Is a Hot Dog a Sandwich?

A hot dog both is and isn’t a sandwich. This isn’t some Schrodinger’s cat situation. The ambiguity doesn’t arise from some advance principle of theoretical physics. It’s just a simple quirk in the language.

The term hot dog means two things. A hot dog is a specific type of sausage and it’s also that same sausage on a bun. And since a bun is a type of bread and anything served on any kind of bread is a sandwich, a hot dog is a sandwich.

The dual meaning of hot dog is confusing in theory but not in practice. When you go to a grocery store and you buy a pack of hotdogs, you expect a collection of eight slender, pink sausages. Once you have them in your cart, you tick them off your grocery list.

When you buy a pack of hot dogs, you have hot dogs. An essential component of a hot dog isn’t missing. You don’t feel cheated. All you feel is mild satisfaction at owning some hot dogs and, perhaps, some low key but nonetheless pleasant anticipation of eating them.

You probably also have hot dog buns on your list. You may also find yourself wondering why there are 10 hot dog buns to a pack while hot dogs packs hold eight hot dogs. If so, this and similar insights and observations make you a perfect fit for a career as a syndicated newspaper humor columnist circa 1973.

Done with the grocery store and with the hot dogs stashed in the fridge, you head out for an afternoon baseball game. The fourth inning rolls around and you feel peckish. A vendor’s voice cuts through the stadium air. “Hot dogs here! Hot dogs!” Hearing that, you don’t wonder if the hot dog will be a sandwich. You’re confident the hot dog will be on a bun because a hot dog is, in this context, a sandwich.

Is the double meaning of hot dog unique in the world of sandwiches? Honestly, I’m not sure. I’m not a credentialed sandwich scholar. I don’t hold an advanced degree from Sandwich University. Nonetheless, I can assert with confidence that most sandwiches are what they are. No one would confuse a turkey, a steak and a ham with a turkey, steak or ham sandwich. Grilled cheeses, BLTs and reubens harbor no ambiguity about their nature. Maybe there’d be some mild confusion over ordering chicken parmesan. But that confusion would dissipate easily in when faced with the question “plate or sandwich”?

Speaking of sandwich experts: this question has been posed before. On his podcast and in media appearances, comedian John Hodgman argued that hot dogs aren’t sandwiches. His argument hinges on an odd technicality: since hot dogs cannot be cut in half, they therefore aren’t sandwiches. I don’t make accusations of trolling lightly but boy oh boy, this sure seems like a desperate grab for negative attention. First, a sandwich doesn’t need to be cut in half to be a sandwich. Secondly, it’s pretty common to cut hot dogs. Children eat portioned out hot dogs all the time. It’s so common in competitive hot dog eating that there’s a special term for it: the Solomon method, named for the Biblical King Solomon who proposed splitting a baby in half in a story about as appetizing as watching a competitive hot dog eating match.

As a riposte to Hodgman, food writer and podcaster Dan Pashman argued that hot dogs are sandwiches. Calling himself the Scalia of sandwiches (ugh, both for overly cute alliteration and referencing that vile, oafish judge), Pashman took a strict constitutionalist view of sandwiches. By their original definition, Pashman writes, a sandwich must contain a filling held together, or “sandwiched” by another type of food. While I respect the food lawyer language, this argument doesn’t hold water (or sandwich filling, for that matter). There’s no sandwich constitution. He’s citing a precedent that doesn’t exist. And common usage of a common term runs counter to his argument. Scoot your eyeballs up a couple paragraphs to that grocery store hypothetical. A hot dog is a type of sausage as well as a sandwich. Case closed.

While researching this article, which I hoped to write in 11 minutes but ended up taking a full hour, I encountered a nearly convincing counterfactual to my true and correct assertion that hot dogs both are and are not sandwiches in a Food and Wine Magazine article. Evidently American restaurants commonly advertised “hot dog sandwiches” on their menu in the early part of the 20th century, which indicates there was a recognition of the ambiguity over the meaning of hot dog once in the past. But we don’t live in the past. And so I say that today, tomorrow and forever, hot dogs are both sandwiches and not sandwiches.