One of the almost romantically intimate experiences that I shared with my grandmother as a child was the ecstasy of eating corn dogs. And it was with surprising frequency, at least during summer months, that I joined in her unmitigated, uncomplicated zeal for her favorite food. Forget the old saw about permissive grandmothers filling their grandchildren with tasty fried treats. My grandmother wanted the corndogs for herself, and it was the privilege of her favor that I was allowed to go along with her down to the park on the Fourth of July or to one of the many bankrupted family farms where an auction had drawn a little crowd, and, always, Corn Dog Jerry and his makeshift plywood stand.
Cotton candy, Cracker Jack, and above all, corn dogs seemed in such an atmosphere to have been conveyed to us by some benevolent deity, a manna that was not prepared but that merely appeared. Had Moses and his tribes been blessed so well?
Short, squat, never wearing more than a sweat-streaked t-shirt and an apron at the waist, Corndog Jerry was exactly the sort of man you’d expect to champion the corn dog. He came to recognize my grandmother the way a priest acknowledges the first lone widow arriving for morning Mass with a crisp dollar bill clutched in her fist. Often, we would catch him before he had set up his fryers, before the oil was hot enough to seal the crust properly without being greasy, and he would blush at the first imperfect corn dog that he pulled up out of his bubbling kettle. We’d be back for more, we always assured him, and we savored the first scalding bites of our dogs, ever more delicious because we had imagined them so.
Besides offering lukewarm Cokes in waxed paper cups, I don’t recall that Jerry sold anything but corndogs. Why would he? Even had he filled his fryer with onion rings, curly fries, or spears of green zucchini, we would have ignored these more pedestrian items and gone straight for the corndog, the consummate carnival pleasure, the treat that cannot be consumed daintily but whose carnal guilt vanishes in a few ravenous bites. No side dishes were needed, though we often cooled off with Sno-cones or Popsicles. But, the pleasure of a corn dog meal could not be sullied with baked beans, coleslaw, or other common accompaniments. Our happy palates desired not the cleansing of salads.
Why corn dogs? Why not butter beans or mincemeat pie? Watermelon pickles or rhubarb preserves? Why not something a bit more demure and ladylike, grandmotherly and old fashioned? Something a little less shocking when it comes up out of the fryer like a party gag?
For my once-flapper grandmother, who wore her domesticity reluctantly and passed up dozens of marriage proposals before she settled on my grandfather, a corn dog was a link to a girlish freedom, a dinner you could stroll with right out of the kitchen and into the yard, a snack whose stick you could toss, eliminating dishes. Yes, she crimped the crusts of pecan pies and balanced shrimp on the edge of cocktail glasses the way the ladies’ magazines suggested. But duty had siphoned all but the most basic joy from her kitchen, and cooking for her seemed always more battle than delight. Only a few rudimentary pleasures, corn dogs among them, could restore some small measure of her pre-marital bliss.
Street food had always fanned the imagination of this society woman. And though a fifty-year career as a small-town postmaster kept her from traveling much, she continued to go abroad through the journeys of her youth, eating her way through the provinces of her mind. Ask her about her honeymoon, and she would invariably swoon about the sidewalk vendors in New Orleans and...