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Hard Times in the Paris of the Plains

On Whiskey and Grease

The hunchback and the lost art of the Birmingham dog

The old man’s back was bent from decades of stooping over hot dogs. For the longest time, I thought he was a hunchback. That’s how I described him to my wife the one time I took her over to Pete’s Famous: We gotta visit the hunchback in Birmingham who makes the most amazing secret sauce.

His obituary told me different.

Before he died this spring at 81, Gus Koutroulakis came to work every day since he took over Pete’s Famous from his uncle in 1948. Gus fixed so many hot dogs, for so many years, that it permanently bent his back in that position, difficult to sleep but easy to ladle on his sauce. Nobody but him knew the recipe. He worked the day he died, just like he’d done every day for 63 straight years. He closed the shop, went home to his chair. That’s where they found him.

You’ve probably never heard of a Birmingham dog. If you live outside a tiny radius, they don’t exist. Maybe your hometown has a food tradition like that. Is there something you once took for granted that you crave now that it’s gone? For people who grew up in or near the Magic City, that’s a Special Dog.

Traditions like that are called foodways, which is just a fancy word for any piece of food culture that sprung from the furnace of a time and a place. Food that tells a story about who we are. My friend, John T. Edge, who runs the Southern Foodways Alliance, is an evangelist against their extinction. His team is involved in many projects, but all share a common thread. They try to preserve things that, once gone, can never be recreated.

The surviving little mom-and-pop spots are frontier outposts. I think of Pete’s Famous. I think of Vinny’s at Night in the back of a Somerville, Mass., superette. I think of the Old Saloon in Emigrant, Mont., where I had hash browns and Budweiser for breakfast, and then played their upright piano. I think of all the places we’ve lost already. When I was a child, I loved fried chicken at Arnold’s in Clarksdale, Miss., and a hamburger at Chamoun’s Grocery. They’re gone. We all remember our favorite places like that. We fiercely romanticize those that remain. We hunger for them when we move away to find work or start a new life.

Websites direct visitors to places that are “authentic.” People pay to FedEx pieces of a former life to themselves. I’ve done that more times than I count. Books are devoted to the grease palaces of the American roadside. Television shows visit and beam nostalgia to orbiting satellites. The producers don’t expect people watching to actually visit. That’s not what they are selling. They expect you to watch and remember longingly a past that perhaps you never had at all. They are selling you a vision of what a simpler life might be.

In Birmingham, the hot dogs aren’t simply for nostalgia … and, by the way, I am a wildly nostalgic person. They’re for lunch. Lawyers in ties slip in between depositions. The poor count out change. They go because it’s close, and it’s cheap, and it tastes good. They go to one of the handful of restaurants still specializing in Special Dogs. I always preferred Pete’s Famous, mainly because of Gus.

You’d walk in, and he’d be there, just to your right. You’d order and he’d fire back a question: “All the way?” The dog would be prepared in several practiced motions and there it’d be, steaming in front of you. Gus’ dad sent him to work in January of 1948, just for three months. “I’m waiting for the third month,” he’d said.

Gus worked hard. He worked every day. He carved out a place, walking a thin margin, grinding because he cared. He could have cut corners. He didn’t. He could have charged much more. He didn’t. He could have hired someone to do the back-bending work for him. He didn’t.

Now he’s gone.

I count off the miles and the blow-through towns. Social Circle, Ga. Cook Springs, Ala. Leeds. Iron City. I wonder who’ll be working the counter. Maybe it’ll be a family member, so I can tell them how much Gus meant. Down the exit, winding through the maze of one-ways, finding a parking spot. It’s a few minutes before 11. Pete’s Famous has opened at 11 every morning, seven days a week, except Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, since Gus graduated from high school in 1948.

I park and run across the street.

There’s a white ribbon on the door. There’s a black wreath to the right. There’s a closed sign in between. I open the outer door and peer in through the window. Boxes of Grape soda sit stacked along the wall. An empty cardboard Coca-Cola box is there. A stack of Flowers Foods buns are wrapped up. Some of the packages had been used. The last hot dogs Gus ever made. I look at my watch. It’s now 11. Maybe someone is just late. Maybe they are in the back.

I dial the number and press my head against the window.

The phone rings and rings, the sound echoing off the narrow walls. Gus died a week ago today, and he’s not creaking over to answer it. I look around and find a meter maid. Officer Mitchell. I ask about Gus.

“He will be missed,” she says.

“Are they keeping it open?”

She looks sad.

“No,” she says. “I don’t think any of those kids really want to do the business.”

I don’t know what to say. What will take that space? Another store selling cell phones? Will people remember a man who worked so hard he became permanently stuck in the position of work? How long until people forget? I start back across the street to my car.

Officer Mitchell looks down at the closed storefront.

“He took his recipe to the grave,” she says.

Wright Thompson is the corn dog and cheap beer correspondent for Grantland. He can be reached at wrightespn@gmail.com. If you’ve got a favorite dive bar or restaurant, please let him know so he can try it.