled since I’ve discovered the familiar delight of the hot dog but dressed up in unfamiliar condiments—everything from olives to avocado. Some highlights: From my hometown of San Francisco—the intoxicating redundancy of bacon-wrapped hot dogs sizzling outside the 16th St. Mission BART Station; in Prague, spicy sausages served with sliced bread, mustard, and sauerkraut—and in Rio de Janeiro—an unexpected, albeit scruffy gem outside the Niteroi ferry terminal.
The tattooed young man operating the hot dog stand looks at me expectantly. It’s my turn to order. The side of the cart reveals vague pictures of different types of sausages, but the Portuguese names mean nothing to me. I point at one and hand him 15 reais. He fishes my link from his steamer and places it in a bun. Together we circle to the front of his cart—where, just like that fateful day in Iceland decades ago, I am presented with a veritable salad bar of toppings to choose from: crispy onions, marinated peppers, pickled vegetables, green olives—are those beans? And quail eggs—ok, I’ll have three of those little guys. To top my masterpiece, I point to two sauces (one white, one yellow) from the half dozen available. I pause. I believe we still have the structural integrity for a final dusting of the fried potatoes cut into tiny crunchy matchsticks.
Reuben returns with the ferry tickets just as the vendor hands me my precious creation.
“Look!” I exclaim to Reuben. Since this is marriage, I expect him to be equally dazzled.
He nods appreciatively just enough and then hustles me into the throng of commuters boarding the ferry.
“You’re going to have to eat it on the way.”
I frown. I have just procured my prize and planned on savouring it on the street corner, as is hot dog tradition. Could I carry it through the ferry boarding process without spilling my masterpiece? I must.
We find open seats next to the window. I unwrap the wax paper and sink my teeth into one end. Sweet, savoury, a little smokey, and of course, crunchy, thanks to my impulse of going for the potato matchsticks. I realise I forgot to take a photo of my score. I quickly document my remaining ¾ dog and fire off the picture to my sister in California. She writes back instantly, asking me to describe the toppings, which I do. She replies and reminisces about the street sausages in Ecuador topped with crumbled potato chips. “Sounds amazing!” I type back. I feel slightly high—giddy on the intoxicating combination of international sea air and pork nitrates.
I offer Reuben a taste. He agreeably puts aside his vegetarian tendencies and takes a bite, although avoiding the olives and eggs. “Good, right?” I ask brightly. He gamely nods. We finish the hot dog contemplating Rio’s dynamic skyline as it shrinks away from us in the late afternoon sun.
It’s turning out to be a good day.
After twenty minutes, we disembark. Reuben bolts into the crowd, presumably toward the selected museum. I struggle to keep up with his pace. I am not annoyed. My short legs are doing double time to match his long strides, but my dark mood from earlier has vanished. The hot dog has done its job. Blood sugar stabilized, sure, but each bite is also a reminder of the surprise that can be found on any ordinary street corner, from Reykjavik to Rio.
Winded and sweating from trudging up the final hill, we are rewarded by the spectacular view of the Niterói Contemporary Art Museum. It sits atop a bluff like a just-landed extraterrestrial craft—one framed by the infinite blue of Rio’s sky and sea. Two street vendors have set up shop nearby—no hot dogs, but popcorn and fresh coconut water. As Reuben and I sit on a wall to split a coconut water, I have an idea. Yes, perhaps no one usually serves hot dogs at a funeral. But maybe it’s the perfect reminder that life’s most significant memories are often found in its simplest moments. At my funeral, there will be hot dogs, a testament to the unexpected, simple joys that life—and travel—continuously offer. I’m undecided about the quail eggs.