Localized culinary traditions drive me mad with excitement. In these days of rapid globalization and homogeneity, they're a sign of continued life and individuality; provincialism in the best sense.
Troy, New York, a mid-sized city on the Hudson River, just north of Albany, has a lot to interest the curious traveler who's not too put off by the drab trappings of a down-on-its-luck, has-been industrial center. There's the famed Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the oldest technological university in the English-speaking world. It was home to the W. & L. E. Gurley, Co., which for more than a century made precision instruments that were used to survey much of the American West after the Civil War (it's building is now a national landmark). Also here was the Meneely Bell Company, which made, yes, bells, that went all over the country and the world. The Erie Canal begins just north of here. For the literary-minded, "A Visit from St. Nicholas" was first published in the Troy Sentinel, and Kurt Vonnegut set a couple of his novels here. For the Mob-obsessed, Legs Diamond did business here during the bad-old Prohibition days, when liquor flowed down from Canada through Troy. And, perhaps most significantly, the notion of "Uncle Sam" began here when butcher Sam Wilson supplied the Union troops in the Civil War with meat. Soldiers equated the U.S. stamped on the barrels with "Uncle Sam" Wilson.
All this intrigues me, but what got me jumping up and down when I recently visited Troy were the tiny hot dogs. Yes, tiny hot dogs. For whatever reason, Troy, Albany and the surrounding area take their frankfurters in bite-size portions. Three-inch franks are served on three-inch buns, and people typically order a bunch of them, the way folks get a sack of small burgers from White Castle. No one could explain to me why this is, only that it's been this way for some time.
No place in Troy dolls out these delicacies with more notoriety than Famous Lunch on Congress Street right in the downtown. The luncheonette has been there since 1932 and has been run by three generations of the Vasil family. It used to be called Quick Lunch before, well, it became famous—supposedly because some Troy marine stationed in Moscow got a hankering for the dogs and had some flown over. Since then, it's Famous Lunch.
Troy used to teem with mills, and thus teemed with mill workers, and Famous Lunch still looks like a place suited to them. There are no airs. There are blond wooden booths along the right wall, a counter with low stools along the left, checkered tile floor, a stainless steel grill on the other side of the counter, and a wooden phone booth at the back. Ur-luncheonette.
Prices are cheap. I took the owner's advice and got the "special": four hot dogs with the works and a drink. "The works" includes "Zippy sauce" (a special concoction) chopped onions, mustard and a dark beanless chili. Literally hundreds of these dogs are cooking on a grill near the front window and the counter guys fix them up quickly. One tattooed gentleman next to me order a dozen, all piled up on a plate. Made me feel like a lightweight. The mini dogs are garlicky and strong, and probably a good recipe for heartburn, but I ate them with no protest. There's something called Zippy Fries on the menu, and supposedly the famous rice pudding is served with half and half, but I didn't try these.
The wieners have always been made by the same German butcher, the Troy Pork Store, just a couple blocks away. It's been around since 1918. It's another gem of Troy authenticity.
And I found a 12-pack of miniature hot dog buns at this Troy bakery, ready to the taking home, in case you need some small franks in the comfort of your four walls. All of Troy, you see, is in on the local lunch legacy.