Just as summer is really starting to heat up, so is the classic debate: Is a hot dog a sandwich? We revisit one of The Sporkful’s most popular episodes — one that has come to define Dan’s career (and still dominates his Twitter mentions). In front of a live audience in 2015, Dan staked his bold claim that the hot dog is indeed a sandwich, while comedian and ersatz judge John Hodgman argued the opposing position. Nothing was off-limits in this tense face-off: the Earl of Sandwich, hinged buns, New York State tax codes… So who will come out victorious?
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- "Hound Dog" by Jason Mickelson
Photo courtesy of Scott Bleicher.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): This is The Sporkful. It’s not for foodies, it’s for eaters. I’m Dan Pashman and we're coming to you from the Bell House in Brooklyn, New York!
Dan Pashman: Oh, do we have a special treat for you today. We’re sharing one of the most popular Sporkful episodes of all time. This episode went into our premium vault 5 years ago and to this day I still get more questions about this one than any other show we've ever done. I get tagged into Twitter feuds about it constantly, especially around the 4th of July. And it’s something that I do feel very strongly about. And the question at hand for this episode? Is a hot dog a sandwich?
Dan Pashman: Now I understand that today, this debate is commonplace. But years ago, The Sporkful was at the fore front of this great philosophical question. I'll make an analogy: You read Shakespeare as you do, and you may think, “that plot twist seems a little trite. I kind of saw that coming.” But like any work of art, you have to consider Shakespeare in the context of the time period when he was writing, when those plot twists were revolutionary. Yes, in case you're having trouble keeping up, in this analogy The Sporkful is Shakespeare.
Dan Pashman: It was a packed house when I took the stage with John Hodgman in 2015. You may know John as a comedian, the author of many brilliant and hilarious books, and host of the podcast Judge John Hodgman, which is why I refer to him as Judge Hodgman here in this episode. Now, I do love John's work but we have a long-running feud over the status of the hot dog.
CLIP (HOST): We have a caller named John calling in from Brooklyn. Hi John.
CLIP (JOHN HODMAN): Yes, this is John Hodgman calling.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): Excellent!
CLIP (JOHN HODMAN): Hello, Dan Pashman. I could no listen to this hotdog as sandwich heresy any longer.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): On this issue, I believe Judge Hodgman is way off base. A hotdog is sandwich because it passes my two tests.
CLIP (SPEAKER): This is an asked and answered of piece of settled law in the Judge John Hodgman cannon. And anyone like that, Dan Pashman at The Sporkful podcast, who says to me one more time, it's a sandwich because the things are sandwiched between two pieces of bread.
[BREAKING NEWS MUSIC]
CLIP (NEWS ANCHOR): Yesterday at 1A this morning, it's a philosophical questions: Hotdog, sandwich or not a sandwich?
CLIP (NEW ANCHOR PANEL): No. Not a sandwich. It's a hotdog. It's its own thing.
Dan Pashman: Yes, this was a hot topic on the Today Show, back in 2015. At the Bell House in Brooklyn that night in Brooklyn, John and I met face to face for the first time. I came to argue that a hot dog is a sandwich. John came to argue that it’s not.
Dan Pashman: We set it up just like a presidential debate. John and I stood side by side in front of music stands, because real podiums were too expensive. Our moderator for the event was a woman whose journalistic integrity is beyond reproach, the host of WNYC’s On The Media, Brooke Gladstone.
Brooke Gladstone: The format for tonight's debate is as follows. I'll ask a series of questions allowing for rebuttals at my discretion. At the end, a winner will be chosen by audience applause as measured by the applausitron, which I have here next to me. The applausitron is a rather antiquated device. So in the event of an unclear reading, I will be solely responsible for interpreting its output. Judge Hodgman, New York state law considers a hot dog a sandwich for taxation purposes. Why is that law wrong? And how should our tax laws be amended?
