Natick man's quest is to dog it every day for a month
Quixotic frankfurter tour spotlights region’s variety
An apple a day might keep the doctor away, but Rob Merlino is going to leave that for another month.
Without regard for his fat or salt intake, the 47-year-old father of five from Natick is celebrating National Hot Dog Month by chowing down one frank a day, every day, throughout July.
In a seemingly unquenchable quest for the iconic utensil-free food, he’s been touring grills, shacks, trucks, trailers, streetside carts, and box-car diners throughout the region, choosing between grilled, steamed, fried, and boiled hot dogs for what he is planning to be 31 lunches in a row.
“Everybody’s making a big deal out of it, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s a lot of hot dogs,’ ’’ said Merlino, who shifted from mortgages to mustard about a decade ago, and operated his own hot dog truck for six years. “But the guy who won the Nathan’s contest ate twice as much as I’ll eat in a month, in about 15 minutes,’’ he noted, referring to champion chowhound Joey Chestnut. (Earlier this month, Chestnut consumed 62 hot dogs in 10 minutes to win the Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest at Coney Island in New York for the fifth year in a row, according to the company’s website.)
Bruce Farago, owner of Jeannie’s Weenies in Holliston, tends to agree.
“I have some people that eat them every day. Some people eat four a day,’’ he said. “They seem to be fine.’’
Merlino visited Farago’s seasonal shack along Route 16 on July 19. From his small vending cart under the shade of a giant beach umbrella, Farago served him a steamed Old Neighborhood natural-casing dog and bun.
Other local purveyors of the fatty summertime favorite are impressed by Merlino’s relentless dedication.
“We couldn’t eat a hot dog a day,’’ said Lisa Volpe-Hachey, co-owner of Snappy Dogs in downtown Hopkinton, which Merlino visited on July 8. “But we’re happy he is.’’
When asked just why he is, Merlino can’t precisely articulate an answer. The quest morphed out of his website, www.thehotdogtruck.com, on which the former vendor features local hot dog joints. It’s also a way to explore New England, one dog at a time, as well as pay a mustard-and-onions-slathered homage to the often underestimated local industry, he said.
“People say New England’s not hot dog country, but there’s a real rich tradition of hot dogs in New England and the Boston area,’’ said Merlino, who, despite having recently dropped 36 pounds, isn’t too concerned about weight gain - he’ll pick up his diet and exercise routine again Monday, when the new month starts.
In his travels, he has visited decades-old landmarks, but also a lot of “off-the-grid little stands and carts,’’ many of which don’t have phones, let alone websites, Merlino said. All the while, he’s been balancing his hot dog habit with sensible dinners, such as salads with cottage cheese.
His lunchtime destinations have included the Dog House in Medfield, Zippity Do Dog in Framingham, Archie’s on a Roll in Marlborough, and the Recession Stand in Southborough.
And he threw out the first pitch - and ate the “ceremonial first hot dog’’ - at a
“Everybody jokes about hot dogs being beaks and claws,’’ he said. But at Kayem, he said, he saw nothing but beef and pork shoulder. “It was nice to be able to see that with my own eyes.’’
Merlino said Kayem sent him a cooler full of hot dogs to remember his visit, but he has not received any compensation for his monthlong tour, and is not affiliated with any company. He said he is looking for employment, and has completed the coursework required for a teaching license.
And although it might seem like eating hot dogs could get repetitive real quickly, he noted that it’s a “different experience at every place,’’ because each has a signature dog, whether it’s the result of a certain cooking method, a secret sauce, or special condiments.
Take Snappy Dogs: Its niche is unusual condiments, from watermelon rinds to cranberry and corn relishes. Volpe-Hachey said her offerings play off current events, most recently with an Anthony Weiner special, or, as she described it, a “grilled snappy dog bulging with pastrami and a homemade pickle spear with cheese on top.’’
During his official visit, Merlino had a hot dog served Mediterranean-style - covered with artichoke hearts, feta cheese, olives, and basil vinaigrette.
But now that he’s nearing the end of his dog-a-day journey, will he ever look at franks the same way again?
“I’m not sick of them,’’ he said, “but I won’t be rushing out on Aug. 1 to a hot dog joint.’’