Good Hammond organ jazz oozes at mid tempo, like mustard out of a bottle. You can hear the instrument’s memory filling the room; the weeds growing through the sidewalk cracks of the industrial wasteland where it was born; the soundtrack it provided for games of kick the can played under a rattling L train; the stolen bases it inspired as it crescendoed in ballparks—where like mustard, it paired so well with hot dogs. Perhaps it’s ability to conjure the spirits of the dead and the dying comes from its ancestral mother, the church.
I first came across this music when I was living on Spring Street in Albany, NY. The street was a ghost, all small converted parking garages, the only one off Lark you passed by without noticing. I lived in a small room in the basement of one of the two row houses left standing. The room was a thin triangle that got narrower as you reached the back, where the kitchen and bathroom door tussled for space. When I wasn’t at work washing dishes and chopping vegetables I was wandered around town to escape it.
Albany has a lot of ancient pockets where the city’s oldest men preside. I’d visit those places alone, as an observer mostly. At the Palais Royale on Jefferson Street, Rocky, the owner, (in his late eighties or early nineties) would play the piano and repeat stories about how his father used to pass hooch through the little side window during prohibition, or about the infamous Albany Irish gangster Legs Diamond—Legs once tipped a young Rocky fifteen cents for shining his shoes, years later he was shot dead right there on Jefferson; at Sam’s Home Cooking I’d order the most utilitarian thing on the menu—two hot dogs with fries—and quietly envy the guys whose order Sam already knew. Sometimes he would charge these guys sometimes he wouldn’t, directly contradicting the sign behind the register that read, “Helen Waite is Sam’s credit manager; if you want credit, go to Helen Waite!” Like Rocky’s, their stories repeated, usually stuff about the Korean War or local baseball. They were selecting from the same bag, like picking out songs on a long neglected jukebox. Some were retired, some homeless, and they were all more graceful at this leisure business. I liked the way they moved around.
As I said, around that time I came across Hammond organ jazz. It was while I was washing dishes at Ogden’s on the corner of Howard and Lodge. I was in my dingy corner splashing around in the sink when the radio program switched to the music of Jimmy Smith, Oscar Peterson, and Lou Donaldson on the silver boombox I kept overhead. The thick hazy Hammond swing on these joints hovered around me, further encapsulating me in this illusory post war landscape I was secretly living in.
Bored and aimless, I could travel through time with the help of these old men—who were doing a sort of time travel of their own—and this music. I’d travel to a lunch counter in some conflated period between the forties and sixties where I’d enjoy my hot dog with mustard over baseball chatter and then climb back down into my apartment, put on a Bill Doggett record and flop down on the bed by the half-window.
I was choosing to go back, those old men were choosing to go back, but the time they were relishing, the relatively prosperous forties and fifties, was defined by those who chose to innovate and look forward amidst the the depression of the decade before.
This memorial day we’ll be in smaller groups but we can still have our hot dogs and memorialize the past. The recipe below along with the music will help. Or, we can make something new.
You don’t need a recipe for Albany hot dogs, so since I must give you a recipe it will be for the tastiest ones, Chicago style. Also, Chicago happens to be the capital of this sort of vibe. Chicago style dogs and the Hammond organ were both born there during the depression.
- In the early thirties, on Chicago’s Maxwell street, struggling sausage vendors began selling what they called the ‘Depression Sandwich,’ a hot dog piled with fresh and pickled vegetables they got from neighboring vegetable carts. It cost a nickel and it was the cheapest full meal in the city. Now we know it as a Chicago style hot dog.
- In 1935, in the factory neighborhoods north of Chicago, the first electric organ was born. A magic machine that held the spirit of large pipe organs in its compact wood casing. It was the invention that finally saved maker Laurens Hammond’s neck after his clock business tanked at the start of the depression.
- In 1939 a Texas man called Wild Bill Davis followed the great migration of Black musicians to Chicago after work dried up in Texas and Louisiana. He found some of his first jobs arranging and composing there; music jobs were still plentiful despite hard times, largely because of the mob run clubs and cabarets. He went on to become the first to make the Hammond organ a solo instrument. Bill Doggett followed him, taking it in a slightly more rock and roll direction that led to Booker T and finally the Young Rascals. The jazz path followed straight to Jimmy Smith, who brought the instrument to its full potential.
- In 1941 the first organ was installed in a ballpark, Chicago’s Wrigley Field becoming an inextricable part of baseball culture alongside hot dogs and cracker jacks.
Chicago Style Hot Dog Recipe
Poppy Seed Hot Dog Roll (if you can find it)-Steamed
Vienna Hot Dogs or Other All Beef Dogs
And the following applied in this order:
- Yellow Mustard
- Bright “Neon” Green Relish
- Fresh Chopped Onions
- Two Tomato Wedges
- A Pickle Spear or Slice
- Two Sport Peppers
- A Dash of Celery Salt
*cook the dogs however you prefer but the traditional method is steamed in Chicago.
Only one rule!