Famous Lunch, Troy, New York
At Dan Wilcox’s 2012 January 1st poets get-together at his house in Albany, my wife Jennifer Pearce was arguing on my behalf when she heard Bernadette Mayer and Phil Good declare the best hot dogs in the world were found at Famous Lunch in Troy, New York. She knew I had a hound in that pound as I had introduced her to Mike’s Hot Dogs in Schenectady, New York. She came and got me and I was immediately involved in a dispute of epic proportions. Mike’s is a family tradition, my father, Louis Casline having first taken me there when I was still a high school student back in the 1960s. I had long considered Mike’s Hot Dogs to be the best in the area (if not the world) There was no way to settle this, we all decided, except to meet up and do a hot dog comparison. The day started on February 15, 2012 with Jennifer on her way to work as a pediatric medical doctor saying, “I’m going out to save lives. You’re going out to eat hot dogs… That’s my comment.” My comment was “Someone has to be enjoying life.” Later, Bernadette added a comment “Hot dog eating is serious business” and Phil said “It is all part of the process.”
I had done some preliminary research and felt I had a definite one-up on Mike’s over Famous. On the internet, I discovered that Famous Lunch actually shipped their hot dogs by FedEx anywhere in the world. That was so pretentious! Whatever the results on the taste testing I had a point or two in favor of the authentic workingman’s never shipped farther than City Hall Mike’s Hot Dogs I grew up on. The eventful trip from East Nassau to Troy brought us downhill to the appropriate hole-in-the wall urban location of Famous Lunch. I had eaten there before! Years ago in Troy, I had certainly had breakfast there. We got down to hot dogs and basics. The Famous Lunch hot dogs are mini-dogs, half the size of regular dogs and thus I ordered four with everything on. While waiting, I took out my notebook as Phil and Bernadette agreed with me that we should have CRITERIA.
Inside Famous Lunch, Troy New York
CRITERIA FOR JUDGMENT
(3) Which are more delicious
b. Amount of salt
(4) Ratio onion to sauce
The hot dogs arrived and I immediately knew I had been set-up because the Famous Lunch hot dogs are extremely crunchy and crispy. They were more of a sausage consistency than a traditional hot dog.
Very good and I knew I was down to Bernadette and Phil already unless by some change the First Prize Hot Dogs Mike’s used were ones that had sat on the grill for a few hours getting crisper (unlikely because of the quick lunch time sell through). I can report (which may gain me sympathy from local readers) that Bernadette and Phil had never heard of “First Prize Hot Dogs.” I even described the decrepit old First Prize Meats factory building off Everett Road in Albany that pretty much fell down before it could be torn down. They had never heard or seen the old factory building either. We actually agreed that the Famous Lunch hot dog had the best Crispiness. In scoring that would give the Famous one point.
The criteria Texture was a perfectly good criteria but we failed to discuss texture except to agree the hot dogs had texture. There must be some reason we all liked Mike’s hot dog as a “hot dog” and I’m going to say it was the texture and give Mike’s one point.
Which are more delicious is a criteria that might as well be “the heading” for the whole hot dog comparison but happily we had added two sub-criteria to make the category measurement clearer. Toppings: Meat sauce, onions, mustard. Here we had much discussion, agreement and disagreement.
The meat sauce at famous Lunch is called Zippy Sauce. Mike’s meat sauce is called Meat Sauce. Why Zippy Sauce is unknown and lost in time? The sauces are both good but they differ. Famous is coarser with meat in varied pieces. When famous is on your plate a thin red juice comes flowing out of it like two levels of messiness. The actual meat mess and this second outer flow of oily red juice mess. Mike’s is smoother and technically more of a sauce in the dictionary definition sense. The mustards were equal in your standard bright yellow way. The onions were fresh and crunchy raw at Mike’s and Bernadette pointed out this detail of obvious Mike’s superiority to Famous. Amount of salt was chosen as a criteria after the first Famous Lunch hot dogs were eaten and it was noticeable the meat sauce was a bit heavy on the salt. I am going to throw this Amount of salt sub-criteria out because Phil and Bernadette both told me it was unusual that there would be this much salt (something about amount of salt in the water, I didn’t get it) and because the criteria was a SET-UP TO FAIL bogus push poll thought-up item conceived in reaction to a honest experiential moment. Which are more delicious went two to one for Famous Lunch in the Bernadette and Phil on one side and Alan on the other side dichotomy.