John Hodgman: What I would really like to address is simply this. First of all, I wanted to make clear, if you look over at the music stand of Dan Pashman — dude has all kinds of notes and clippings, I was not told that I could bring old timey newspaper clippings.
Brooke Gladstone: You could have if you showed some initiative.
John Hodgman: Dan Pashman has provided me with a music stand with a single blank piece of paper on it. Which if you're listening to the podcast, I'm crumpling up right now because I don't need evidence of the type that Dan Pashman has. I need a music stand that will hold my glass of whiskey and my hot dog.
Brooke Gladstone: You know, I don't know whether you consider me an anchor from MSNBC or CNBC or Fox News, but I will not be gainsaid. My question is, why is the New York state tax laws wrong and how should our laws thus be amended?
John Hodgman: Great question, Rachel Maddow. Let me just say some time ago, this is how I came to this. Some time ago, I received a letter from my Judge John Hodgman column in The New York Times magazine in which a young man whose name I don't remember and don't care about said, "My friend and I are having a fight as to whether a hot dog is a sandwich." And I had never considered this before. But like many of you, it suddenly clutched upon my imagination. And I had to come to the answer on a base level, instinctive, I dare say gut, I knew or felt that there was something strange about the hot dog. But I approached it methodically and so I tested it against what I knew to be sandwiches. Clearly, it was not a roast beef sandwich or even a baloney sandwich to which it shares a lot of DNA. But clearly, it did not share the form and shape of a traditional bread filling bread sandwich that we know is sandwich. So I was tempted to think it was not a sandwich until I thought, Oh, but what about the submarine sandwich, the hoagie, the grinder, the Zepp.
Brooke Gladstone: Which the New York State tax code also regards as sandwiches.
John Hodgman: No one cares what the New York State Tax Code says.
Brooke Gladstone: John, your time is almost up.
John Hodgman: The moment we put government in charge of our sandwiches is the moment that we surrender all of our liberty.
Brooke Gladstone: You have 20 seconds.
John Hodgman: No, I don't.
Brooke Gladstone: Mr. Pashman, stand in front of your mic.
Dan Pashman: Yes.
Brooke Gladstone: Most dictionaries say that for a food to be a sandwich, it must have two pieces of bread. But a hot dog bun is but a single piece. Does this not support Judge “Delay the Answer” Hodgman’s position.
Dan Pashman: Well, I mean, quite frankly, Madam Moderator, I'm having a hard time figuring out what Judge Hodgman’s position even is.
John Hodgman: I'm not sure how that is possible.
Dan Pashman: A hot dog bun counts as a sandwich bread. It is a hinged bun like the same bread on which you would make a meatball sub. OK? Well, you can sever the hinge of a meatball sub or a hot dog bun, and you do not fundamentally alter the structure. At its core, a hot dog is a piece of meat between two pieces of bread.
John Hodgman: No. What? No.
Dan Pashman: Yes.
John Hodgman: No.
Dan Pashman: Yes, it is. In what way is it not?
John Hodgman: I was so with you, my friend. You're right. It is very much like a meatball sub. This was the thing that gave me so much pause.
Dan Pashman: Is the meatball sub, not a sandwich?
John Hodgman: Of course, it's a sandwich. All submarine sandwiches are sandwiches.
Dan Pashman: So what's the difference in a meatball sub, which is a piece of meat on a hinged bun and a hot dog, which is meat on a hinged bun?
John Hodgman: Two responses. First of all, you said at its core, a hot dog is a piece of meat between two pieces of bread, which we all know is not true. The moment that the hinge breaks on a hot dog and it becomes two pieces of bread, you're holding a goddamn mess. Second of all, I want you to understand, I did not I did not begin with a conclusion that I wanted and find a way to prove it, I accepted the proposition that a hot dog could be a sandwich. And then I looked for logical counterexamples to falsify or endorse that claim. Once I got to the meatball sub, I'll tell you, ladies and gentlemen, I paused.
