Peanut butter hot dog craze sweeping Du Bois

7-year-old suggests them, people find them yummy

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Tony Tye, Post-Gazette photos

J. LeRoy Palumbo Jr. of Palumbo's Meat Market in Du Bois is working on a project to market peanut butter hot dogs.

By Cindi Lash
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

DU BOIS, Pa. -- Russell Emel sure does like peanut butter.

Forget dip for potato chips or ketchup for french fries. Russell demands a dollop of peanut butter on most everything, down to the ice cream for dessert.

But when it came to indulging the first-grader's cravings for hot dogs garnished with a gob of Skippy, Russell's mother balked.

"It's not my thing," said Cyndee Emel, 41, with a grimace. "It kind of made me sick to smear it on the hot dogs for him."

Russell persisted. His mother turned to the Internet, posting half-jesting pleas that would spark a community-wide inside joke in this Clearfield County city of 8,000: Could local meat market operator J. LeRoy Palumbo Jr. appease Russell by creating a peanut butter hot dog?

Mr. Palumbo, whose culinary experiments in the landmark market his grandfather, Dominic, founded in 1927 have resulted in such treats as jalapeno-cheese hot dogs and wild boar jerky, took up the challenge. He and production manager Tom Weaver produced a 25-pound experimental batch, even though they feared it would be awful.

As an unmistakable nutty smell wafted from the smokehouse under Palumbo's Meats of Du Bois, Mr. Palumbo fired off a response to the Web site, announcing, "Come get 'em." That batch sold out in hours. So did the next.

Three weeks later, Mr. Palumbo has sold nearly 1,000 pounds of the protein-packed franks and can barely keep them in his cooler after a "Peanut Butter Hot Dogs" sign goes up over his shop.

He's talking with a peanut-butter producer about marketing the culinary creation to a wider audience. Some of his neighbors are kicking around the idea of a community festival dedicated to the dogs.

And his muse, Russell, 7, is basking in the glory of classmates declaring him a genius as they ended the year at Oklahoma Elementary School with a peanut butter dog luncheon.

"We were doing it for fun, for the community and for a kid," said Mr. Palumbo, 35, whose shop walls are covered with red, pink and blue ribbons he's won for his sausages, hot dogs and other meat products in state competitions.

"Who knew it would take off like it has? It's so great that a 7-year-old boy made it happen."

Mr. Palumbo said Mrs. Emel posted her initial query about peanut butter hot dogs several months ago after people began discussing unusual food combinations on www.godubois.com.

"It started kind of a joke, but then lots of regulars on the [message board] were joking around ... about beating each other with peanut butter hot dogs, all kinds of things," he said. "I thought it was a pretty odd combination myself."

But after Mrs. Emel kidded him again online, Mr. Palumbo reconsidered. His staff was making hot dogs anyway -- the market sells about 1,200 pounds each week to wholesale and retail customers -- and he likes to try out new tastes.

He and Mr. Weaver, 60, who previously worked for Iron City Brewing and Nabisco, "played around" May 19, mixing beef and pork, spices, water and peanut butter until they achieved a consistency that, to their practiced eyes, looked right.

They won't discuss their process, combination of ingredients or brand of peanut butter. But they said the trick was to get the thick, oily peanut butter to blend smoothly before stuffing and cooking the franks.

"To be brutally honest, I thought it would be absolutely horrid," Mr. Palumbo said, laughing. "There was a lot of eye rolling [from Mr. Weaver and other workers.] It was a blind ordeal."

Mr. Weaver got the first taste, biting into a dog right out of the smokehouse and shrugging, "Not bad." Mr. Palumbo packaged the dogs, $2.99 for eight, announced their availability on the Web site and figured that would be it.

By Monday morning, townspeople clamored for more. On Wednesday, a second, 50-pound batch sold out in hours. One customer bought 15 pounds. Chatter about the dogs continued on godubois.com and on the street as people sampled them, shipped them to out-of-town relatives and debated the merits of chocolate vs. jelly toppings.

"I'll tell you what, I bought them. I enjoyed [them]" said Patty Klebacha, a clerk in the city treasurer's office. "It's almost like every day somebody has something to say about them. I figured I'd try them before it goes worldwide."

The local newspaper caught wind of the demand and published a story. Local radio and television stations followed. The peanut butter company asked for samples. Mr. Palumbo whipped up a radio commercial in which his two daughters discuss "the new buzz:"

-- "Angelina and Brad had their baby?"

-- "No silly, Dad's new peanut butter hot dogs."

Inspired by the success of nearby Punxsutawney in promoting its groundhog, some people in Du Bois have proposed holding a peanut butter hot dog festival to draw tourists.

Du Bois Manager Ron Trzyra, who likes hot dogs but would rather leave out the peanut butter, said no one had submitted a formal proposal to hold a festival. But peanut butter hot dogs are on menus for food booths at an upcoming charity race and Community Days next weekend. .

As for Russell, he's still enjoying the treat and his celebrity around town. But as he visited with Mr. Palumbo last week, he made his mother and older sisters gag when he wondered aloud how a peanut butter hamburger would taste.

"It's all been a lot of fun and we appreciate what [Mr. Palumbo] has done," Mrs. Emel said. "I ate one and they're not too bad. Now don't ever ask me to make one the old way again."

Russell Emel, 7, is the instigator of a project to produce peanut butter hot dogs in Du Bois.
Click photo for larger image.

Cindi Lash can be reached at clash@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1973.


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