In the years after World War II, while much of the world was limping back from the ravages of conflict, America was thriving. As WWII historian Paul Woodadge explains, “When Americans returned home, they were promised all the creature comforts they’d missed out on. They’d have their chocolate, they’d have Coca-Cola in the vending machines and they’d have a car and a white picket fence and all of that.” It only makes sense, then, that the expression “give me the works” would come about during this period.
At least, that’s the best guess as to when this turn of phrase was popularized in relation to food. Since “the works” is a fairly generic assemblage of words, etymologist Barry Popik says, “‘The works’ is really difficult to search for by itself, [but it] appears to have become popular [around] 1947 to 1950.” Before then, “the works” had meant to give someone the “greatest possible amount of attention, information, etc.,” Popik tells me, but it didn’t seem to come around to food until the late 1940s, citing a 1949 newspaper article from Scranton’s Times-Tribune about a hot dog with “the works” (sadly there are no details as to what exactly the ingredients were).
• Read next: Ranking Hot Dogs by How (Un)Healthy They Are
More than 70 years later, “the works” is just as ambiguous, meaning different things to different people. For example, Papa John’s has a pizza called “The Works,” which includes pepperoni, Canadian bacon, sausage, onions, peppers, mushrooms and olives, but to me, that has one vegetable too many (mushrooms) and one meat too few (bacon). Of course, all this comes down to a matter of taste, though I’d say one set of opinions on this subject would matter more than most — namely, from the people actually putting “the works” on your food.
So, here’s how a multitude of casual-dining chefs feel about “the works”…
Devin Zeimann, burger chef and owner of Crave in Albany, New York: We really pile a lot of stuff onto our burgers, but you have to make sure a burger isn’t too sloppy — where the ratio of sauce and meat and bun is off. Really, it’s all about the placing of the ingredients and stacking it correctly and using proper barriers, like lettuce, to make sure a bun doesn’t get too soggy.
For a bacon cheeseburger with the works, I’d do it like this, from the bottom up: Ketchup and mustard don’t sog out a bun too much, so I’d put them right on the bottom bun, then lettuce and then tomato on top of that. Then you’d stack the onions, then the pickles. Then you’d put the burger on that, then cheese and then bacon.
Diva Lassair, owner of and chef at Diva Dawg Food Truck in New Orleans: For Diva Dawg, it’s pretty much the New Orleans works, which is a red bean chili dog topped with fried chicken and ketchup aioli. But if people aren’t into the more exotic toppings, I’d say the works would be chili, relish, ketchup and mustard. Some people don’t like ketchup on a hot dog, but I don’t agree with that because I’m from a family where people put ketchup on everything.
Justin Hintze, owner of Jojo Food Truck in Portland, Oregon: As far as sandwiches go, when I think of “the works,” I think of an Italian sandwich when you’re putting everything on there. That means hot peppers, oil and vinegar, extra sauce, red onions, tomatoes, shredded iceberg lettuce and banana peppers. I’m kind of a weirdo, so I like mayo on my Italian sandwiches, though some consider that heresy.
No matter how much you lay on there though, you must maintain structural integrity. That depends upon what you’re putting it on. If it’s on bread or a bun, it’s not good if it’s spilling out of the sides. If it’s a roll — where the bread is still in one piece — if you can’t close that well enough so that you can fit your mouth around it, then you’ve got a problem. I don’t know if I’d say that “less is more,” but it’s pretty easy to go over the top with a sandwich. Like, if things are falling out of a sandwich where you have to eat them with a fork later, then you’ve got a problem.
James Rich, owner of PGH Taco Truck in Pittsburgh: The best type of taco is the one where, after you eat it, there’s a whole second meal left on your plate, that’s my attitude. If I wanted to go full “the works” on a taco, I’d include a really good hot sauce like, Valentina, and some Cotija cheese. Also some vidalia onions that have been soaked in lime juice, some cilantro, roasted jalapeño peppers and some crema, which is a mix of mayonnaise and sour cream.
I can also tell you some of the weird stuff people have asked me for. Like, people have asked for ketchup and one person suggested adding raisins to a taco. But if you’re paying me $4 for a taco, I don’t care if you put Jolly Ranchers on it — I’ve ceased to judge a long time ago.
Chris Bianco, renowned pizza chef and James Beard Award winner: One man’s “works” is another man’s big pile of shit. At a certain point, pizza is like Jenga — if you put something on it, it means you’ve got to take something off. It’s about balance, you shouldn’t just keep piling shit on there and you especially don’t want something where it’s soggy or the slice doesn’t hold up. Everything in the world is individual, of course, but if you come up to me and tell me you want everything on the menu on a single pizza, I’d have to think about that. I’d have to figure it out because a pizza can only hold so much weight.
In theory, we want everything, but sometimes people think they know what they want but they don’t know, you know? Some people might take it as a challenge to put everything they can on a pizza and more power to them, but I don’t like eating it that way. I don’t want to listen to five fucking songs at once, and I don’t want every flavor all at once. It’s like Mozart — you can have a lot of notes, but it’s got to be harmonious.