John Hodgman: It's hard not to accept the obvious similarity between a meatball sub or a hoagie or a grinder or a Zepp or a wedge and a hot dog because they are all on hinged pieces of bread. I looked and looked and thought about it for some time to find some disqualifying factor that would show the difference between these two different meals. And to me, and you already know this Dan Pashman, you're setting me up, I realize, but I have to be true to myself. The thing that is true across all sandwiches, though, it is not mandatory, it is certainly common that you will cut it in half. You might share it with a friend or eat the two halves, separately.
Brooke Gladstone: No.
John Hodgman: You will, certainly — you will, certainly.
John Hodgman: Certainly, you would go to a restaurant and you might be offered soup and a half sandwich, but you would never be offered a soup and a half hotdog. And while —
Dan Pashman: Because you want the whole hot dog.
John Hodgman: Yeah, because a hot dog is an indivisible unique thing.
Dan Pashman: Look, just because it is true that you typically cut a hot dog in half doesn't mean that a hot dog is not a sandwich. All it means is that in maybe a sandwich that traditionally is served in a different way. There are many, many kinds of lettuce out there that look and taste different and are shaped in different ways and are served in different ways. You would never say that one of those was not a piece of lettuce, you know, and I went through the — I should say, judge, I went through the same kind of deep searching that you went through. And I actually started with an even broader philosophical quest than you did. I didn't start off saying, is a hot dog a sandwich? Yes or No? I started a bigger picture and I said, what is the definition of a sandwich?
Dan Pashman: And I went back to the Earl of Sandwich, the framer of the sandwich. I looked at the framers original intent. And this is why I have been known as — I've been called the Scalia of sandwiches. And I considered his original intent. What was the Earl trying to do when he created the sandwich? Well, I think he was trying to — I think was doing two things. He was creating a food that he could pick up and eat with his hands without his hands touching the fillings. And second, I said, that there must be some sort of sandwich in action, contravening a contrary pressure from two separate sides.
John Hodgman: John Montagu, the fourth, Earl of sandwich —
Brooke Gladstone: John Legend —
John Hodgman: As legend goes, was a inveterate gambler. He was completely incompetent administrator and leader of the Admiralty in England. And he wanted something that he could eat with his hands so that he wouldn't interrupt his card game and folkorically, it is said that he called for a piece of meat unspecified, which is in some ways support for the hot dog as a sandwich.
Dan Pashman: All right. That's the end of our show. Thank you!
Brooke Gladstone: No, no...
John Hodgman: A piece of meat between two pieces of bread that he could eat with his hands, though. And I think that's a that's a reasonable definition, except for the fact that he was a gambler and a drunk.
Dan Pashman: We’ve got to take a short break, but coming up, I will respond to the National Hot Dog Council’s statement, that a hot dog is not a sandwich. Plus, we’ll take audience questions in the town hall portion of the debate. Then the people will vote and a winner will be chosen. But not before a shocking twist. Stick around.
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. On, on last week's show, we tackle another fiery debate between gas and electric stoves. It turns out that debate is about a lot more than cooking. As people start to learn about the effects of natural gas lines on the environment, the natural gas industry is using stoves as a wedge issue.
CLIP (REBECCA LEBER): The industry is fighting for its life to ensure that homes continue to rely on gas and new homes continue to have those gas lines and it sees that the gas stove as its best option for ensuring that future.
Dan Pashman: We also explore an alternative to both gas and electric stoves: induction. What is induction, how does it work, does it involve lasers as I believe, and can I, a crotchety gas-stove enthusiast, be convinced to use it? Check out last week’s episode to find out.
Dan Pashman: Now let’s return to my hot dog debate with John Hodgman. Now, days before this taping back in 2015, this question that we're debating here was such a hot topic in the national consciousness, that the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council felt they needed to come out and make a statement. And they said: A hot dog is not a sandwich, which a reversal of their previous position. Now of course, John brought up that ruling cause it's in his favor. But I was ready.
