Dave Railey's been making music for 10 years. But even after stints with such local bands as Ancient Chinese Secret, Casionova and American Dream, most Atlantans don't remember him for his songwriting skills. That's because Railey's body of work has been upstaged by something bigger -- and oblong-shaped.
It started in 1996, when an uncommonly large crowd showed up at an Ancient Chinese Secret show at dive bar Dottie's (which has since been rechristened Lenny's). Railey had a secret weapon to draw folks out on a Monday night: meat on a stick.
"The corndogs originally weren't for eating," Railey says. "I just thought people would throw them at each other, kind of like a joke, you know. I was like, 'Who's going to eat a corndog, especially at Dottie's?'"
But they ate them. They ate them all.
Ten years later, Railey's formula has proved more successful than anyone could have imagined. He's now credited as the force behind the annual indie-rock phenomenon that is Corndogorama. The festival, which has since switched locations from Dottie's to the Earl, now draws 50-plus bands and thousands of revelers to East Atlanta over a four-day period in June.
It's difficult to explain how the corndog so readily became a mascot for Atlanta's biggest indie-rock event. Perhaps it's because there's something simultaneously innocent and deliciously naughty about a batter-dipped frank.
"Now there's a story about how the Corndogorama name came to be," says Amanda Tarr, whose Jalapeño Corndog Concessions is the exclusive supplier for the festival, as well as the Inman Park Festival, Atlanta Jazz Festival, and Virginia-Highland Summerfest. "I don't know if I'll get in trouble telling you. I think [Railey] would kill me. 'Cooking corndogs' was a code word."
And that's as far as she would go.
Sure, there's an undeniable allure in a crowd of indie chicks lapping mustard off 8-inch phalluses. But the corndog also has a certain wholesomeness, evoking the American fair of the early 1940s.
It wasn't carnival vendors, however, who first came up with the corndog. German immigrants are believed to have fried up the precursor to the American version long before the meat met the stick. A popular German recipe calls for salted sausages to be dipped into egg whites followed by a mix of flour and bread crumbs, then submerged in hot fat or butter until the batter achieves a golden-brown sheen.
Tarr bought her first corndog fryer when she was 15, with $75 she saved up by addressing envelopes for the local newspaper in her hometown of International Falls, Minn. "We had a Fourth of July celebration, and all they served was corndogs, cotton candy and watermelon," she recalls. "And so I said to my dad, 'I think if we sold corndogs we'd make a killing.'"
Ten years later, in 1989, she moved to Atlanta and noticed an absence of the hand-dipped, made-fresh corndog. "I decided to fire it up again," she says.
Tarr and her husband, Geoff, are affectionately known as "the Corndog Couple" and have provided the fixings for Corndogorama since 1997. In the festival's more humble beginnings, they'd move about 200 corndogs. Last year, they sold roughly 1,500.
To make what she and her loyal following describe as the best corndogs around, Tarr relies on a "secret batter" that she must purchase in 3,000-pound batches from Pillsbury.
"They don't make it anymore, but they'll make it if I order the whole lot," she says. "It's the original corndog mix. It's a little bit sweet in the batter."
While Tarr's batter is her secret, corndog recipes are -- believe or not -- a hot topic on the Food Network's online database. Typical recipes -- even those for iconic fair food such as funnel cakes and kettle corn -- tend to spark minimal debate. A recipe for a corndog is a different matter. Alton Brown's corndog recipe, which he cooked up on an Atlanta-filmed episode of his show "Good Eats," has netted a whopping 55 online reviews, including such astute observations as, "Smaller diameter hot dogs tend to work better, but I find double dipping in general gives a better coat."
To the purist, Tarr included, the only appropriate condiment for the corndog is neon-yellow mustard, though ketchup typically is tolerated. Tarr says that when customers ask for mayonnaise, that means they're from the North. And when they order a "corny dog," that's a dead giveaway that they're Texans.
As for side items, the corndog is best accompanied by tater tots -- and should be washed down with as cheap a domestic beer as possible. The cheap beer requisite is not lost on the Earl, whose Corndogorama typically is sponsored by Miller High Life.
"There's this connection," Dave Railey says. "I don't know, it's weird. Like when you mention music and corndogs and beer and a festival, people's eyes kinda light up. It's the funniest thing."
When asked whether one recent change to the festival's menu -- the addition of a vegetarian corndog -- might be construed as a sign of corndog gentrification, Railey responded with a laugh, "Yeah, pretty much."
Of course, that hasn't cost the Corndogorama an ounce of cred. To the contrary, the festival has become a sort of initiation into Atlanta indie-rock's upper echelon.
"It's really the only time anybody else ever tries to do a show with me," says Railey, who's played with one of six bands at all of the past Corndogoramas and will play this year with Day Mars Ray. "I don't think even a quarter of the people know about the music [I've made], as opposed to the festival."
10 years of blood, sweat and beers
The Earl, 488 Flat Shoals Ave.404-522-3950, www.badearl.com. Thurs.-Sun., June 22-25
Bands: Brass Castle, The Close, Day Mars Ray, Deerhunter, the Despised, Dropsonic, Heir Apparent, Hell Mach 4, the Hiss, Hubcap City, I Am the World Trade Center, Anna Kramer, Lay Down Mains, Liverhearts, Luigi, the Preakness, Psychic Hearts, Shock Cinema, Snowden, the Sweetloves, Tiger Tiger and more
Cost: $5 per day ($6.75 advance; $10-$12 for the Thursday's opening night Band of Horses performance)
Advance tickets available at www.badearl.com
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