About three weeks ago we had our first glimpse of Spring. It just happened to come on a beautiful Saturday and the family and I knew what we had to do. We loaded up to car and headed downtown to Pete’s Famous Hot Dogs, a Birmingham institution since 1948. Pete’s is essentially a closet downtown where the best hot dogs in the city are made! Pete’s proprietor Constantine, who goes by Gus (try to figure that one out), is just as recognizable as the Famous sign that marks this staple. Remember the soup nazi from Seinfield? Well Gus is Birmingham’s hot dog nazi. Let me pause and make sure that you know this is no cut on Gus, it is as much a part of the DNA of this place as the sign or the tile floor, it is a necessary part of the Pete’s experience.
So I walk in, nervous, not wanting to screw up the order, not talk too much, not make eye contact, but not look sheepish. Purposeful and humble, my plan is to rattle out my order, the one I had practiced about 10 times, no joke, smile and pay for my food. Good plan right? Nope. So I walk and Gus, in his usual hunched over the grill posture, ignores me for the first 5 minutes. There were several people waiting on their order so Gus has to take care of them first. Remember that Gus is the only one who worked behind the grill. After about five minutes he looks at me, I am ready for his usual line, “What’ll you have?” when suddenly his brow crinkles he raises us a little from the hunch and destroys my entire well practiced ordering plan. “What the hell’s your name?!?!” Oh Dear God, I was not prepared for this. I stutter, “S-S-Stephen?” At this point I am debating just tucking tail and running, nothing good can come from this line of questioning. “Stephen Who? Are you that guy???” On the verge of loosing control of my bodily functions and crying I mutter out “I-I-Ingram” “Yeah but you’re that guy, that guy from that television show, You are on that show right?” At this point I am wondering if he is just toying with me before he tells me that I am not deserving of his wonderfully soft buns and perfectly seasoned secret sauce. I cannot answer before he looks up and says, “You look like that guy on that show, huh, well what’ll you have?” I still do not know what guy and what show but I got my hot dogs and my family and I had a wonderful day at a new Birmingham institution, Rail Road Park with and old institution Pete’s Famous Hot Dogs.
This week, Gus, the perfectly seasoned owner of Pete’s, passed away entirely too early at the age of 81. A part of this city died with him Wednesday. I have heard it rumored that Gus never told another soul how to make the secret sauce that makes Pete’s hot dogs so special. At first this saddened me. Selfishly I thought, “Oh no I love Pete’s, I cannot believe I had my last Pete’s famous hot dog!” I have since found a funny little joy in the idea that the recipe might have passed with Gus. That is the way it should be. The real flavor of Pete’s was not just the sauce, it was the man behind the counter, and I cannot imagine one without the other.
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