Bernadette and Phil at Famous Lunch
Ratio onion to sauce is a beautiful world harmony balance of the spheres kind of criteria. Phil Good was able to expound on this Buddhist Tao inspired inner attunement by relating stories of an earlier “teaching”
that involved “Burger to Bun ratio” Here the best hot dog was Mike’s. The full-size roll helped hold amounts of both and the fresh raw onions reached out to the overlying sauce like brother and sister stars shining in the same heaven on a summer night. One point for Mike’s Hot Dogs for Ratio onion to sauce.
Ambience/oh that most subjective of criteria. Surroundings? Environment? Cleanliness by unanimous vote is not a considered criteria for a hot dog joint. Bernadette did say Mike’s was “A little too clean. I feel too clean for my taste.” Famous Lunch used to be called “The Hairy Arm” because the cook there had very hairy arms and would stack the hot dogs all along his forearm to carry them to the customer’s plates where he’d pick them off one at a time. He could carry a few dozen hot dogs from the grill to customers on his hairy arms, yum, how appetizing. Famous Lunch also has an arced doorway from main room to hallway that has bathrooms. Mike’s doesn’t…you just go around the corner.
"Nice Neon" MIKE'S HOT DOGS, Schenectady, New York
At first the solid wood frame-box around the working coin operated phone at Famous Lunch seemed to be a winner but then we got to Mike’s Hot Dogs and they have two phone booths of exactly the same design so that cancels each other out. Mike’s environment is “neater” but that is not definitely a better trait. Bernadette Mayer observed “Mike’s looks like a bathroom.” It is a long narrow painted concrete block rectangle. Famous Lunch is even narrower, looks like a hallway as much as a room. I had not noticed but sitting there and comparing I realized that, unlike Famous Lunch, Mike’s Hot Dogs probably did a renovation in the last twenty years, mostly that was some fresh paint. Bernadette thought the Norman Rockwell print hanging on one white concrete wall was a “heavy negative.” I thought it was so bad it was good and pointed out the Christmas wrapping paper covering the wall imbedded air-conditioning unit as a possible make-up for the Rockwell. I felt the lack of reading material at Famous Lunch was a weakness. I will read everything and anything when I am looking at a wall containing written material. At Mike’s there was a lot more to read. Stuff like NO TOASTED HARDROLLS BETWEEN 11AM-3PM. No advantage could be decided on for Ambience. Each place in a tie gets one point.
Alan Casline at Mike's Hot Dogs with his notebook
Context is the last criteria. Bernadette and Phil said they have only brought one other poet to Famous Lunch (Brenda Coultas). Family members have been many. Her son Max really likes the place. I have never brought any other poets to Mike’s Hot Dogs. I have talked with poets Tom Corrado and Alan Catlin about Mike’s. My family has been there. I pick Mike’s for my Birthday dinner (their French fries are really good too). My son Tom really likes the place. As I said my father introduced me to Mike’s Hot Dogs over forty years ago. I could walk there when I lived in the Stockade neighborhood with my brother Jamie in Schenectady in the late 1980’s. In the last year of my mother Georgiana’s life she had a Doctor’s appointment in Schenectady and I thought do I dare bring my frail eighty year-old mother to lunch at Mike’s Hot Dogs? I decided I could and when we got there she sat up on a stool and ate two whole dogs with the works. Then she said, “Your father used to bring me here all the time.” Of course he would have. The history of the place in my family got pushed back another ten years. Context seems to me to be another tie in the comparison. The totals come to Famous Lunch five points and Mike’s Hot Dogs five points. We didn’t use the other suggested criteria After Burp or How well do they settle in your stomach? Phil said the Famous Lunch after burp was “good quality” but we hadn’t come up with these additional criteria until after we had exited Famous Lunch. There didn’t seem to be anyway to break the tie. Perhaps it is the best of all outcomes.
Phil Good "All Good"
Then I got the idea, what about the shipping of hot dogs by FedEx? Surely this would shift a point in my direction. ‘Hey Mike” I said to the guy at the grill (not really). Hey, I said to the guy at the grill, do you ever ship Mike’s Hot Dogs? The answer was “Not very often but yes we have. We have put the hot dogs on dry ice and shipped them by FedEx all over the world. Damm, there went my last advantage. Showing her typical magnanimousness of spirit Bernadette Mayer said I think the very best hot dog would be Mike’s bun and hot dog and Famous Lunch’s zippy sauce and toppings. A utopian vision if there ever was one.