Brooke Gladstone: Has he just delivered the coup de gras?
Dan Pashman: Oh no. Let me tell you something about the National Hot Dog Council. All right? The National Hot Dog Council is a lobbying organization, of course, it's in their best interest to say, the hot dogs is not a sandwich. They want it to have its own category. They acknowledge that it used to be a sandwich. Nothing about the food changed. Nothing about the definition of a sandwich changed. If it did, it only got broader. And yet somehow the food transcended the category? No, these are lobbyists. And I find it curious, Judge, that on your podcast, which I do love, where you are so careful to avoid buzz marketing of any kind, especially large corporate entities, that on one hand you would be that way on your podcast. But you'll come on to my podcast and side with Big Hot Dog. J'accuse, Judge. J’accuse.
John Hodgman: No I don't. I don't side with them, I don't take their announcement that hot dogs are not sandwiches as support for my cause at all. If anything, I use their fickleness to demonstrate that we've gone back and forth over the definition of a hot dog as a sandwich. I came to the conclusion that a hot dog was not a sandwich because I use a stricter definition of what sandwiches then you do, because the fact is that under your definition, almost anything would be a sandwich.
Brooke Gladstone: Judge Hodgman?
John Hodgman: And part of the fallacy of your reasoning —
Brooke Gladstone: I’m sitting right here. Judge Hodgman —
Dan Pashman: I don't understand why three people lying on top of each other isn't a sandwich.
John Hodgman: For the listener at home we’re lying on top of each other.
Brooke Gladstone: Judge Hodgman? Two years ago —
John Hodgman: How can I help you, Brooke?
Brooke Gladstone: Thank you. Thank you so much and thank you for buying me that drink earlier. Two years ago, when someone asked you whether hot dogs are sandwiches, on your own website, you responded and I quote, "Yes."
John Hodgman: Sure.
Brooke Gladstone: Are you a flip flopper?
John Hodgman: My opinion has evolved after I considered it more seriously. Now, look, I want to deal with the serious issues.
Dan Pashman: That sounds like a failing campaign right there.
John Hodgman: I'm happy to go down in flames so long as I'm able to say my piece, which is this: Many, many cultures have food that is brought to the face and the eat-hole by hands using some sort of bread based launchpad, wrapping, or what have you. Simply because they share that similarity does not, in my mind, qualify them as a sandwich, which I believe derives from the very specific English Western European tradition of the roast beef sandwich that was defined by the Earl of Monte — excuse me, by the Earl of Sandwich, John Montagu the Fourth, Earl of Sandwich, to say that something is a sandwich because it has ingredients that are sandwiched is a ridiculous rhetorical tautology because sandwiched is a verb derived from the term sandwich. It post dates it. You might as well be using that to prove that an Oreo cookie is a sandwich, like the goddamn Atlantic magazine.
Dan Pashman: Which it is! It is! An Oreo cookie —
Brook Gladstone: That is a controversial statement you've just made.
Dan Pashman: And Oreo cookie is a sandwich.
John Hodgman: No, you know what? I know when to stop talking.
Brooke Gladstone: That was a controversial statement. You have time for your rebuttal and please sing it to the tune of “Just the Way You Look Tonight.”
Dan Pashman: I don't know how those verses go. Oh, jeez. Let me see. [SINGS] To define — to dismiss a tautology, just because it's a tautology is itself a tautology.
Brook Gladstone: All right. Now —
John Hodgman: For someone who is a big fan of dictionary definitions, you didn't look up to tautology, it looks like.
Brooke Gladstone: The historical record makes clear that from the 1880s, well into the early 1900s, the food in question was called a Frankfurter sandwich.
John Hodgman: Name your source.
Brooke Gladstone: A Coney Island sandwich.
Dan Pashman: Oh, I have the source right here.
Brooke Gladstone: Even a hot dog sandwich. What happened to transform a food originally called a sandwich into something else?
John Hodgman: Name your source. Go ahead. Cite your source.
