The first thing to understand is that neither the chili bun nor the slaw dog (a.k.a a West Virginia hot dog) are quite the same thing as what the rest of the world calls a chili dog.
Some reasons why are plainly visible. A chili bun is just that: Chili. On a bun. It has no dog. A slaw dog does, but it also has—that’s right—slaw. Even more telling is the nature of the chili on each. This is not your mama’s bowl chili with chunks of meat and arguable accouterments like beans, tomatoes, peppers and, Lord help us, sometimes spaghetti. Chili bun chili is a finely grained aggregate of ground beef, spices, and something to make it all hold together in the bun.
Compact and quickly consumed, chili buns seem to have sprung up in the pool halls of southeastern Kentucky around the Depression era, but a formally researched history has yet to be done. In the breach, I like to claim their inception for my hometown of Corbin and note that our earliest oral history of them involves iconic pool rooms, the Fad and Nevels. By my childhood in the 1950s, the best buns in town were being made at the Dixie, and chili buns could also be had in some neighboring communities such as London, Kentucky. They may have even crossed over into the coal camps of West Virginia.
It was in the early 1960s that the chili bun moved out of shady pool room culture (where “nice” women and little children were not allowed, so they were carry-out food in my and other families) and into the burgeoning custard stand and drive-in restaurant scene. There they met the West Virginia hot dog—which many aficionados claim had its origins at the Stoppette Drive-In outside of Charleston, West Virginia—during the Depression, when wieners and cabbage were cheap eats.
Chili bun chili is called chili sauce in West Virginia hot dog culture, and dogs with such sauce and slaw on top are now served throughout the South, commonly called slaw dogs or chili slaw dogs or sometimes North Carolina dogs—but not when anyone from West Virginia is in earshot.
Rules for each: Buns should be soft, not toasted. They can be dressed with bright yellow ballpark mustard and chopped white onion, but ketchup, pickles, and kraut are frowned on. Hot sauce—favored brands are Crystal, Tabasco and Texas Pete—may be liberally applied by those who wish for more heat. Jalapeños? Well, now you’re talking schisms.
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