Now primarily associated with hot dogs from Chicago, sport peppers are a spicy vestige of Southerners' domestic migrations.
The squeaky green sport pepper is officially known as a Mississippi sport pepper (it reddens as it matures, but commercial picklers don't wait for the color change). Closely related to Tabasco peppers, the sport most likely went north with African Americans who left the Mississippi Delta in the early part of the 20th century.
“The authentic Chicago-style hot dog, created as an inexpensive 'banquet on a bun' back in the 1930s, has evolved into a true testament to the Chicago lifestyles,” hot dog historian Bob Schwartz wrote in “Never Put Ketchup on a Hot Dog.” “It seems that with Chicago being America's melting pot, it's only right that folks from different parts of the country and from across the pond would be contributing to augment the original sandwich.”
Whole sport peppers are one of seven condiments considered essential by Chicagoans: Yellow mustard, chopped white onions, piccalilli, tomato slices, celery salt and a kosher dill pickle sound out the roster. The medium-hot peppers are the element most apt to be considered optional.
Despite the common name for Capsicum annuum, sports no longer come from Mississippi. “The climate has changed in the last 100 years, and now that product is grown in certain parts of Mexico, close to Chihuahua,” says Rick Ewert of Vienna Beef, the 122-year-old sausage manufacturer synonymous with Chicago dogs.
Outside of the Windy City, sport peppers, which also work as a pizza topping or salad garnish, can be hard to source. That's one reason to apply them sparingly to a dog constructed in Chicago fashion, but aesthetics also dictate frugality.
“Remember, a Chicago Dog is blending of all the toppings,” the bloggers behind Hot Dog Chicago Style warn in the sport pepper section of their online guide. “No single ingredient should overpower the others.”
Closed for Business (Hot Dog: The Chicago Way, $7)
Bottled sport peppers are so hard to locate in the Lowcountry that Closed for Business had to briefly postpone the photo shoot for this column while it secured an alternate supplier. The most reliable retail bets are online purveyors, such as Vienna Beef or Marconi Foods.
Skoogie's in Mount Pleasant, which bills itself as a Chicago-style deli, serves an all-the-way dog on a de rigueur steamed poppy-seed bun. Downtown, Mac's Place, a bar beloved by Chicago sports fans, also serves a properly done-up Vienna Beef dog.