PORTLAND — I would not have thought there was any engineering involved in preparing a hot dog.

But I realized quickly – as I tried to sell franks from a cart called Wieners on Commercial Street last week – that there definitely is. The spatial relationship between the dog, the bun, the onions, the relish, the ketchup and the mustard is a delicate thing that cannot be trifled with.

My problem was, I trifled.

The first hot dog order I took was for a hot dog with relish, onions, ketchup and mustard. So I set a bun on the cart, grabbed a plump hot dog from a steamer tray with some tongs, and stuffed it into the bun.

With the dog bursting out of the bun, I tried to jam onions and relish in there as well, then I drizzled some ketchup and mustard on top. I had daubs of each kind of condiment on my fingers as I handed the dog to the customer. He didn’t seem to mind the hot dog’s appearance, paid his $2 and was on his way.

After he left, cart owner Jess Cady-Giguere showed me a more efficient way of melding bun, wiener and condiments. It is a technique she has perfected over seven years of hot dog selling on Portland’s waterfront.

“The trick is to use the tongs to open the bun wide, like this, then take anything like onions, relish, sauerkraut, cheese, and put those into the bun first,” said Cady-Giguere, 27, of Portland. “Then I put the hot dog in, and I put the ketchup or mustard on like this.”

At this point, Cady-Giguere wielded a squeezable ketchup bottle with the artistry of a painter and created a beautiful squiggly line of red down the length of the dog. It’s her signature, one of the things she’s known for on the waterfront, she told me.

I quickly realized that in one lunchtime I was not going to master penmanship with a squeeze bottle. In fact, I never really mastered the art of preparing a hot dog without touching anything with my hands. Customers probably don’t want my handprints all over their bun, so Cady-Giguere recommended I use tongs, as she did.

She was able to quickly grab a bun with her tongs, set it on the napkin, open it with tongs and cleanly put the condiments and hot dog inside.

When I tried the same thing, I usually ended up creating a tear in the bun and a gash in the hot dog. Plus, it took me about three times as long.

A couple of times, I was thrown by the unusual combinations of condiments that some people order.

“I’d like onions, spicy brown mustard and some celery salt,” said Donald Giancola, a business broker whose office is nearby. “I’m very particular.”

Celery salt? Quickly, I looked down at the cart and saw a lone shaker of spice. Luckily, it was celery salt. Obviously, Cady-Giguere knows her customers.

I managed to open the bun without tearing it, put some onions in, then top it with a dog, a scribble of brown mustard and a splash of celery salt.

“How does that look?” I asked Giancola, proud of the appearance of the hot dog I had just labored over.

“It looks fantastic, but I think you better keep your day job,” Giancola said. (He had been told I was a reporter.)

Cady-Giguere’s husband, Brian Giguere, bought the cart in New York and sold hot dogs from the Commercial Street spot for two years while in college.

Now he’s a real estate broker, and Cady-Giguere runs the hot dog cart. She usually works at the cart from April 1 through December. But this year she opened in March because of all the nice weather we’ve been having.

Last year was the worst year she’d had in terms of business, because the summer was so rainy. Cady-Giguere found herself setting up shop in the rain. (She said she had to in order to keep her spot and let people know she’s still in business.)

Although she’s at her spot at the corner of Dana and Commercial from about 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., she works more hours than those.

At night, she cooks chili. At some point, she has to buy buns, dogs, sausages and other supplies at the grocery store or a wholesale food club. Then she hitches up her car to the cart, pulls it up onto the sidewalk, parks it and sets up.

The cart is made of shiny silver steel, with a little cabinet for things you wouldn’t want to blow away, then a series of steamer trays with covers to keep things warm. She’s also got a little portable gas grill to grill the Italian sausages; a Coleman camping stove is used to keep the steamer trays warm.

At one point when I was helping, I ran out of hot dogs. Cady-Giguere grabbed a dozen or so and threw them into the steamer tray. She told me she would turn up the heat to cook them quicker, but then warned that if we left the heat on high too long, the dogs would literally explode. Burst right through their casings.

“That’s why I leave the lid cracked a little, to let some steam out, and because it smells good,” she said.

A lot of Cady-Giguere’s customers on a sunny day last week were regulars who work in the area. There was a building cleaner, some Casco Bay Ferry Lines captains, fisherman types in hip waders, bankers, businessmen in suits and ties, and shoppers.

Cady-Giguere’s English bulldog, Kingston, was by her side the whole time, as he always is. Lots of folks who didn’t even want a hot dog stopped to pet him, with his big, soft eyes and funny face.

It was her first week back on the corner this year, and several passers-by yelled welcomes. A couple of cars honked their greetings.

“The local area here is really great. All the local businesses support each other,” said Cady-Giguere. “In the summer, with all the tourists, it’s great. It’s pretty entertaining down here.

“But for me, the main thing is to be here for my regulars.”

 

Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:

[email protected]