The definitive guide to life’s most burning question
It’s time to pick a side in one of the most divisive controversies of our day: is the hot dog a sandwich? If not, then what is it? If so, how?
This question is one for the ages. Chefs, celebrities, and modern-day philosophers have all weighed in. Let’s face it, wars have been waged over less. This guide will inspect the evidence, dissect the arguments, and render a verdict.
What makes a sandwich a sandwich?
The sandwich is named for John Montagu. Montagu was the fourth Earl of Sandwich, a small parish in southeast England. Though the earl did not invent the sandwich (people were eating them long before they started calling them sandwiches), his name became associated with the finger food around the 1760s. According to legend, Montagu was an avid gambler and asked for a meal he could eat with one hand while playing cards with the other.
Today, what constitutes a sandwich depends on your point of view. Merriam-Webster offers two definitions:
- two or more slices of bread or a split roll having a filling in between
- one slice of bread covered with food
These two meanings correlate with what are called closed sandwiches (definition #1) and open sandwiches (#2).
The most recognizable characteristic of a closed sandwich is that it uses at least two or more slices of bread to envelop (or close around) the filling. By this definition, a hamburger is a sandwich. PB&J is a sandwich. And in the late 1800s, when European immigrants began serving sausages between pieces of bread, they called them “frankfurter sandwiches.”
Open sandwiches, sometimes called open-face sandwiches, only use one piece of bread with fillings piled on top. By this definition, avocado toast is a sandwich. A Mexican tostada is a sandwich. But also by this definition, is pizza an open sandwich?
Then things get even trickier: does the hot dog bun fit either definition of an open or closed sandwich?
Open vs. Closed Sandwiches: The Seam Argument
Because the hot dog bun does not separate completely, as two slices of bread would, it is definitely not a closed sandwich. But because of the hinge in a hot dog bun, can we classify it as an open sandwich?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary punted this question altogether by adding the phrase “or a split roll” to its first meaning. But that is by no means a consensus answer.
When the food and culture website The Takeout posed the “is a hot dog a sandwich” question to 34 celebrities, it called those who take issue with the split roll “the seam contingent.” Seamists believe that a sandwich must be open on all sides, making the hot dog bun’s connective tissue disqualifying for the sandwich family. Actor Fred Savage reasoned, “a sandwich has a top and a bottom. A hot dog has a side and a side.”
But if a seam precludes entrance into the realm of sandwiches, does this mean that subs and hoagies are not sandwiches? Is a taco not a sandwich? When you tuck falafel into a pita pocket, is it not a sandwich?
The truth is, if you accept that a meatball sandwich is a sandwich, then a hot dog must be a sandwich, too.
Open vs. Closed Sandwiches: The Filling Argument
As if the bread question weren’t thorny enough, what about a sandwich’s contents? Can a hot dog sausage be considered sandwich meat?
Even though the process to make deli-sliced sandwich meat and hot dogs is similar, people take issue with the final shape of a sandwich’s filling. Can a cylindrical hot dog coexist beside a thin piece of turkey? As comedian Jimmy Kimmel argued, “If you went into a restaurant and ordered a meat tube sandwich would that make sense? No! They’d probably call the cops on you. I don’t care what anyone says, a hot dog is not a sandwich. And if hot dogs are sandwiches, then cereal is soup! Chew on that one for a while.”
Jeff Mauro, the host of the Food Network’s The Sandwich King, counters that argument. When a journalist asked, “is a hot dog a sandwich?,” he said, “The definitive answer is yes! Because there is the kingdom of sandwiches, and then you have the class of horizontal cased meats and under that in the phylum is hot dog. It’s between carbs. It’s handheld. It eats and chews like a sandwich, and there are two independent sides.”
What if we’re all wrong? The cube argument
According to the Cube Rule, an alternative method for categorizing food, the question is not about splits in bread or the shape of a filling. It’s about the placement of the starch.
If, for example, starch is on the top and bottom, it’s a sandwich. If it’s only on the bottom, it’s toast. If the starch fully encloses the filling, it’s a calzone.
The hot dog, with starch on the bottom and two opposing sides, is not a sandwich. It’s a taco.
Obviously, we’re in need of a ruling from the highest authority in these matters.
What does the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council say?
In 2015, the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, the official voice of hot dogs and sausages, issued a statement to settle the debate.
“A hot dog,” the council said, “is an exclamation of joy, a food, a verb describing one ‘showing off’ and even an emoji. It is truly a category of its own.”
“Perhaps at one time, its importance could be limited by forcing it into a larger sandwich category,” NHDSC president Janet Riley said, “but that time has passed. We therefore choose to take a cue from a great performer and declare our namesake to be a ‘hot dog formerly known as a sandwich.’”
Is a hot dog a sandwich? It’s a matter for the law
Nationally, a hot dog is a sandwich-like product
Whether a hot dog is a sandwich can change how it’s taxed and regulated. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines closed sandwiches as “consisting of two slices of bread or the top and bottom sections of a sliced bun that enclose the meat or poultry.” The product must contain at least 35% cooked meat and no more than 50% bread. Closed sandwiches are not amenable to federal meat and poultry inspection laws. However, open sandwiches, which contain at least 50% cooked meat, are amenable to these laws.
Sandwiches that are components of “dinner products” are another category, according to the USDA. Dinners that contain a sandwich-like product, such as hamburgers, sliced poultry meat with a bun, and yes, frankfurters, are amenable to federal inspection.
State-wide, a hot dog may or may not be a sandwich
How we categorize hot dogs affects state and local laws, too.
