by Gene Owens
One of the nice things about living here in Anderson, S. C., is Skins Hot Dogs.
Skins takes me back to the mill village where I grew up and where I got hooked on hotdogs served on steamed buns and piled high with mustard and chili.
When I went to work on the 4-to-midnight shift in Vaucluse cotton mill back home, I would take a break around 6 or 7 and order two hotdogs and a big can of tomato juice from the lunchroom in the little white building by the mill gate. I kept going back to that lunchroom even after I had graduated from cotton mill laborer to newspaper reporter and editor.
Skins got a similar start. It began by catering to the hearty appetites of the workers in Anderson's mill villages. The textile industry has just about abandoned Upstate South Carolina, and the mill villages are moldering into the red clay. But Skins still thrives, and is building a well-deserved national reputation. It still has a hotdog stand in one of the old mill villages, but it has also moved uptown into a strip mall and has outlets in nearby Greenville and Clemson.
When I left the cotton mill, I enrolled at the University of Georgia and found that the Bulldogs weren't the only dogs in town. The Varsity Grill served hotdogs and hamburgers with the speed of a Fran Tarkenton pass long before McDonald's invented fast food.
The Red and Black, the university's campus newspaper, immortalized the Varsity's chili dog and the restaurant's colorful jargon by publishing a cartoon depicting a student walking a shivering bulldog on a leash. The caption explained that he had ordered "a chili dog walking."
At Georgia, I struck up a friendship with Majid, an Iranian student in his 30s who had grown up with the Islamic aversion to pork. He, like me, was on a limited budget, so I took him to the Varsity. He whiffed the chili dog and decided he wanted one.
"It contains pork," I warned him.
"Does it really?" he asked the guy behind the counter.
"Naw," he was told. I didn't push the point, and Majid practically lived on Varsity hotdogs after that.
There was no Varsity in Norfolk, Va., where I spent a good portion of my newspaper career, but there was Bacalis. Bacalis was an elderly Greek who ran a hotdog stand in a nook in an arcade near the Elizabeth River. His dogs had a nice bite, and if you ate a couple for lunch they'd be coming back for encores the rest of the day.
The Eureka, just across an alley from the Virginian-Pilot/Ledger-Star building, was a reasonable second choice if you didn't want to walk to Bacalis' place. It was a low-brow pool room and beer joint. The Falstaff was cold, the hot dogs were passable, and the people-watching was excellent. My old friend, Ralph Mulford, and I once watched a couple of street people being ousted from the grill, apparently because they were too intoxicated to place an order.
"That's the ultimate humiliation," said Ralph: "being thrown out of the Eureka."
The dog houses in Roanoke, Va., were a little more respectable. This jewel city of the Blue Ridge has a market square at one end of its main drag, an easy and pleasant walk from the building that housed the Roanoke Times. The Roanoke Wiener Stand shares a building that now contains several museums, a theater for the performing arts, and a planetarium. Its wieners aren't quite up to the standards of Bacalis or the Varsity, but the scenery and ambiance make up for it.
I once ordered something resembling a hotdog from a sidewalk stand in Vienna, the Austrian city for which the wiener was named. As I bit into the little "heisse wurst," a woman began asking me, in German, how to order one. I soon grasped that her German was about as bad as mine, so I asked, "Do you speak English?"
"Oh yes," she replied. "I'm from California.
In Kingsport, Tenn., I found that the place to order a hotdog was at Pal's, which dispenses its dogs through your car window from little buildings painted hideous shades of purple, pink and green.
Pal's dogs are good, but be sure you know what you're ordering. Miss Peggy once ordered a "chili bun" to go. When we got home, she discovered that the hot dog was missing. Turns out, Pat's sells chili buns for folks who like the chili but don't care for the wiener.
In High Point, N. C., the Dog House on Main Street served a decent dog, but I always preferred its thick-sliced bologna sandwiches, piled high with chili and onions. A sort of flat hot dog.
In Mobile, Ala., the Dew Drop Inn was the place to go for a hotdog and Coke -- if you could find a parking place and a seat at lunchtime. Not the Varsity, but close enough.
Now, Skins is just what this old linthead needs. I wouldn't want to live in a town that didn't offer a decent dog.
Gene Owens has been around the Southern journalistic scene for 48 years. He has been senior associate editor of The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., and editorial-page editor of the Roanoke Times in Roanoke, Va.
As senior editor for Creative Services, a management consulting firm in High Point, N. C., he ghosted more than a dozen published books for professional clients. For the past nine years he has been assistant managing editor, political editor and columnist for the Mobile Register. Register readers named him their favorite local columnist, and readers of the independent regional magazine, Bay Weekly, agreed. He was runner-up in the regional Green Eyeshades competition among writers of humor columns.
He has been on the board of directors of the National Conference of Editorial Writers and was editor of The Masthead, the NCEW’s national quarterly. He is in semi-retirement in Anderson, S. C.
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