Dan Pashman: I'd like to read here for a moment, partly because I think I get a kick out of it, John. But the Evening Star, Monday, March 6th, 1965 headline “President Watched the Parade Go By.” Sub-headline: “He had a good time.” Get down to about the 10th or 11th paragraph, which I've enlarged, “Eating houses overrun. As a result of the railroad congestion of Saturday evening, there was congestion in another field. Persons who were unable to get away, many of them living but a few score a miles from here were obliged to find places to dine in town. And as a consequence, the city's almost numberless restaurants were filled to overflowing for several hours. The number of people who were forced to put up with hot dog sandwiches and mugs of street-made coffee will never be known, but it certainly went into the thousands."
Brooke Gladstone: I think we've heard enough.
Dan Pashman: If anyone would like, we can take a couple of very quick questions. There's a microphone just here to my right and we'll have time for just a couple of questions.
Brooke Gladstone: Stop. Don't come anymore.
Joe: Hello, my name is Joe and I am from the Northeast, so this is for everybody. Lobster roll, sandwich or not?
John Hodgman: Well —
Joe: Thank you.
Dan Pashman: I'll let the judge go first here, since New England is his turf.
John Hodgman: Yeah. I think a lobster roll is equivalent to a hot dog. It is its own thing. It is not a sandwich. You certainly would not cut it in half, which to me is a criterion that I stand by, even though it caused a lot of boos in the audience. A tuna salad roll is the same thing.
Brooke Gladstone: A lot of people don’t cut their sandwiches in half.
John Hodgman: You know what? I would. A lot of people don't.
Brooke Gladstone: I don't. I never cut my sandwiches.
John Hodgman: Yeah, but you're willfully misreading what I said.
Brooke Gladstone: How so?
John Hodgman: When you think of an archetypal sandwich, you might not cut it in half, but it would not be weird if you did. If you cut your hotdog in half, people would look at you and wonder what is going on.
Dan Pashman: If I took a whole hot dog and put it between two pieces of bread, would that be a sandwich?
John Hodgman: No, you would have to slice it up and then put it between two pieces of bread.
Dan Pashman: What if I put four hot dogs lined up next to each other so they filled the entirety of the two slices of bread?
John Hodgman: Yeah, that would be a sandwich. But you would never call it a hot dog?
Dan Pashman: No, but I might call it a hot dog sandwich.
John Hodgman: Yeah. So —
Brooke Gladstone: Point to Judge —
John Hodgman: I would also call that a hot dog sandwich.
Brooke Gladstone: Point to Judge Hodgman. Can we go on to the next question?
John Hodgman: Next question.
Sabra: Hi, my name is Sabra. I'm also from New England. So to me, a frankfurter is served with beans and not on a bun.
John Hodgman: Oh, Ok.
Sabra: But my question is about the very popular manwich, also Sloppy Joe, which I think —
Brooke Gladstone: First, lobster roll. Now, manwich? Have you people even been listening?
Sabra: Well, it's difficult to cut in half. And one of the things you were talking about was whether or not hot dog you can cut in half. And I'm saying, a manwich, Sloppy Joe, hard to cut in half, but still a sandwich.
John Hodgman: You, obviously, know the answer to this, right? The sandwich is a sandwich, but a manwich is a meal.
Ian: Hi, my name is Ian, I've lived in America most of my life.
Brooke Gladstone: Excuse me, just a moment, can someone go into the dressing room and get me my drink? Go ahead, please.
John Hodgman: Where are you from originally, sir?
Ian: England and Australia.
John Hodgman: England and Australia.
Ian: Yeah. So my question is to you, Judge John Hodgman. Clearly, a hotdog is a special thing to you deep in your heart. Um how do you —
Judge Hodgman: It's not a special thing to me.
Ian: How do you answer allegations? Excuse me. I'm asking a question. Please, let me.
Judge Hodgman: You're right. Quite right.
