05/28/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Freedom Frank at Gray's Papaya: Let Freedom Relish!

When you walk into a hot dog joint for their irresistible "Recession special," you don't necessarily expect to be drawn into a debate on liberties, inalienable rights and our basic American freedoms. But that's exactly what happened last week when I walked into this hot dog shop as one person and walked out a changed woman.

When showing an out-of-town friend the finer points of the city, I naturally thought to take her to the nexus of New York, the famous frankfurter joint on the Upper West Side, Gray's Papaya. Chaos quickly descended, however, when my Republican friend couldn't help but notice -- or ignore -- the giant love letter plastered to the window of the store: "Yes Senator Obama -- we are ready to believe again."

Not exactly ambiguous, but not trying to be either. Now Obama has generally left me pretty cold, but I can usually contain my politics when really hungry. My friend couldn't. She refused to set foot inside an establishment that "so brazenly brandishes this political endorsement," as if 'endorsement' is a dirty word. And for this buttoned-up conservative with a heart of GOP, it is one.

But are we living in a hot dog democracy or what?

Her choking on the jumbo sign is like choking on the country's very tenets that defend our right to proudly wave that sign. "How can they even allow that sign to stay up there?" she hissed, betraying her unmistakable air of dissent.

That the endorsement espoused a liberal's message inflamed her; that I'm a conservative who can distinguish gastronomy from ideology, it bothered me very little. She said that she lost her appetite, and I almost lost my respect for her. I was turned off far less by the endorsement of Obama itself than I was by her turn of intolerance for our most basic of freedoms.

Now as a New Yorker who can't pass a Starbucks without overhearing a passionate plea for a "no impoverished latte-lover left behind act," I'm well accustomed to vocal New Yorkers who habitually wear their politics on their sleeve (literally: that "Impeach the Monkey in the White House" t-shirt guy in front of my supermarket has become a beloved staple.)

My aggrieved friend, however, doesn't take to emboldened political sentiments as lightheartedly.
Any New Yorker knows that a bare-windowed Gray's Papaya during an election year is like a soybean frank: untrue to its roots. It's a tradition that embodies what's so great about this country. Ironically, this is part of what Obama's platform is all about -- and what he croons about in his Hope Opus -- bringing together hot dog lovers of all stripes and fixins' preferences.

Debate over which has more filler, Obama's message of change or a Gray's Papaya frank, is beside the point. The real issue here concerns basic freedoms that entitle a citizen to his political expression. It's not as if there's some unscrupulous motivation driving the Papaya Man to promote Obama's installation in office. (The idea of a lucrative and exclusive catering contract for White House BBQs sounds slightly far-fetched to me.) Likewise the idea of him jockeying for a plum cabinet position -- promoting a viable economic stimulus plan called the "recession special" as a model.

But all of this raises the fundamental question: should hot dogs and politics ever mix? It matters little that the candidate of choice happens to be Obama here. The essential issue is about our freedoms, regardless of whose name is written out in golden mustard. Should politics be relegated to a certain realm? And we should be allowed to engage in it only within those confines? So the Papaya Man wanted to enter the political conversation -- who doesn't?

I don't see the harm in it -- and I don't see the inappropriateness. If it alienates hot dog-loving righties or Hillary holdouts, so be it. The likelihood that my friend would have excitedly patronized the place if a McCain nod replaced one for Obama only bolsters the argument. One of the great things about this country is that we have the right to stand on our own soapbox of political superiority -- even if it is atop a frank joint -- and any exuberant sentiments about politics is a byproduct of these precious liberties.

On the global fast food scene, how many hot dog shops would be so bold as to make a political statement and not risk getting his proverbial hot dog chopped off by its dictatorial government? After all, when we think of personal freedom, the hot dog of course springs to mind. It's no wonder that the hot dog is the centerpiece of our nation's designated day of freedom -- the Fourth of July.

Practically speaking, if we were to boycott establishments that champion the front-runner who's billed as a unsurpassed unifier, it could very well signal an ominous harbinger of the future political climate.

Ultimately my friend prevailed and I had to forgo New York's best frank that day, but I walked away satisfied knowing that everyone in this country is entitled to a voice -- and using that voice in spite of the potential fallout.

And to those Obama dissidents who protest that he's too out of touch to enjoy the best of what beef byproducts have to offer, you shouldn't be too implacable to eat at an establishment that so relishes America's politics and freedoms -- you should celebrate it.

Obama: He answers to a higher authority... the all-important hot dog shop endorsement. So go on, order the "Recession Special" with a side of audacity of hope -- it'll be good for you!

I submit that there is hope, when any hope is left in hot dogs.

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