Did I ever tell you about the time that I drove two hours for a chili dog? It was 2002 and I was living in Alpharetta and woke up one Saturday morning in the summer with no particular plans but an insatiable craving for a scrambled dog from Dinglewood Pharmacy, about two hours’ south of me in the middle Georgia city of Columbus.
A scrambled dog is like a chili dog on steroids. If a chili dog is a hot dog with a ladle of chili on it, then a scrambled dog is a bowl of chili with a hot dog in it. The hot dog is sliced up, buried in chili and covered with cheese, onions, pickles and oyster crackers. Some of the locals will take the ketchup and mustard squeeze bottles and darn near empty the things, leaving streams of color streaked across the deep red chili.
This isn’t just any chili. It’s Lieutenant Stevens’ special recipe. Generally credited with concocting the dish, Stevens humbly deferred to a short order cook at some place he had worked as a teenager, but got the praise all the same, and enjoys considerable celebrity in Columbus. The chili, however, that was his own recipe, and it’s completely amazing. It’s so darn tasty, and rich with spice in every bite of that finely chopped ground beef. A co-worker of mine, born in Minnesota but a longtime resident of Columbus, once gave me an AP article about Lieutenant Stevens’ retirement in 2004. His associates at the Dinglewood Pharmacy lunch counter, helped by hundreds of community well-wishers, gave him a big, shiny chili pot full of money. “This is the kind of chili I like best,” he said. Word has it that he will occasionally shuffle back behind the counter to get a pot started some mornings before making his way back home to one of the most well-earned retirements that anybody ever had.
My buddy Matt, who you may recall now resides in Gainesville, had invited me to come down to Columbus in 2000 to meet his pals down there, see the sights and avoid drunken bar brawls with soldiers from Fort Benning. I thought that the city and the people were great and the food quite memorable. We had a scrambled dog at Dinglewood the second trip down. Many places in Columbus offer them, but if you want the original and the best, you go to Dinglewood. Well, a few weeks after that second trip, I woke up craving that chili. An hour later, we were on the road.
It took a while to find the darn place, because I was not paying very much attention when Matt was driving me around his hometown. I remembered that if you got off one of the I-185 exits between 10 and 1 and went right, you’d find it about two miles along on the right. I got it correct the third try, on exit 6.
My son was five and my daughter was three and a half, and after the typical Saturday wait for a table, we settled in for a great meal. As we dug in, I told them what I knew of the dish and pointed out Lieutenant Stevens, and told them, wrongly, but we’ll let it slide, that he concocted the scrambled dog. “I want to thank the old man,” said my daughter, not quietly.
It should be remembered at this juncture that the only sounds louder than my daughter are jet aircraft and atom bombs. The jury’s still out on her younger half-brother, who also really packs a pair of lungs. It remains baffling that my son is usually a quiet, dry, Jack Benny-type, because two of my first wife’s three kids are the loudest humans on the planet.
Well, I took her hand and walked to the counter and interrupted the chaos to get that good man’s attention. “Excuse me, Lieutenant? My daughter wanted to thank you for the meal.”
And she bellowed, causing a startled driver outside to crash into the fence around the Aflac parking lot across the street, “THANK YOU, OLD MAN!”
I went pretty red as Lieutenant crouched down with a huge smile and patted her shoulder and shook her hand. “Well, thank YOU for coming to visit, young lady.” What a super guy.
Well, after lunch, I had no idea what the heck else to do. This was before I had a cell phone, and I didn’t know how to get hold of any of my friends down there, nor where they lived, nor how to get to that (long-gone) record store called Slip Disc* (I think) with the hundreds of thousands of 45s, nor how to get to that (also long-gone) comic shop that wasn’t very good**, so we headed home. It was a hot spring day and traffic on I-285 was oddly heavy, and WRAS was playing “She Bangs the Drums” as I almost got sideswiped by a truck. We went to visit my parents and my mother gave me an earful about driving all the way to Columbus for a chili dog. “It’s not just a chili dog,” I chided. She wasn’t amused.
Not very many years later, my dad would ask my mom to drive him down to the other side of McDonough for a martini. A story for another time, perhaps, but she hasn’t brought up the chili dog since.
At any rate, Marie and I drove down to Columbus yesterday with the loud young lady to split a scrambled dog as part of a day full of eating and walking that we scheduled, and which I’ll share over the course of the week. Despite her appreciation of the old man’s concoction, my daughter chose to have an ice cream sundae for lunch.
Our scrambled dog was every bit as tasty and spicy as all the ones I’ve enjoyed over the last few years. By 11:30, all of the tables were taken by families and tourists, and darned if my daughter was not the only one there who didn’t have a scrambled dog in front of them. This would prove to be an ice cream-heavy day for my daughter, and looking over the menu, I noticed for the first time that Dinglewood has their own take on a Boston Cooler. These are typically made with Vernor’s ginger ale and vanilla ice cream, but they make them here with Sprite and lime sherbet. I may have to try that one of these days.
I did notice one unfortunate change at Dinglewood, however. Used to be, they carried Golden Flake brand potato chips, but nowadays they have Frito-Lay like darn near everybody else. I think that’s a huge shame. One thing has not changed: there’s still a wall of antacids perfectly positioned for guests who’ve enjoyed too much chili to take to the cash register with them.
*It was actually called Flip Side, Matt informs me. Slip Disc was the one in Anniston, Alabama that I liked a lot.
**Matt also informs me that I am mistaken and the comic shop is still there, despite my inability to find it when I took my son to Columbus in 2009 to see Jeff Dunham. I don’t think I missed out on anything.