A few months ago, one of my field interviews stirred to the topic of hot dogs. The informant, an elderly Puerto Rican woman, was recounting a recent occasion she was craving a hot dog. This was no ordinary craving. This informant is under a very strict prescribed diet regimen, with dire consequences for not adhering to the regimen. Given her circumstances, such craving had to be satisfied by a great hot dog! Her daughter, aiming to please, asked around for hot dog recommendations. They were directed to a guy that served the “best hot dog” in their area, a long drive away…
“¡El señor tan aguajero! Me planta el hot dog en el pan, con los sobrecitos de ketchup… ¡La peor calidad! Y él dice, ¡los mejores hot dogs! Si viera como nosotros hacemos los hot dogs: Le ponen la carnecita, las papitas…”
[The man was a fake. He puts the hot dog in the bread, with the bags of ketchup…the worse quality! And he says, the best hot dogs! If he sees how we make hot dogs: they put the meat, the potatoes…”]
Such was the reaction of this lovely woman, as she compared the Spartan, “low quality” New York hot dog, to the elaborated criollo version in Puerto Rico, referred by some as the “hot dogs del reforza’o.”
As a sanjuanera, I never had the reforza’o. I first heard of this legendary hot dog from my husband, a cagueño, graciously sharing his experience as follows:
“As I remember it from childhood, El Reforza’o de Don Mike is a delicious layered take on a hot dog. It starts with a regular bun that is smothered with mash potatoes in a guiso criollo. On top of that, the hot dog (or hamburger) is added. Then, stewed ground beef and shredded chicken. To finish the delicious confection the usual condiments are available: ketchup, mustard, sauerkraut, and others. The final delicious touch: hot sauce. As a child el Reforza’o de Don Mike was our go-to place for lunch after my mom’s bank errands. For me it meant more than that. It was my payoff for behaving while my mom took care of her errands. Don Mike’s hot dog cart, to me, looked like a small kitchen mounted on a truck, always clean and shiny. I remember being so mesmerized by the sound of the various compartments containing the ingredients opening and closing, as well as with the skill and grace with which Don Mike mastered the confection. So much so, that I remember thinking this could be something that I can do for a living when I grow up.”
Clearly, these hot dogs were more than a processed sausage inside a bun. They were an experience, one that he remembers to this day and lights up talking about.
“I always had these with cold lemonade” – He adds.
Hot dogs were first invented in Germany back in the late 1600s, and brought to the US, as many other iconic “American” foods, by immigrants selling food in street pushcarts (Read more here). Today, hot dogs are part of the street-foodscape, becoming an important part of “American cuisine”, eaten as part of US Independence Day celebrations, including the traditional hot dog eating contest.
In El Reforza’o’s rendition of this all-American food, we find an otherwise simple food “reinforced” with extra meat and flavor. These additions add much more than extra calories, protein, fat and sodium. They add puertorriqueñidad, making this food our own. Just like the pavochón, the hot dog reforza’o is a local adaptation of a foreign food, introduced to Puerto Rico along with foreign holidays, such as san-guivin (Thanksgiving) and today’s celebration, the fourth of July. Could these adapted foods be interpreted as a (un)conscious assertion of a Puerto Rican identity through the palate, in light of the imposition of “another”? Perhaps. More likely, the Reforza’o is a reinvention of a simple street food, with an added extra flavor, just as these other examples below:
Have YOU experienced el reforza’o?
Thanks to my partner, Omar A. Dauhajre, for sharing his delicious memories of hot dogs from El Original Reforza’o de Don Mike in Caguas.