By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News
David Gilman delivered the goods to a visitor at his Shaevitz Kosher Market and Deli on the west edge of downtown Highland Park.
Within seconds, the emotional, olfactory and salivary sensibilities of the small dining area, now oriented toward a 21st century love of barbecue, shifted back to a simpler time, of the old neighborhood, the local butcher shop and hot dog emporiums like Wolfy’s, Fluky’s and dozens of others.
Squarely in the middle of the table was a concoction that took three generations of meat men (and women) to bring to worldwide acclaim. Jewish on-line magazine Tablet.com recently rated Shaevitz’s kosher hot dog No. 1 in the world. The kosher tag of the country’s most popular encased meat is like bestowing MVP status on a slugger. The meat and athlete operate at a level above all others. Jews and non-Jews alike who crave hot dogs will pay extra for a kosher frank. Ballparks in Chicago, New York and other large cities consider kosher hot dogs a central feature of the concessionaires’ menu.
When Shaevitz’s hot dog got its Tablet rating, Gilman and Co. were visited by a couple who drove all the way from Detroit desiring to gobble it down. They got a call from hot dog-craving people in Jerusalem who asked if the market could deliver across an ocean and a half. The reply: sorry, we can deliver, but only to the continental United States.
The “kosher” reputation already preceded itself when Gilman, top recipe maven at Shaevitz, brought forth his Big Dog. A jumbo kosher, partially sliced in strategic places and garnished with the Chicago staples of yellow mustard, relish, tomato and a pickle, the latter spilling off to the side for lack of room in the sandwich. The visitor’s taste was grilled onions instead of the more typical raw white ones. Never a hint of ketchup as wise guys from out of town like to apply, as if throwing their unsophisticated taste-buds in the Windy City hot-dog lover’s face.
On the side were a healthy portion of home-cut fries with little hint of any grease, as was common at too many fast-food purveyors.
Now the moment of truth. The visitor took his first bite. Shaevitz’s hot dog deserved its top rating. The all-beef production could stand on its own without any of the traditional condiments. Substantial in size and reputation, the sausage could have carried the lunch to its conclusion solo if necessary. Beefy, tasty, juicy, the all-star kosher product was far superior to the well-remembered non-kosher products of the traditional hot-dog stands of West Rogers Park, Skokie and all other neighborhood joints of decades past.
If anything, the well-rated hot dog keeps Shaevitz grounded to its roots. Sure, its new-fangled emphasis on kosher barbecue is designed to appeal to post-millennium gourmands. High Holiday meat purchasers, raised on traditional Ashkenaz sweet brisket, now crave Shaevitz’s smoked-brisket production. Customers can even order kosher Texas-style chili.
But the prime kosher hot dog is figuratively and literally a link to Shaevitz’s own history that mirrored the Jewish immigrant experience. The store’s roots were three kosher butcher shops on the West Side, manned by refugees from Eastern Europe, a century ago. Time and Jewish migration moved Shaevitz to a longtime home on Devon and Francisco avenues, amid a mid-20th century capital of Jewish retailers along West Rogers Park’s top commercial street. Then the final move to the suburbs along with the bulk of the Jewish population, Shaevitz setting up shop in Highland Park with the barbecue allure and Lone Star state motif, complete with Texas flags.
Back on Devon, Label Shaevitz would have kvelled over a top rating of the hot dog he first constructed at his butcher shop. Then a local Jewish publication or food section of a downtown newspaper would have done the tasting. Now a web site spreads Shaevitz’s reputation literally around the world.
“I was shocked when they wrote that,” Gilman said of Tablet. “I had no idea.”
“My father was the founder, and I’m kind of sorry he wasn’t around to see it,” said Michael Shaevitz, Label’s son now in charge of the butcher-shop end of the business. “He would have been quite excited by it. It was unbelievable.”
With the unexpected Tablet rating, Gilman, son-in-law of Label Shaevitz, now can stake himself as the top of the pack on kosher hot dogs. He called his product “more of a gourmet” meat compared to the less-expensive (but popularly-known) Hebrew National line.
“It’s made from choicer cuts of meat,” he said. “It’s just higher quality. At one time, Best Kosher made a good hot dog, but they don’t operate any more. The main thing is it’s all-beef and most kosher hot dogs are not all-beef. Kosher hot dogs must be made from the forequarter, and not from the utility parts (of the cow).
“That’s the perception. But I don’t believe all kosher products now are that high in quality. I can only speak for ours. The only other place I’ve seen that made good product are Vienna, but that was non-kosher. We think we have the best.”
Like other chefs of popular lines, Gilman keeps the specific recipe close to his vest. CIA-level security on composition is actually another attraction besides kosher in the tasty-foods business. The Milwaukee Brewers, for instance, market a popular “Secret Stadium Sauce” most commonly used to douse bratwursts at Miller Park. The sauce is so flavorful it might be acceptable as opposed to ketchup to apply to a sausage. But the ingredients are never revealed, lest culinary counterfeiters pounce on a cheap imitation.
Tablet managed to peek behind the curtain to a degree. The hot dog is “cured by salt and water. The protein is then extracted from the lean meat, which is then mixed with the fatty meat and seasoning, forming a ‘matrix bind.’ Then, it’s emulsified, resembling, say, baby food, and made into links.”
The blend of seasoning includes nutmeg, allspice, garlic, and pepper. Tablet added.
