Thursday, Oct. 1, 2009 03:05 pm
Springfield’s destination diner
It’s practically a place of pilgrimage. A Mecca for food historians. Tourists flock there, not just from Illinois, but from all across America and around the globe, by motorcycle, car and by the busload.
It’s the Cozy Dog on South Sixth Street. The story of Cozy Dogs — the original hot dogs on a stick, deep-fried in cornmeal batter — is almost as familiar as Lincoln lore to anyone knowledgable about Springfield history.
Cozy Dogs’ creator, Ed Waldmire, had eaten an unusual sandwich on a trip to Muskogee, Okla., during his youth: a weiner baked in cornbread. Returning to Illinois, Waldmire told a fellow student at Knox College about it, saying he wished he could make something similar that would cook faster.
A few years later Waldmire, now in the Air Force stationed at Amarillo, Texas, had forgotten the conversation. But unbeknownst to him, it was on the mind of his college buddy, Don Strand, whose father owned a bakery. Strand developed a cornmeal mix that would stick on a weiner and could be deep-fried. Strand sent his mix to Texas, and Waldmire experimenting in the U.S.O. kitchen with hot dogs stuck on cocktail forks, communicating back and forth until the recipe for their “Crusty Curs” was perfected. Waldmire sold “thousands” at the U.S.O. and P.X. as well as in the town of Amarillo until he returned to Springfield at the end of his military service in 1946.
Waldmire wanted to introduce his creation to his hometown, but his wife, Virginia, thought the moniker “Crusty Cur” was a bit too crusty. The couple came up with the name “Cozy Dog,” and Virginia designed the logo of two corn dogs in a “cozy” embrace.
Cozy Dogs were “officially launched” at the Lake Springfield Beach House on June 16, 1946, and later that year sold at the Illinois State Fair. The first Cozy Dog House opened on the corner of Sixth and South Grand, followed by a second location at Ash and MacArthur.
In 1949, The Cozy Dog Drive In — what would become the flagship — was born and took root on South Sixth Street, then also part of Route 66. When Ed retired, son Buzz and Buzz’s wife, Sue, took over. In 1996 the Cozy Dog was transplanted one door to the north. It not only survived the transplant, but flourished; these days Sue and her sons are in charge: Josh and Tony work in the restaurant; Nick maintains the Web site.
The Cozy Dog was an integral part of my Springfield childhood, along with the Dairy Queen in the same building. Not only did I pass it every time I went into town, eating there was one of my ultimate treats.
Because my husband’s dental office is just a few doors south, I still drive past the cuddling Cozy Dogs frequently. And eating there is still a treat, though I have to admit that entering the new location gives me a pang of nostalgia. But I also admit that the “new” place has done an outstanding job of preserving the original’s ambience.
In some ways, it’s a museum of memorabilia: original Cozy Dog artifacts, including a table whose top was signed by regulars at the time of the move, then sealed in clear plastic. There are local and interstate historic Route 66 items, and a gift shop stocked with Route 66 souvenirs. It’s that association with Route 66 that draws in many of the tourists, foreign and domestic, and keeps things busy, especially in summer months.
Sitting around the signature table with Sue, Josh, Tony, and regular customers Mel and Claude (no last names at their request) and listening to their stories makes it clear that just being there can be an adventure — as often as not, an international one.
“D’you remember those guys from Spain that came in here with the cameras?” asks Josh. “The ones with the skin-tight red hot pants?” Everyone raises their eyebrows and gives each other knowing looks. I ask them to elaborate, but can’t get much other than, “They were really something!” They all agreed that the largest number of foreigners were from France and Germany, exemplified by the two couples who came in during our conversation, one each from those countries. But there are also “lots of Japanese” and “busloads of English.” Mel chuckled as he recalled a group of English tourists boarding their bus, “This guy said to me, ‘I can’t understand your government.’” Mel shook his head, “I just said, ‘well neither can we.’”
The Waldmires have lost count of the articles that have been written about the Cozy Dog. There was a recent one in National Geographic Magazine. And, “Oh, yeah, there was that one from Finland not too long ago.”
Cameras and recording equipment aren’t unfamiliar either. But when the Travel Channel’s “Man v. Food” crew came, it was a new level. “We’ve had a lot of independent filmmakers here,” says Josh. “But these guys were the most organized I’ve ever seen. And there were too many of them to count.”
When I first saw the show’s advertisements, I thought they were tacky. “Hey, Bourdain — mine are bigger!!” shouts the show’s star, Adam Richman. “Bourdain” is Anthony Bourdain, who in his highly acclaimed “No Reservation” show explores food customs in the U.S. and around the world. (My interview with Bourdain is in the 5/30/07 IT issue, available online).
“Mine are bigger” refers to each episode’s climax, in which Richman eats gargantuan quantities. It’s an exercise in excess that I find off-putting. In a recent episode he attempted to down a 12 lb. hamburger (plus several pounds of fries) — a step up from an earlier show which featured only a 7 lb. burger.
That said, I appreciate “Man v. Food” showcasing American “iconic eateries,” of which the Cozy Dog is surely one. Fortunately at the Cozy Dog, the show focused on its legendary status; the climax was seeing how many bowls of “Firebrand Chili” Richman could consume at Joe Roger’s. The Cozy Dog filming lasted from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. It was a tiring day, but the Waldmires agreed with the show’s crew that Richman was “one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet.”
The Route 66 tourists are an important reason that The Cozy Dog continues to flourish. But the Cozy Dog isn’t a tourist trap. The Route 66 connection isn’t merely superficial: Bob Waldmire (Ed’s other son) is an historian and artist who’s made recording America’s national highway in words and drawing his life’s work, which can be seen and purchased there. Though he now mostly lives in Arizona, if you’re as lucky as I was recently, he’ll be back home (“in my office”), ready with a tale — or two or three — about the road he loves.
The other reason the Cozy Dog has stood the test of time is that it’s remained true to itself. For the most part, the food is the same as at Ed Waldmire’s first Cozy Dog in the 1940s: It’s not fancy, but the “crusty curs” are as I remember from childhood. They mix their own chilli spices, and cook the meat and the beans traditionally: separately. They even still spell it with two ‘ll’s, an even more exclusively Springfield tradition that has sadly been abandoned by even Joe Roger’s. The fries are cut in house from fresh, skin-on potatoes, and sprinkled with a specially-made seasoned salt. The salt, chilli powder, and cornmeal batter mix are all available for purchase.
That’s what keeps the regulars regular. “I’m here at least twice a day,” says Mel. “It’s the best food in Springfield,” nods Claude in agreement.
Contact Julianne Glatz at email@example.com.