Ian: How do you answer allegations that calling a hot dog not a sandwich is simply another example of American exceptionalism.
John Hodgman: But it isn't a matter of American exceptionalism and it's not a special thing to me. It's hot dog exceptionalism, do you see? Because once a hot dog is a sandwich, all is sandwich.
Brooke Gladstone: A perfect and classic use of the slippery slope argument.
Dan Pashman: But it's not because a hot dog is a sandwich. An Oreo cookie is a sandwich. A burrito is not a sandwich. How is an Oreo cookie not a sandwich?
John Hodgman: By your own logic, sir. If you brought an Oreo cookie to the fourth earl of Sandwich as he gambled and you said, here you are, sir, you called for a sandwich. Hmmm? What do you think that incompetent British administrator would say? Well done. Thank you for this.
Brooke Gladstone: Yes, he would say delicious. May I have another.
Dan Pashman: I think if he was drunk enough, he'd be very pleased with it.
John Hodgman: Well, he certainly would be drunk enough.
Brooke Gladstone: Closing statements, if you please.
John Hodgman: This is the dumbest question of all time. It is utterly irrelevant and completely distracting from more important issues. It's a wonderful thing to get people fighting over. And there's a reason we fight over it because the hot dog has the strange, mysterious otherness to it. And to define it as a sandwich is to rob it of its strange, gross uniqueness. And I want to preserve that because I think that both both in terms of how it was developed and how it is currently enjoyed, it is distinct in a subtle way, but still surely from a sandwich. And you fight because you want to win, and I don't think that is valuable at all.
Dan Pashman: I fight because it's the only job I have.
John Hodgman: Dan, let me say this. This may be heresy to those of you who wanted to see us tear each other apart. The fact is this is the definition of a subject upon which reasonable people can disagree. And I did not know and perhaps I should have until tonight that you had a radio show on WMFO, 91.5 in Medford, Massachusetts, in Curtiss Hall, where I, too, had a radio show in 1989 until 1990 on Friday afternoons from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m.
Brook Gladstone: That's astonishing.
John Hodgman: We’re both WMFO jocks, and the fact is that this thing has been transformed by my pocket into a hot dog sandwich, and I happened to have a sharp knife in my pocket and I will cut it in half and share it with you as a unity ticket.
Brooke Gladstone: Ladies and gentlemen, they are now eating the divided hot dog. There is a moment of calamity that has brought a tear to this hardened journalist’s eye. Oh sorry!
Dan Pashman: We should mention that the applausItron is on Brooke's desk,
Brooke Gladstone: That’s right.
Dan Pashman: And that will measure your applause. So, Brooke, if you'll please take it away.
Brooke Gladstone: Yes. All right. Who believes with Judge John Hodgman that the hot dog is, in fact, not a sandwich?
Brooke Gladstone: Oh, do finish up. You’re boring me. Who believes with your host Dan Pashman, who's brought us all together so generously, that the hot dog is in fact a sandwich?
Brooke Gladstone: The dials don't lie. Judge John Hodgman has prevailed.
Dan Pashman: Well there you have it friends, a classic in the books. A couple quick post scripts. I did confirm it the morning after that live taping, look on the box of Oreos and you’ll see the description: “chocolate sandwich cookies.” That’s what it says right on the box.
Dan Pashman: And I also now have some new data to back up my position. A 2021 survey by RTA Outdoor Living of more than a thousand Americans showed that 57 percent of people say a hot dog is a sandwich. I've been playing a long game here. It took a while for people to wrap their brains around my argument but the wrapping is happening and I am winning.
Dan Pashman: My thanks to John Hodgman, whose work I really do admire. His podcast is called Judge John Hodgman, in it he takes on seemingly inane disputes and finds not only humor but also humanity in each of them. It’s so so good. That’s Judge John Hodgman. Thanks also to my friend Brooke Gladstone, host of WNYC’s On The Media, which is one of the smartest and most thought-provoking shows on the radio, it’s also available as a podcast.