Next I took Phil and Bernadette to see French’s Hollow on the Normanskill and then to POETS CORNER at Smitty’s Tavern in Voorheesville (which she and Phil were jokingly calling the ‘Ville.) After some wine and beer on the way back to East Nassau, Bernadette went back to change the record a bit. “Tell Jennifer” she said ‘Saving lives is more important but hot dog eating is second.”
A GUY SINGS DON’T BE CRUEL OUTSIDE OF FAMOUS LUNCH IN TROY, NEW YORK
Bernadette’s already talking to him
as Phil and I leave Famous Lunch.
She’s always talking to people on the street
homeless people, crazies
I’m outside for a smoke she explains
He’s a short little guy
got sort of a permanent squint thing going on
“I got something I got to show you”
Starts reaching in his back pocket
Pulling his wallet out
“That’s not some naughty pornographic picture is it?
I don’t want to see that, don’t show me that”, Bernadette goes
I think streets of New York City.
yeah Bernadette would know what might be up.
It’s his driver’s license photo
Same guy, just his driver’s license picture-face
under smugged plastic cover.
“I used to work at Famous Lunch seven years ago, dishwasher
I worked hard, did a good job, he fired me.”
Seven years later the same guy who fired him
is dishing zippy sauce on to mini-dogs.
One of the owners, set up like a minstrel show
performed in the window of the diner.
“I’m not allowed in there anymore.”
“You know the worst thing about working as a dish washer, I ask him
and now I have his attention. “Egg yolks”
He giggles, nods his head, yes.
Cause you got to scrub them. Egg yolk sticks to the plate…
can’t spray them off
have to scrape and scrub
“You have to soak them” Bernadette says.
No, no you can’t do that
you have to clean them right then
you can’t wait.
Street guy nods at me again
Because you need to use the plates again right away Phil says
“Dishwasher, Rootdrinker International Publisher, you’ve got quite a spread there” he goes
Naugh, they’re both the same thing or close to it anyway, I pitch back
Now our sidewalk gathering has attracted another, taller guy in a green camouflage coat.
You going to show them your Elvis?
He nudges the first guy into it.
Sure enough the little guy pulls out some dark sunglasses
and starts crooning some Elvis, really low and all slurred
He’s swaying, doing something with his hands,dancing-like, body going limp.
Till he looks like he is starting to fall
Bernadette puts a hand on him to steady him.
He stops and then he says
They say Elvis is dead. He’s not dead.
I’ll show you come into my room
got my day glow Elvis poster,
mumbles something more then gets clear
Know what’s written on the door to my room
IF YOU ENTER THIS ROOM I’LL KILL YOU.
We switch away and praise him
for his Elvis impersonation and his dance
but I want to say something more to him,
don’t want to just leave it there
so I ask him, “Know what’s written on my door?”
He wants to know so I tell him
IF YOU ENTER THIS ROOM I WILL KILL YOU
I’m hoping he will get the comic absurdity
in the context of the flow of this conversation
but he doesn’t
just looks into my eyes deciding if there is anything he wants to say
I am trying to give him my friendly-eyes
but I don’t think I can help letting in a bit of my measuring eyes
Once again Casline humor puzzles more than laughs
On the way back to the car we talk about how
none of us were afraid of him.
Not afraid scared but maybe worried weird
He wasn’t going to do anything violent
but he could of come out of nowhere
maybe done something really weird
He didn’t. He was an OK guy
A guy singing Don’t Be Cruel outside of Famous Lunch
in Troy, New York
February 15, 2012
Troy, New York
These photos (below) are from Smith's Tavern in Voorheesville, New York. Every Wednesday Evening poets from the region gather there to read poems, pass on books and discuss points of literary merit and local humor. After a day of hot dogs, Bernadette and Phil were welcomed by a few of the regulars.
poets: Jim Williams, Dennis Sullivan, Phil Good, Obeeduid, Tom Corrado and Bernadette Mayer
Obee' imagines what is happening
Text and all photos by Alan Casline