“It’s the fat content, very lean, and the type of meat,” Gilman said. “We have a particular blend of seasoning that we have developed ourselves. We’ve been changing it over the years. Recently, we changed it and we think we made it better. We make small batches to test. We finally release it when we all like it.”
The kosher hot-dog market narrowed due to corporate changes, costly production and rabbinical-endorsement issues.
“The meat supply is the issue,” Gilman said. “The choices of kosher meat are very limited. There is only one supplier. We have to tweak the (taste) formula to fit the meat blocs.”
The meat itself is delivered in a far different manner than in Devon Avenue days, delivered in pre-packaged portions rather than the beef four-quarters hanging in a cooler, and popularized in Hollywood productions with boxers dueling the slabs and shootouts among gangsters, secret agents and aliens.
“We used to cut our own meat,” said Gilman. “One time we sold meat to other meat markets. Up until four years ago we bought nothing but four-quarters. There’s no more meat on the hoof. You had to know how to sell the whole quarter. It’s all boxed meat.
“Rocky was boxing a four-quarter, but now it’s all broken down.”
A pugilist could rough up his fists punching the quarters handing from meat hooks, but would not want the old-school back-breaking work of carving cuts of meat from the quarters. That was the unseen physical labor part of butcher work.
No matter how the meat is delivered and the composition of the Shaevitz recipe, hot dog sales aren’t likely to slump anytime soon. Chicago is a top hot dog, Italian beef and deep dish pizza market. The yen for sausages and beef stem from the city’s center as a slaughterhouse via the old stock yards and huge meat-packaging – kosher and non-kosher – companies, often operated by Jews. One thread traces the invention of the hot dog back to the Columbian Exposition in 1893.
The city reportedly has more hot dog stands than McDonald’s, Burger Kings and Wendy’s combined. Meanwhile, the classic mustard-and-vegetable toppings also has Jewish roots, going back to Maxwell Street and the “Depression Sandwich” reportedly originated by Fluky’s in 1929.
“Vienna sold to small retailers, and they were the main company,” said David Gilman.
“It’s inexpensive comfort food – it’s Chicago-style, not pretentious,” said his wife, Susie Gilman, Label Shaevitz’s daughter and another mainstay in the business.
Stacks of hot dogs are prominently shown in the display cases of the Shaevitz butcher shop. That’s tradition. Next door, in the small restaurant, the Texas barbecue theme would have seemed like science fiction to Label Shaevitz. On the other hand, the hard-working butcher knew all about the evolution of customer tastes and likely would have endorsed the show-biz aspects.
“My father brought the business from the West Side to the North Side,” said Susie Gilman. The family settled in Skokie, just a short commute from the butcher shop.
Tradition oozed from every pore of the shop. Sawdust was sprinkled on the floor. Customers asked for their favorite butcher to serve them.
Label Shaevitz taught himself to be a hot dog expert, passing on the acumen to David Gilman, a South Sider who joined the business shortly after his marriage to Susie Gilman 41 years ago.
“He became a self-taught sausage-maker,” said Susie said of her father. “The family was growing and we had a small business. And then it just caught on. He realized there were a lot of ways to expand the business.
“He painted his own signs. He was very competitive. He went into the back and read up how to make a sausage. I don’t think he relied on anybody else. My father had four children, and with each child he tried to invent something else. When my sister was born, it was salami. Next in line, it was a hot dog.”
Susie Gilman’s childhood memories center around her father smoking sausage at the shop until dinnertime. He dashed home to eat with the family. Then Susie would return with her father to the shop as he removed the sausage from the smoker.
“I remember the smells and the fire burning in the smoker – vividly,” she said. “He would work so much. But at the end of the day, it was fun to go back and be part of it. To see your dad, you had to go with him to see him in the store. I can see the whole thing and I can still smell it.”
After the 1985 move to Highland Park, David Gilman installed modern equipment and changed some preparation formulas to make them more commercial to comply with federal laws.
In 1999, the family opened the restaurant adjunct. “We were using it for storage, but then we decided to use it as a kosher carry-out restaurant. We didn’t even have tables,” Gilman said.
Oddly enough, hot dogs were not the best Shaevitz sellers from the get-go. The Gilmans marketed their half-pound hamburgers, then stumbled on an under-served slice of the market – brisket.
“People started asking me for smoked brisket,” said David Gilman. “One person would come in and said I already had the equipment to do it. People kept saying it was the newest thing, branching out from the southwest and coming north.”
Like Label Shaevitz with sausage, David Gilman proved a good reader of brisket recipes.
“I started selling it, and it became a smash hit,” he said. But consumer demand told the Gilmans they could not just be a red-meat purveyor. Eventually Asian food was added to the now-restaurant-sized menu. David Gilman had to keep reading and expanding his repertoire in the kitchen.
“A lot of people wanted to come in here several times a week and didn’t want to keep eating hamburger,” Susie Gilman said. “We have all types of food now.”
David Gilman rates his best seller a marinated skirt steak.
“We’re very picky,” said Susie Gilman. “We also know our customers well. Some want French fries one way.”
One Rubicon the family will not cross is serving breakfast. Not only would David Gilman’s chef talents be spread too thin and he’d work too many hours, but his equipment could not handle the changeover to the different composition of food for the morning crowd.
But he is the second in a line who does a kosher encased meat really well. In fact, likely better than anyone else. And in the doghouse better known as Chicago, that is a distinction that cannot be bought.