Judy Owens takes us on a summer culinary tour in search of Southeast Kentucky's true weenie. (Please don't ask for the chili recipe.)">
Weaver's in London, Kentucky, has served hot dogs to more than one governor
(and nobody holds that against them)
Photo: Judy Owens
Hot dogs are the single-handed starch rocket that signals Fourth of July like no other food. Right off the lowly street vendor's cart, in the stands at the baseball game, and at parking-lot carnivals that spring up during the summers in rural America, the hot dog is the great equalizer. The hot dog was also the veritable wiener-baton passed from George Bush to John McCain when, within 24 hours of McCain's earning the Republican presidential nomination, President Bush invited the Arizona Senator to the White House to share a hot dog lunch.
Hot dogs are a blank slate upon which the diversity of our nation is inscribed. New Yorkers like the brusque and straightforward spicy mustard and kraut atop their dogs. Cincinnati prefers to pump up the fat amperage with its cheese-coated Coney. Kansas City melts Swiss cheese over the dog and tops it with kraut, homage to its popular Reuben sandwich. On the west coast, Seattle slathers its dogs with cream cheese and dots it with green onions.
So in this time of stay-cations, I withdrew $100 from the ATM, used $70 of it to fill up my car, and pocketed the remaining $30 to take a historic trek down U.S. 25E in southeastern Kentucky in search of my own people’s native dog.
Conley’s Drive In is tucked away behind the Commercial Bank at the intersection of U.S. 25E and Cumberland Avenue in Middlesboro, KY. Mr. and Mrs. Scott Conley opened their burger and ice cream stand in 1960. I remember many summer afternoons visiting my friend Elaine Lambert’s house, walking down the street to Conley’s with $2 and bringing back a white sack full of hot dogs, waiting in orderly stacks of white ruffled cardboard and crisp gauzy cellophane.
Packed at lunchtime, Conley's Drive-In in Middlesboro is known for its foot-longs
Photo: Judy Owens
Jackie May now owns Conley’s. His parents bought the shop when Mr. Conley fell ill. Conley’s, now the oldest restaurant in Middlesboro, is best known for its foot-long hot dog.
A hot dog at Conley’s is an earnest, straightforward bun, wiener, chili and chopped onions.
May uses only Elm wieners and has a special preparation technique that he doesn’t want to leak to the public.
And don’t even ask for the chili recipe.
“All I’ll tell you is that it’s my mother’s recipe and that we make it every morning, starting with five pounds of hamburger meat,” May said. “We make it all day, in small batches.” Conley’s hot dogs were voted “Tri-State’s Best Hot Dog,” and are rivaled only in the memory of the Middlesboroians who ate hot dogs prepared by Snook White at the now-defunct Sports Center.
“The Sports Center used a dry chili,” May said. “That’s what distinguishes us. We use a wet chili.”
May says Bell County expatriates (ex-patriots) who have moved outside the state often call ahead and tell him they need 25, 30, sometimes even 70 hot dogs to take back home. May even has instructions so the dogs can be stockpiled in the chest freezers of homesick mountaineers now living in Michigan or Dayton.
Cindy Engle, prioprietor of Tommy's Root Beer Stand in Barbourville, KY
Photo: Judy Owens
About 30 miles up the road in Barbourville is a small brick building with orange trim and diagonal parking in the front, the home of Tommy’s Root Beer Stand, opened in 1986 by Tom Engle and since sold to his niece Cindy Engle.
The secret to Tommy’s success?
The dogs are affordable: 2 for $1.
“And, we use Mitchell’s chili,” Cindy said.
Mitchell’s Chili was the brainchild of a Barbourville meat cutter named E.C. Mitchell, who opened a market on Town Square in 1929. He survived the Depression, and now his great grandson Greg Mitchell owns the business. The market recently closed, but Mitchell has expanded into a meat processing company that sends chili and other processed foods throughout the Eastern U.S. He markets his family’s famous chili to retail outlets as well as to food services.
And, I assume, the recipe is a secret?
“Do you know it?” Greg asked. “Well, then it must be a secret.”
Just up the road, on Main Street in London, is the storied Weaver’s Hot Dogs. Weaver’s is a sit-down restaurant with vintage wooden booths with hard board seats that remind you of your ancestors’ wagon ride across the Cumberlands. But the dogs are not fancied-up. They are still served on paper plates, with their crumbly flavorful chili discreetly crowning the wiener and bun.
Sitting beneath a 1955 photo of former Kentucky governor and baseball commissioner A.B. "Happy" Chandler — one of several governors who was a patron – I asked Carl Weaver the secret of his business.
“This restaurant is more than a place to eat,” he said. “It is a tradition. I can tell you there is a very vocal resistance in this town to changing anything about Weaver’s.”
Needless to say, he wasn’t willing to go into detail about the chili.
With their car hops, paper plates, window trays, menus painted on the front of the building, what keeps these nostalgic businesses going year after year in the face of the franchised monoliths?
“It’s a family tradition,” May said. “People bring their kids, and frankly, we like to think that we treat people right. People don’t really like pulling up in their car and talking to a menu board. They like talking face to face.”
That’s one thing. The other is secret chili, full of subtle and amazing ingredients, that is nothing like the food you fix at home.