Throughout this summer, many of us hope to enjoy cookouts with family and friends for the first time in well over a year. We’ll be loading up hot dogs with mustard, sauerkraut, and relish — all the fixings — and savoring that first bite. Sharing this simple backyard favorite symbolizes a lifting of the pall of the pandemic and a return to something more resembling “normal” life.
For eighty-three-year-old Harry Baram, the subject of a recent short documentary One All the Way, the hot dog represents much more. He can chart his life and his relationship with his hometown of Paterson, New Jersey, through his love for Hot Texas Weiners, a regional take on the all-American staple. He proposed to his wife over a platter of hot dogs and french fries. He took his children to his favorite Texas Weiner joints around Paterson, creating a family pastime. He plans to be buried holding a hot dog and with a cart serving guests the same dish after paying their respects at his funeral. Hot Texas Weiner sauce mandatory.
Hot Texas Weiners are native to Paterson, a former industrial city established in 1791 based on plans by founding father Alexander Hamilton who saw the value of its proximity to the Great Falls and the Passaic River. A Texas Weiner is a deep-fried beef frank, and to have one “all the way” means topping it with mustard, chopped onions, and chili sauce. Each restaurant touts its own secret recipe for the sauce. In the 1920s, Paterson was a multi-ethnic, polyglot city, and the first Texas Weiner was allegedly served up by a Greek immigrant running a hot dog stand in 1924. Today, many Texas Weiner joints are still owned and operated by new Americans and their descendants.
One All the Way shadows Baram and his two friends as they embark upon a hot dog crawl through Paterson and the surrounding region. Traveling from one restaurant to another, the friends explore Paterson and reflect upon the city’s decline following the Second World War. They lament the decades of neglect and trouble besetting a city rich with industrial, labor, sports, and, of course, food history. Baram himself remains imaginatively and spiritually rooted in the city, still volunteering every week at a soup kitchen.
In one poignant moment during their travels through Paterson, Baram takes his friends to the former Falls View, the very restaurant where he proposed to his wife decades ago. Holding back tears, Baram shares his thoughts with his friends and the audience. “This was Falls View. It’s hard to see something like this and yet think that there was something as beautiful as Falls View.” Baram stares at a Burger King that now fills the site that shaped his marriage and life.
Beside chronicling the trajectory of Paterson and its signature food, One All the Way is a story of friendship. Baram met his two hot dog crawl companions, Ron and Larry, several years earlier at a Christmas function at their church, and the three men discovered their mutual obsession for Texas Weiners. An endless quest for the best hot dog in New Jersey began soon thereafter. Although well into middle age or late in life, Baram and his friends continue to seek out new adventures and joys and form new bonds and rituals. “These crawls have been an escape for me,” Ron tells the group in a dining room booth. Near the conclusion of the film, the camera centers upon a group of young men on their first hot dog crawl. Another batch of friends forging their own tradition.
This might be the most important lesson to draw from the film. However we each emerge from the pandemic — jittery, hopeful, traumatized, or invigorated — we might look to the example of Baram and his friends and open ourselves to new experiences and people. Who knows? A hot dog might be the foundation of a treasured relationship.