About 15 minutes into the first episode of the HBO show The Deuce, a curious exchange occurs in a New York City diner. It’s 1971 and Lori, fresh off the bus from Minnesota, is having breakfast with C.C., who’s interested in becoming her pimp. Lori has finished her breakfast when Leon, the diner’s owner, approaches their table to clear her plate. After she praises the breakfast and says “You can burn,” he heads back to his line. Lori returns her attention to her breakfast companion.
Lori: What was that sausage thing?
C.C.: That’s a half-smoke, girl.
Wait, what? A half-smoke in New York City? During the Nixon administration? Where if even today you find anything like a half-smoke, it’ll likely be called a Polish sausage?
“Yeah, it was a nod to D.C.,” says George Pelecanos in an email. The DC novelist created the show with David Simon, another Washington native. The half-smoke reference was also a tribute to local music hero Anwan “Big G” Glover, who plays Leon. Leon, Pelecanos notes, is from the South, so “it’s credible that he would identify the delicacy as a half-smoke (its correct name), rather than a Polish Sausage, which is what our misguided northern neighbors call it.”
The best half-smoke history I’m aware of doesn’t mention anything about DC’s signature link ever making it beyond the area (though there’s a good chance your half-smoke was made in Baltimore). But Pelecanos says it’s entirely conceivable Leon’s could have served it. The diner “is based on an actual NY eat-house which was frequented by pimps, prostitutes, police, bus-drivers and unwitting tourists back in the 70s,” he writes. “Its specialty was Southern soul food, so there it is.”