In 1971, New York state imposed a state and city sales tax to restaurant bills between $0.11 – $0.99. The price range helped dub this law a “hot dog tax,” because the most popular item it applied to was the hot dog.
In 2011, New York officially decreed that hot dogs are sandwiches that are subject to sales tax. “Sandwiches include cold and hot sandwiches of every kind that are prepared and ready to be eaten, whether made on bread, on bagels, on rolls, in pitas, in wraps, or otherwise, and regardless of the filling or number of layers. A sandwich can be as simple as a buttered bagel or roll, or as elaborate as a six-foot, toasted submarine sandwich.”
In other states, including Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, California, and South Carolina, hot dogs are taxed if they’re served hot (such as from a hot dog cart), but they are not taxed when sold in packages in stores.
In the highest court of the land, at least one justice says a hot dog is a sandwich
In 2018, Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg weighed in on the weighty question. When asked by comedian Stephen Colbert whether a hot dog is a sandwich, she issued this ruling:
Ginsburg: Well, you tell me what a sandwich is, and then I’ll tell you if a hot dog is a sandwich.
Colbert: A sandwich is two pieces of bread with almost any type of filling in between, as long as it’s not more bread.
Ginsburg: You say two pieces of bread. Does that include a roll that’s cut open but still not completely?
Colbert: That’s the crux. You’ve gotten [it] immediately. See, this is why you’re on the Supreme Court. That gets immediately to the question: Does the roll need to be separated into two parts? Because a sub sandwich — a sub is not split, and yet it is a sandwich.
Colbert: So then is a hot dog a sandwich?
Ginsburg: On your definition, yes, it is.
Case closed, your honor.
What do experts have to say?
Barry Popik is a renowned etymologist who has written extensively about hot dog history. He has no doubt that the hot dog is a sandwich. In the 1880s, he explains, “the names ‘sausage sandwich’ and ‘frankfurter sandwich’ and ‘hot dog sandwich’ were common. [The word] Sandwich got dropped, but it’s still a sandwich — the same as it has always been.
But Popik’s word is by no means the last. Here are what some famous names think about the sandwich conundrum:
“No. I don’t think it’s a sandwich. I don’t think a hamburger is a sandwich either. The fact that it’s in between bread–the bread is a delivery system, a ballistic delivery system. It is not a classic sandwich, in my view. I mean, if you were to talk into any vendor of fine hot dogs, and ask for a hot dog sandwich, they would probably report you to the FBI. As they should.”
“Is a hot dog a sandwich? Well, with a bun, yes. Without a bun, no. It’s a canapé.”
“I’ve never considered a hot dog a sandwich because a hot dog is a hot dog. I mean technically it comes between 2 pieces of bread or one fold it into two, so I guess you can classify it as a sandwich. Then what would you call it, a hot dog sandwich? That’s like a hat on a hat so let’s just keep it as a hot dog.”
— Keegan-Michael Key (@KeeganMKey) April 19, 2016
“Yes. That way, when asked what you had for lunch, you can say ‘a sandwich.’. Sounds waaaay healthier.”
Hot dog eating champion Joey Chestnut
“You start considering a hot dog a sandwich, and you’re like ‘oh, because there’s carbs around it,’ then you have to start, kinda, is a gyro a sandwich? ‘Cause that’s kinda like … no. You have to keep division … It’s #NationalHotDogDay as President, I want it to be known the Hot Dog stands free and independent from the tyranny of the sandwich.”
“[A hot dog is not a sandwich] Because it’s an insult to the hot dog! It should never be lumped into a different category.”
“Is a hot dog a sandwich?! Of course not! What are you talking about? A hot dog is a hot dog, and god I love hot dogs.
What does it mean to ask “is a hot dog a sandwich?”
The Birdbassador penned an online tome about the philosophy of the sandwich question. “The memetic and fractal nature of this argument has made it a prime source of people yelling at each other on the internet,” which is, of course, true. Finality seems impossible because even attempts to put it into clear graphical terms, as 2017’s viral “Sandwich Alignment Chart” did, do not silence the argument, “it merely shatters it into smaller pieces.”
“What it means for something to have a name is a critical part of philosophical inquiry,” Birdbassador explains. “It is my contention that the definition of a sandwich has the exact same quasi-schizophrenic ‘analytic/empirical/normative’ property that names in general do. The ultimate question is then whether a sandwich ought to refer to a hot dog… [T]o decide questions about names and referents, we must examine not just a priori facts, but the disposition of communities of speakers, as well as a posteriori facts about the world.”
As the sandwich encountered, adapted, and absorbed food cultures from around the globe, it changed with the times and in its cultural associations. The Earl of Sandwich may have doomed us from the start. “The desire to eat a meal in as convenient a manner as possible to support gambling, and then to name the resulting invention after oneself, is gluttony, sloth, greed, and pride (at least) in one carb-covered package.”
“I therefore suggest that there exists, in the same sense that Beauty and Truth and Justice exists, an immutable and imperishable Sandwich… All items that we see as sandwiches are imperfect and flawed echoes of this eternal Sandwich.” In conclusion, while we have thought about the hot dog/sandwich issue as a question of terminology, “I believe, at its core, it is not: it is a question of mercy and our capacity for forgiveness. By accepting the hot dog as a sandwich, we embrace our noblest instinct: the willingness to forgive.”
What’s the verdict?
A flawed echo of the eternal.
If these are the options before us, then what’s the final answer?
While many respected voices say no, the dictionary, the federal government, the Sandwich King, the Notorious R.B.G., and her highness Meryl Streep all say yes. Nobody in this esteemed group is an enemy I wish to make.
A hot dog is a sandwich. Full stop. The end.