Just about every argument imaginable has been made on the categorization of the hot dog. The history of the hot dog reveals a different answer, though.

By Claire Ballor
August 14, 2020
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The debate on the classification of the American hot dog seems to be an endless one. Is it a sausage roll? Is it a sandwich? Does it belong on sandwich menus? What is a hot dog?

Since the question first gained traction on the internet almost a decade ago, just about every argument imaginable has been made on the categorization of the quintessential summer food. Some have dubbed it a taco. Others insist it's a roll. But the conversation on whether or not it's a sandwich appears to be no closer to resolution than when it started.

It's safe to say that a hot dog is not a taco as the definition of a taco refers specifically to the Mexican dish consisting of filled corn or flour tortillas, but things get a little murky when it comes to sandwiches.

According to Merriam-Webster, a sandwich is "two or more slices of bread or a split roll having a filling in between." By that definition, hot dogs seem to qualify as sandwiches. Many people argue, though, that while the hot dog technically fits the dictionary definition of a sandwich, it's simply not a sandwich. It is its own thing.

Eric Mittenthal, president of the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, said he's been asked this question just about daily for the past five to six years and his answer is the same.

"A hot dog is not a sandwich," he said. "If you go to a hot dog vendor and you say give me a sandwich, they're going to look at you like you're crazy. It's just culturally not the same as a sandwich."

Mittenthal has heard every counter argument possible, too. He regularly fields phone calls from fraternity houses trying to settle late-night feuds over the matter, high school debate teams practicing for tournaments, and students using the controversy as master's thesis material.

The hot dog, he explains time and again, is in a classification of its own.

"In essence it boils down to a hot dog is its own unique item that exceeds the sandwich category. It breaks itself free of the sandwich category. People love to argue with us, but no, a hot dog is not a sandwich," Mittenthal said.

Hot dogs with mustard on gray background viewed from above
Credit: istetiana/Getty Images

The history of the hot dog reveals a different answer, though.

Charles Feltman, a German immigrant who came to America as a teenager in 1856, is said to have invented the hot dog when he took German frankfurters, put them in elongated buns and sold them from a push cart on Coney Island to make money.

Feltman went on to establish a successful restaurant empire around the creation, but years after he died, his sons sold the company to a hotel owner and it went out of business in the 1950s.

Feltman's hot dog was resurrected five years ago when brothers Joe and Michael Quinn started Feltman's of Coney Island. Armed with the original Feltman's recipe and spice blend, which was handed down to them by their grandfather who received it decades ago from a friend and former Feltman's employee, they set out to bring the original hot dog back to New York.

Michael Quinn, a Coney Island historian, said he believes Charles Feltman intended to create a sandwich when he first put a frankfurter in a bun. In one archived photo of the original Feltman's restaurant Quinn found during his research, the menu item was advertised on the window as a "frankfurter sandwich."

"I think it is in the sandwich family. It's meat between bread," Quinn said. "But for me a hot dog is a hot dog."

Over time the hot dog has transcended the sandwich category, Quinn believes. Sure, it is technically a sandwich in form and construction, but it deserves to be recognized in a sandwich category of its own.

Sandwich or not, Mittenthal and Quinn both agree on one thing — ketchup has no place on a hot dog.

"I won't even have it in the store. I'll kick people out if they ask for ketchup," Quinn said, somewhat jokingly.

He says the best way to eat a hot dog is on a potato bun with mustard, sauerkraut, and onions, but the beauty of the hot dog is that you can eat it however you want, even if that means ruining it with ketchup.

The great sandwich debate likely won't be settled any time soon, or maybe even ever, but the hot dog's place in history is undisputed. What started as humble street food designed for busy New Yorkers became a national icon in a league of its own. And to Quinn, it is every bit deserving of such stature.

"The hot dog is a very American story," he said. "[Feltman] was an immigrant who went from selling apple pies on the beach to inventing and making a million dollars off of the hot dog. What's more American than that?"

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