Washington may be the only city whose so-called signature food has all the definition and tangibility of a ghost. Is the thing a sausage or a hot dog? Is it spicy or mild? Does it include pork or beef or both? Is it smoked or not smoked? Chili or no chili?
Imagine if Philadelphians were so wishy-washy about their cheesesteaks they refused to mock strangers for ordering one with Swiss instead of provolone or Cheez Whiz? Who knows. We might have had a different president.
Or imagine if Chicagoans didn’t give two shakes what toppings you wanted with your all-beef frank on a poppy seed bun? Just think how much better ketchup lovers would feel about themselves.
But we in the District of Columbia don’t have any half-smoke traditions to defend. Most of us couldn’t describe a half-smoke even if we rented out our basement to one. You only had to look around the inaugural Domaso’s Top Dog Half-Smoke Challenge on Sunday in Rosslyn to understand the confusion that surrounds this link. It had less to do with the many interpretations of the snack — the charity contest for Brainfood, after all, encouraged liberties and individuality — and more to do with the fact that few of the 11 competing chefs knew what they were taking liberties with.
Danny Bortnick, the Firefly chef who won the challenge with a fennel sausage topped with bacon chili, summed up the half-smoke enigma best. “It’s amazing that it’s such an iconic D.C. thing, and yet there’s no clear understanding of what it is,” he said.
Want proof? Just read the comments offered by the chefs at the half-smoke challenge, where I served as judge and had a chance to ask the contestants for their definitions of the famous, mysterious link:
Liam LaCivita of Liberty Tavern and Lyon Hall: “My definition would be definitely an all-beef frankfurter, basically, but stuffed into a hog casing. It adds a little bit more texture to it, more coarse, as opposed to an emulsified-type sausage. I think that’s the main difference. Then I think it’s options: Some people defer on the chili. Some people want the chili.”
Peter Smith from PS 7’s: “From all the research that I’ve done...it’s a half-beef, half-pork hot dog, basically. The pork has a little bit higher grind so it’s got a little bit more tooth to it. Then you cold-smoke it for about 3 1/2 hours after you make it. So it’s got spice, sweetness, pork, tooth, the whole nine yards.”
Chris Watson from Brabo by Robert Wiedmaier: “You know, I never heard of one until I came to D.C. My definition of a half-smoke is the one I got at Ben’s Chili Bowl the first time I went there — a really bite-y, crisp-style sausage with a little bit of smoke and with the chili at Ben’s Chili Bowl. That’s all I know of it.”
Bortnick from Firefly: “The way I understand it is, usually the meat is half and half, and it’s smoked. It’s a sausage. Beef and pork is traditional. The Washington classic is a smoked sausage that’s half-beef and half-pork.”
John Critchley of Urbana: “I Googled it, and I tried to figure out what the signature street food of D.C. is. I received things that [said it was] 50-50 pork and beef. It’s half-smoked...I think it’s a bigger ground sausage, with lots of spice, and it’s a mixture of pork and beef. Not smoked.”
Victor Albisu from BLT Steak: “D.C.’s half-smoke has an almost hot dog-type feel to it....Pork or beef or a combination of both, with a fine grind. My understanding [is] it’s a sausage that has been smoked, but I didn’t know exactly...I went with what I knew.”
Nathan Anda from Red Apron Butchery: “There’s no set recipe to what a half-smoke is. I’m sure there is, but I couldn’t find one. What I think it is? I think the [important] part is you can’t over-smoke it. It’s got to be half-way smoked. Don’t cook it. Just get the flavor out of it. Finish it on the grill or poach it. But if you smoke the whole thing, then it just tastes like smoke.”
Scott Drewno from The Source: “It’s basically a spicy pork sausage. Natural casing. A great bite to it... A good amount of heat. It’s not a half-smoke unless it has red chili on top of it...I think it’s subtly smoked.”
Dennis Marron from Jackson 20: “I think it is a hot dog that is half beef and half pork. Partially smoked. Most of the ones you get don’t have any smoke to them.”
The semi-last word will go to Rob Rollins, operations manager for Next Door, the grown-up, alcoholic version of Ben’s Chili Bowl. He’s a relative of the Ali family that owns Ben’s, and he served as a judge for this contest: “The one that we use is a beef and pork sauage in a natural casing that’s smoked. We’ve done a lot of research on trying to figure out the origin of it, but it’s kind of vague.”
If you really want to learn about the half-smoke, you should read Dave Jamieson’s definitive story for the Washington City Paper.