The Ultimate Party Snack Searches for a Seat at the Bar

In the comfort-food gold rush, the pig in a blanket is one of the only classic American snacks that hasn’t crossed over into bars. In the latest "Eating in Bars," Leah Mennies contemplates whether the house-party favorite is poised to find a seat at the bar.

I caught pig-in-a-blanket fever as a kid in the early 1990s, thanks to a stand at the Lancaster County Farmer’s Market in Wayne, Pennsylvania, called The Country Twist. Theoretically, there are plenty of reasons to swing by and swap cash for hand-shaped carbohydrates here, but the real draw at The Country Twist is one thing, and one thing only: Party dogs.

Party dogs are petite, cheddar-stuffed, pork-and-beef cocktail weenies that are hand-wrapped in pretzel dough, spread out in a glorious pattern on baking sheets, and cooked for nine minutes until golden, salty-fatty and impossible to stop eating.

Owner Joanna Huacani says that while The Country Twist opened in 1991, they didn’t come out with the party dogs until a few years later. They initially sold only full-sized pretzel-wrapped dogs, but when a customer spotted Huacani rolling herself a personal batch of minis for a Christmas gathering, they implored her to make them for the public, too. Of the resulting creation’s name, Huacani says, “I said, every meal is a party when you have party dogs.”

The word “party” has long been associated with pigs in a blanket—just see the marketing campaign for Hillshire Farms’ Lit’l Smokies, a series of recipe variations branded as “party animals” where the dogs are mummified in crescent dough (“Pig Tut”), wrapped in nori on a bed of rice (“Pup-o-Maki”) and speared with pretzel-antlers (“Reindog”). Way back in 1960, they appeared in Betty Crocker’s Party Book as Cheesy Pups, employing homemade cheddar biscuit dough and full-sized hot dogs. It makes sense, because pigs in a blanket are a perfect match for alcohol: they’re carb-y and buttery, salty and meaty, begging to go bite-for-sip with a cold pint of beer. By the transitive property, this means that pigs in a blanket should be the ultimate bar snack too, right?

Curiously, they haven’t garnered the bar-side appeal of any number of other miniature meat-starch combinations—the meatball slider, for example, or even the pork belly bun. I’ve scratched my head about this for a long time. Is it because in its purest form, a pig in a blanket is a store-bought cocktail weenie wrapped with Pillsbury crescent dough? Is the whole thing too obvious? Too—gasp—basic?

Curiously, they haven’t garnered the bar-side appeal of any number of other miniature meat-starch combinations—the meatball slider, for example, or even the pork belly bun. I’ve scratched my head about this for a long time. Is it because in its purest form, a pig in a blanket is a store-bought cocktail weenie wrapped with Pillsbury crescent dough? Is the whole thing too obvious? Too—gasp—basic?

To Huacani, the genius of the pig in a blanket lies in its simplicity: “It’s a safe thing to serve—a common hot dog, but dressed up and presentable,” she says. When hosting a large gathering, “safe” is good—a means to quickly satisfy guests as they drink, allowing snacking to be secondary to socializing. But it’d be tough to find a chef who would appreciate a menu choice described as “safe.”

“I think we have to reposition the pig in a blanket—remove it from the lowbrow ranks and elevate the hell out of it,” says Missy Koo, co-owner of the Brooklyn-based artisanal pig in a blanket outfit Brooklyn Piggies, which are sold at the likes of Dean & Deluca and on the skybox menu at Madison Square Garden. At Atlanta tapas bar Cook & Soldiers, meanwhile, chef Landon Thompson has developed the “Chistorra in a blanket,” housemade, chorizo-like Basque sausages wrapped with croissant dough, brushed with reduced apple cider, and served with a maple-mustard dipping sauce. Here, the simplicity of the dish works in its favor: On a menu that’s peppered with modernist touches like flavored powders, pipettes and trompe-l’oeuil tricks, pigs in a blanket become a welcome palate cleanser.

“If it’s good, delicious and you enjoy it, it’s right and we should serve it. I feel like it’s [historically] just been considered too lowbrow. But I love lowbrow,” Thompson says. “All of the quirky gimmicks we have, it’s [about] doing something as simple and approachable as pigs in a blanket.” When the restaurant is full, he says, there’s a plate of them on every table.

It’s pretty clear, then, that the holdup isn’t on the consumer end of things—we’re ready and willing to take our pig-in-a-blanket love public. It’s with the chefs, who are perhaps unable to get over the “my parents served these at parties” thing.

But if anyone were to imbue the pig in a blanket with some much-needed cool factor, it’s the ultimate chef’s chef: Wylie Dufresne. When the quirky Dufresne opened his modernized gastropub Alder in 2013, one of its opening dishes was a set of six petite Chinese-style sausages wrapped with Pepperidge farm hot dog buns that had been compressed in a pasta sheeter. The finished products, which look sort of like Combos and are artfully dotted with Chinese hot mustard and chili sauce, are billed on the menu, loud and proud, as “pigs in a blanket.” Created by former executive chef Jon Bignelli, the dish was inspired by a wd~50 creation that had used a similar technique to create bite-sized crab rolls. “It only seemed logical that we’d address things like pigs in a blanket—it’s not traditional pub fare, but it’s a bit of Americana that’s primed for upgrading and tweaking and making restaurant-quality,” Dufresne says.

The dish has been a top seller since day one, and is one of the few menu items to stick around. Especially, Dufresne notes, because of their drinking potential: “Alder is meant to be a place where you get a bite and a drink or a drink and a bite—bar food that’s great for a salty, spicy, sweet thing,” he says. “That’s not a new idea. We’re just trying to present new ways of experiencing that.”

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