A Hot Dog Is Most Definitely a Sandwich, America

Jeb Lund, the friend of Gawker also known as Mobute, has posted an Independence Day-related meditation on the sandwichness of hot dogs at that most American of publications, The Guardian. Lund arrives at the right conclusion for the wrong reasons. Here is why hot dogs are sandwiches.

"It's a question widely posed – and how we approach it speaks to who we are, as individuals and as a nation," Lund asserts, and in this he is correct. "Neither the hot dog nor the sandwich were invented by America, yet we feel a passionate possessiveness over both."

Hot dogs and sandwiches are consummately American, and for a vital unspoken reason. A brief Foucault-style review of their purported origins, and their adoption by the U.S. of A., illuminates why they are essentially the same thing: Hot dogs and sandwiches are tools of social control.

I. The Sandwich

Legend has it—and it surely is a legend—that the modern sandwich was devised by John Montague, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, around 1765. Montague's biographer cites an old tale that assumed the Earl needed a convenient comestible to accommodate his compulsive gambling habit:

"A minister of state passed four and twenty hours at a public gaming-table, so absorpt in play that, during the whole time, he had no subsistence but a bit of beef, between two slices of toasted bread, which he eat without ever quitting the game. This new dish grew highly in vogue, during my residence in London: it was called by the name of the minister who invented it."

The biographer points out the dubiousness of this origin story, and says it was likelier that the Earl, a commercial and diplomatic force, simply invented the sandwich "for the purpose of eating at his desk" while working.

But whichever story is true, the narrative essentially remains the same: The sandwich liberated the Earl—to a point. It enabled him to enjoy his leisures or labors in accordance with his station. It kept him busy. It reified his status as a wealthy elite.

Small wonder then that, as Lund points out, "the mass adoption of the sandwich" came "during the industrial revolution"—when burgeoning managerial and unskilled working classes, now engaged in phrenetic labor and anxious to maximize their sparse leisure time, sought refuge in a cheap, transportable complete meal. Already, the sandwich accommodated the unfettered expansion of capital, regardless of how much of that capital flowed to the sandwich-eaters.

In making the sandwich its own, America introduced a twist: the illusion of limitless choices. Are you a meatball person, or an Italian lover? Avocado and sprouts, or one wit wiz? Regionalizable, individualizable, endlessly customizable... but at the end of the day, just some bread with some stuff in it, the perfect sustenance for the worker on the go, or the worker with some free time. If anything, we've perfected its utility for social control by mythologizing it as an ideal anytime meal, an object of sentiment.

II. The Hot Dog

Now consider the hot dog. Its genesis is essentially a sausage, a skin of ground-up pork remainders known to the Germanic people—Frankfurters and Viennese (Wiener) especially—as far back as the 13th century. Bits of meat, bone, and fat that could not be sold otherwise were sent back through a machine to yield a marketable product. Even in its infancy, the hot dog's precursor was a perfect symbol of maximum commercial efficiency.

At some point, German immigrants brought the sausages to America and found a new way to subsist on their distribution: Making the wieners portable, first with rolls, and later with buns. Despite their heat, they could be held as they were eaten.

They could be gotten on urban street corners by businessmen in transit, or by young men seat-hopping at baseball games—baseball, of course, being yet another vehicle for the myth of America, in which avaricious owners and ill-heeled players cloaked their sins behind a veil of competitive gamesmanship and fair play, a purity that appeared natural but was as contrived and arbitrary as the white lines laid down on the field before each game.

A hot dog is like any other sandwich, only more so: more Taylorized, more toxic to the eater, and in America, more intrinsic to our cultural being. America is a magnificently adorned lady who whispers, in her sleepy sunset reveries: "Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet":

III. Summation

So we have it. The want of a hot dog, like any other sandwich, is what Marcuse would call a "false" need, conditioned in us by economic and cultural forces that serve the politically dominant class structure:

"False" are those [needs] which are superimposed upon the individual by particular social interests in his repression: the needs which perpetuate toil, aggressiveness, misery, and injustice. Their satisfaction might be most gratifying to the individual, but this happiness is not a condition which has to be maintained and protected if it serves to arrest the development of the ability (his own and others) to recognize the disease of the whole and grasp the chances of curing the disease. The result then is euphoria in unhappiness. Most of the prevailing needs to relax, to have fun, to behave and consume in accordance with the advertisements, to love and hate what others love and hate, belong to this category of false needs.

One could object that on this ontological level, any "false" convenience that makes us complacent to our repression is a sandwich. A 56-inch plasma TV is a sandwich. A Cadillac is a sandwich. A 3/2 with a golf-course view and a bonus room for the man cave is a sandwich.

Why not? This is precisely how America—the idea and the practice of it, bound up with a tantalizing, shifting freedom—explodes our taxonomies. Lund understands this perfectly:

...suddenly we must introduce new food to that classification – arepas, banh mi, a disruptive new egg roll out of Shanghai the size of a football or an infant. The sandwich evolves and broadens as we do, without abandoning the intent that informs it and animates it. A hot dog is a sandwich. A taco is a sandwich. God bless them, God bless America, God bless sandwiches.

These are, after all, only constructed categories. The devil is in whom those constructions serve. Sandwiches serve capital and its masters. In an America that celebrates this system of social control, everything is a sandwich that keeps America American.

So eat that hot dog, drink, and be merry, and fast; for at the end of the lunch hour, or the Fourth of July weekend, or the godsent summer-vacation deliverance from commerce's relentless grind, you will once more be sent into the machine.

[Photo credit: Maria Dryfhout/Shutterstock]