Every once in awhile, with a regularity that is both astounding and reassuring, Americans will gather together to raise their voices, lock their eyes, and engage in a passionate, high-stakes debate about one of the grand questions of our time. Is a hot dog a sandwich?
You really can argue it both ways, which is of course what gives the debate so much, er, meat. On the one hand, hot dogs, structurally, hew to that most sandwichy of arrangements: They are processed protein, surrounded by processed carbohydrate. On the other hand, though, hot dogs are cylindrical, rather than sandwichily prismatic, in shape. And vertical, rather than horizontal, in orientation. Oh, and there’s the broad fact that we don’t call them sandwiches, which might suggest that the matter, ongoing debates notwithstanding, has already been settled.
Except, of course: It hasn’t been. Maybe it will never be. The latest reminder of all this frankfurterian fighting came this week, and from that most American of institutions: the NFL. A sports journalist, chatting with the Buffalo Bills’ quarterback Tyrod Taylor, asked Taylor the nitrate-loaded question: “Is a hot dog a sandwich…?”
And then, as it always will, taxonomic chaos ensued.
It was anarchy, basically. And it made newly clear what has been obvious for a long time now: In the name of unity and harmony and the American experiment, we really should end this beef. Or this pork, or this mechanically separated turkey, or whatever else. (Sorry, that joke was the wurst.)
Anyhow, though: Last year, in an entirely unsuccessful attempt to bring closure to the Great Hot Dog Debates, we at The Atlantic developed a grand unified theory of the sandwich: a simple test to determine whether a given composite food product does indeed operate in the tradition of the peckish earl. The Sandwich Index we created consisted of four points:
- To qualify as “a sandwich,” a given food product must, structurally, consist of two (2) exterior pieces that are either separate or mostly separate;
- Those pieces must be primarily carbohydrate-based—so, made of bread or bread-like products;
- The whole assemblage must have a primarily horizontal orientation (so, sitting flush with a plate rather than perpendicular to it); and
- The whole assemblage must be fundamentally portable.
So. Under this definition, a burger is a sandwich. So is an ice cream sandwich. So is an Oreo. So is a grilled cheese.
Things that are not sandwiches, however, include the wrap (fails #1), the burrito (same), the taco (fails #3), the KFC Double Down (fails #2), the drastically misnamed open-faced “sandwich” (fails #1 and #4) … and, yes, the hot dog. Which—though it, like the taco, exists in a fuzzier taxonomic realm than its fellow foodstuffs—is primarily vertical in its orientation, thus failing test #3.
It’s also worth noting that defining the hot dog away from the broader category of “the sandwich”—essentially, giving it its own gastronomic classification—is also to honor the great American sausage product with the specialized treatment it so richly deserves. But it’s mostly worth noting that the hot dog is, categorically and existentially, simply not a sandwich. That’s according not just to the science of the Sandwich Index, but also to one of the people who is vying to lead the nation during these taxonomically troubled times. At a campaign event last month, Carly Fiorina weighed in on the great wiener debate. “A hot dog is a unique thing,” she declared.
She added, so there would be no confusion about her strong stance on the issue: “A hot dog is not a sandwich.”