Sky Full of Bacon

The Untouchables: The Jimmy’s Red Hots Caper

Back in the day, when the “auteur theory” stressing the director as the primary creator of a movie was a hot topic, film buffs squared off into two camps, the auteurists (or “Sarrisites,” named for Andrew Sarris of the Village Voice) and the anti-auteurists or Paulettes, named for Pauline Kael, who had made both herself and Sarris well known by attacking him in a lengthy essay. A story Kael told summed up the difference in their attitudes: an auteurist said to her “I can’t imagine Howard Hawks making a bad film!” to which Kael replied, “Go see Red Line 7000,” which was Hawks’ latest picture and playing at that moment in theaters. Kael was clearly sensitive to directors and the degree to which producer-directors like Hawks shaped their films; she certainly would have agreed with any discussion which focused on, say, the consistent role of strong women in Hawks’ films, from Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday to Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep to Angie Dickinson in Rio Bravo, for instance, as evidence that there was such a thing as A Film By Howard Hawks.

But what she didn’t believe was that having a strong personality in filmmaking guaranteed that your next movie would be any good. Hawks made a number of movies which are clearly his but which simply don’t measure up, every artist does. Kael was a great resister of orthodoxy, of anyone telling her that she had to like something because she ought to like it, and for her, being told that you had to like a movie because it was a Douglas Sirk or an Otto Preminger was no better than being told you had to like it because it was about an important dogooder subject like race relations. Every movie was up for judgement on its own, to either please you or not by itself.

What prompted all this was a thread at LTHForum about Jimmy’s Red Hots, a kind of ratty, somewhat scary (the countermen are rumored to pack heat) hot dog stand on the west side that is undeniably full of character— they’re rabidly anti-ketchup (they don’t carry the stuff), food is served in whatever paper bags they got cheap (which may well mean Burger King bags, say), there are guys selling bootleg CDs and DVDs out front, and so on. Now, all this is charming as hell to us connoisseurs of urban decay, but I’m sure it won’t surprise anyone that a business that is ramshackle physically can also be inconsistent in the product it turns out.

Oh, but wait, it does surprise some, so much in fact that it’s unimaginable. Never mind the reports of overboiled, inferior skinless dogs at times, or flavorless fries at other times, not fried in the claimed beef tallow, all from respected posters (including myself). One could never imagine that a place using Chicken Delite bags that fell off a truck would ever use a lower grade of hot dog for a week or two because they got a deal! The Jimmy’s partisans, having declared what Jimmy’s should be, then insist that that is what it always is, who do you believe, me or your lying tastebuds, and go so far as to question the basic intelligence of the people who went to Jimmy’s as to whether they even went to the right place.

I suppose there’s something to savor in the fact that this degree of orthodoxy is being established not to protect a Trotter or a Bayless but on behalf of something as lowly as a ghetto hot dog stand. Still, orthodoxy is the enemy of open minds, now and always, and never so much as in discussions of something as mutable as restaurants. There should never be untouchable restaurants, restaurants that, because you liked them in 1998, must still be good today— especially if you, personally, are no longer out there tasting as widely and knowledgeably as you once were. Set up a shelf of your favorite places that are untouchable, and you make it impossible for others to see new things that might well be better. If George Stevens is unquestionably a great director and Shane established forever as the great western, you keep people from seeing Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher, who each made at least two or three greater westerns than Shane in the same decade.

And that’s antithetical in every way to the spirit of open inquiry. It’s like a reporter being on the take; he’s no longer capable of seeing and reporting things clearly. And The Untouchables knew what fate lay in store for reporters who don’t report on the level.

As for me, if I want a great hot dog and fries and real Chicago atmosphere, I go to 35th St. Red Hots. It’s always good, you can count on it. Trust me.

35th St. Red Hots
500 W 35th St
Chicago, IL
(773) 624-9866

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