While New York State Law, the USDA, and Merriam-Webster all decree that a hot dog is a sandwich, there’s no philosophical argument more enduring than whether or not that’s true. As a native New Yorker and admittedly circuitous thinker, I tend to consider hot dogs in a class separate from a sandwich. And if a sandwich is between two pieces of bread and a hot dog bun is one piece, wouldn’t I be technically correct—the best kind of correct?
My reasoning has led to many a workplace squabble and even one heated family exchange wherein my pops (a native New Yorker) agreed with me, but my mom (a Filipino immigrant living in Los Angeles) tried to shut us down with article screenshots. My mom and I argued about it for days.
I’d become a woman obsessed; a total hot dog truther. To reach a personally satisfying conclusion to the great debate, I needed to contact experts in an attempt to understand the history and evolution of “hot dog.”
That's why I contacted etymologist and noted “hot dog” expert Barry Popik in an attempt to better understand the ins-and-outs of the argument. But what I got was so much more. Unlike other alleged experts on the subject, Popik actually investigates the origins of American words, names, quotations, and phrases, and launched an online etymological dictionary in 2004 to explain phrases like “Big Apple” and—you guessed it—"hot dog." He has now authored more than 14,000 entries. "He's a complete maniac about [the hot dog sandwich debate]," said his colleague and noted hot-dog historian, Bruce Kraig. "He got into a big argument with the National Beef Council."
Here, Popik—a contributor to at least four dictionaries including the Oxford English Dictionary—debunks “hot dog” origin myths, explains his heated, yearslong back-and-forth with the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council, and even converted me to a “hot dog is a sandwich” believer. (Sorry, pops.)
The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What do you know about the origins of the “is a hot dog a sandwich” debate? Why is it such a divisive topic?
“Is a hot dog a sandwich?” became a popular debate question on the 2000s, but it was not always even a question. I think the question is so popular because everyone knows hot dogs, and because it's so trivial. You can have an opinion, and people can disagree without throwing punches. (Unlike politics.) I'm also an authority on "sub" sandwiches (there are many names) and "deli" sandwiches, and it's true that these establishments often don't serve hot dogs and hamburgers. The sandwich family split apart, but that doesn't change the technical definition of a sandwich.
What is the definition of a sandwich?
A filling (usually meat) enclosed in bread (usually two slices).
Do you consider a hot dog a sandwich, and if so, what arguments would you present to naysayers?
There is no doubt in my mind that a hot dog is a sandwich. It is meat between bread. It is similar to the "sausage sandwich" that is served at street fairs. In the 1880s and 1890s and 1990s, the names "sausage sandwich" and "frankfurter sandwich" and "hot dog sandwich" were common. "Sandwich" got dropped, but it's still a sandwich—the same as it always has been. The question itself wasn't even asked until very recently. If you want to argue that a hot dog is not a sandwich, you'd also have to say that a "sausage sandwich" is not a sandwich, and that's completely ridiculous!
The words you've focused on in your research seem very New York-centric. Did being from New York motivate your particular fascinations with these words?
I was living in Manhattan when I met Gerald Cohen in the New York Public Library in 1991. He was working on the origin of "the Big Apple" and had published a monograph. He was also working on the origin of the "hot dog"—a name that supposedly was coined by New York Evening Journal cartoonist T. A. Dorgan ("TAD") at a New York Giants game at the Polo Grounds in 1906 after TAD couldn't spell "dachshund." We quickly proved that this was a myth. Cohen's COMMENTS ON ETYMOLOGY in the 1990s published our work and new discoveries on "Big Apple" and "hot dog," and these were both published as monographs.
My website began in 2004 to explain "Big Apple." (An internet hoax at the time said that it came from a 19th century French whore!) I added many NYC terms that I also worked on, such as the origin of the name of the New York 'Yankees," the Great White Way, New York's Finest (police), the Manhattan cocktail, the hamburger (Hamburg steak), the 1883 "dude" poem, the rediscovery of NYC model Audrey Munson, and much more.
What was your reaction to the national hot dog council concluding that hot dogs are not sandwiches?
I'm furious at what the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council did. I think it made a big mistake, and there was no reason to make it. The people who made it probably should be fired.
In the early 1990s, I sent the Cohen-Popik "hot dog" research to the HDSC, free of charge. No one replied. Each year over Memorial Day and July 4th, it would issue press releases to newspapers stating that TAD coined the term "hot dog" at a NY Giants game at the Polo Grounds in 1901 or 1906. I also wrote to all of the newspapers. No one would issue a correction for something that was so obviously wrong.
In 2001, finally, the HDSC admitted that the TAD story was a myth. It directed all media queries about the origin of "hot dog" to me.
In early 2015, the HDSC said that the hot dog IS a sandwich. On National Sandwich Day (a Tuesday), the American Meat Institute (its parent organization) tweeted to enjoy hot dogs that day because hot dogs are also sandwiches. (I pointed out this tweet to the HDSC, and they removed it!) The controversy erupted later that day. I researched the 1880s and 1890s "sausage sandwich" and "frankfurter sandwich" cites and sent them to the HDSC, free of charge. I said that the conclusion was obvious.
On Friday afternoon, the HDSC issued its press release—the hot dog was NOT a sandwich! Completely contradicting what it tweeted three days before! It acknowledged my work (without mentioning my name) that the hot dog was called a sandwich in the 19th century, but, the HDSC, times had changed. That's like saying the Dalai Lama is a man, the HDSC curiously added. (Uh. he IS a man!) The HDSC added unfunny "jokes." I was not amused. I told them so.
I asked the HDSC straight up, you are also the sausage council, so is a "sausage sandwich" a sandwich? If it's not, then what is it and why is it called a "sandwich"? And why does Wikipedia list the hot dog within the family of sausage sandwiches? The HDSC replied, but didn't answer my questions.
In 2016, Merriam-Webster's dictionary said that the hot dog is a sandwich. I hope it's settled, no thanks at all to the HDSC. Many media outlets respected the press release of the HDSC, but people don't realize what the "council" is—really, one non-scholar behind a desk!
What about hot dogs themselves, or the etymology of hot dogs, that motivates you to continue your research?
We did a very good job debunking the TAD myth. His cartoons were from 1906, but it was the six-day bicycle race at Madison Square Garden—not a NY Giants game at the Polo Grounds. The event was catered by Harry Stevens, who became the stadium concessions king. It was Harry Stevens, when frequently asked, who credited "TAD" with "hot dog." Stevens either hadn't been familiar with or had forgotten the popular usage in the 19th century.
The most exciting thing was that newspapers were digitized from the early 2000s and continue to provide us with more detailed information. We recently found "hot dog" cited from Tennessee in the 1880s and New Jersey in the 1890s that no one knew about. Coney Island, sometimes thought to be the birthplace of the hot dog, was actually one of the last places to use the name "hot dog."
How do you like your hot dogs?
I became a vegetarian in 1988, then ate meat again in 2006 after we moved to Texas. I'm not a fan of mustard. Generally, ketchup, relish and anything else.