Why can’t we settle the “is a hot dog a sandwich?” debate?
dscout asked nearly 600 people the oft-debated question… and then asked them to record their answers in the moments they were chowing down. Here’s what our in-context research told us about the underlying, surprising reasons we just can’t shake the great “Is a hot dog a sandwich?” debate.
Words by Ben Wiedmaier & Matt Lardner, Visuals by Delaney Gibbons
As all citizens of the Internet know, “Is a hot dog a sandwich?” is one of the great conundrums of our time. It’s a question that’s inspired heated debate on message boards and at picnic tables across the country. Everyone from Oscar winners to Supreme Court justices to the “Queen of Wien” has weighed in. Even the language experts have issued a verdict: Merriam-Webster came down definitively on the side of yes, a hot dog IS a sandwich, because “the definition of sandwich is ‘two or more slices of bread or a split roll having a filling in between.’” Thus, they declared on their website, “there is no sensible way around it...a hot dog is also a kind of sandwich.”
Despite this seemingly irrefutable logic, the debate rages on—according to Google Trends, search queries surrounding this critical issue reached a new peak earlier this year.
It begs the question: what’s behind our unyielding appetite for debating this issue? Why are the seemingly ironclad verdicts of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the dictionary not enough for us? Why are we still unsure whether a hot dog is a sandwich? Are we simply biting off more than we can chew?
Here at dscout, we felt some in-context research could help shed light on this national obsession. So we put out a call to our community of research participants, and asked: Is a hot dog a sandwich? Nearly 600 people responded in less than 48 hours.
Overall, 61% of those who chose a side said a hot dog is not a sandwich, while 39% said it was a sandwich.
Here’s how some of them explained their positions:
(By the way, if you want to help us investigate future burning questions—and earn money in the process—download the dscout app on the App Store or Google Play to participate.)
But as we know in the research business, the real answers are almost always lurking underneath the numbers. So we drilled down further into the data, and found:
Age is a factor. 67% of retirees said a hot dog definitely was a sandwich. 63% of students, however, said it was not.
This led us to wonder—what was behind this generational divide? Was there something about the perception of the hot dog that had changed markedly over the last several decades? Did our increased focus on “low-fat” foods trump nostalgia for the Wienermobile?
Location matters. In notable hot-dog hotbed Illinois, home to dscout and also the state with the most search queries into the hot dog v sandwich debate, 72% of residents believe that a hot-dog was not a sandwich. 28% believed it was. In California, for comparison, people were less emphatic—only 55% of residents of the Golden State said a hot dog was not a sandwich. 45% believed it was.
Did warmer weather influence people’s feelings? Was the fact that Chicago’s O’Hare airport serves six times more hot dogs than LAX and LaGuardia combined a factor? And how do California residents feel about the “Is avocado toast a sandwich?” debate?
Structure shapes the debate. Far and away the biggest reason people gave for why a hot dog was not a sandwich? Structure. 65% of respondents cited a bread + meat form factor. Many compared hot dogs to tacos, and cited the differences between franks and hamburgers. Others focused on the connected bun of a hot dog as opposed to separated bread. Interestingly, this rationale was heavily cited by people on both sides of the issue, with the “is sandwich” respondents using this rationale 70% of the time, vs 62% for the “not sandwich” crowd.
People feel passionately. What we could say for certain was that people felt deeply about the issue. Of the people who were willing to name names and call a dog a Frank or a Sandy, they were definitive about their answers: 84% of respondents felt “very certain” about their choice, with half of them (40%) feeling “absolutely positive.”
But why did people feel so strongly? As qualitative researchers, we like to go behind the numbers—we find that asking people questions in the moment (i.e., while they still have mustard on their chin) produces insights you simply don’t get from a survey, or by polling people after the fact. To better understand the context behind people’s opinions, we asked 5% of respondents to share their thoughts on the subject in a short video interview—that they recorded while chowing down on hot dogs or sandwiches.
“Hot dog moments”: In-context research yields 4 key insights
Here, the top 4 takeaways from those in-context findings, and some insight into why the debate rages on:
1. Hot dogs = condiment delivery devices.
People felt strongly that certain condiments only went with one or the other—and the “open-air” structure of the hot dog let them pile on certain extras that they wouldn’t put on a sandwich. Participants' cravings for chili, sauerkraut, or even (gasp!) ketchup led them to a hot dog; adding cheese or veggies better suited a sandwich, as did using lower-carb breads and buns.
Linda B. told us that if her hot dog had to be a sandwich, she would have left off the chili and cheese toppings and used mayonnaise instead. Bryan E. is a devoted chili dog loyalist, and unlike the sandwich he showed us, he wouldn’t eat his hot dog toasted. And for kosher dog traditionalist Kirk M., the condiments are the most fun part of the meal. If he had to substitute his grilled cheese for a hot dog, he told us, “I’d probably have focused more on extras. With hot dogs, I do get a kick out of dressing them up.” Party on, Kirk!
2. We tend to eat hot dogs in social situations.
With 61% of hot dogs in our study eaten in the company of others (compared to 38% of sandwiches), hot dogs signal social time. People reported eating hot dogs with friends and family, often outdoors and at events, whereas people were more likely to eat sandwiches alone. In contrast, many people felt eating a hot dog alone was doggone depressing, and that they'd rather do so with others around.
Amanda B. told us that if she swapped the hot dog for a sandwich, she “would have definitely been at a different location, and probably alone." Megan J. showed us how she ate her turkey sandwich alone in her car—something she said she’d never do with a frank. “I definitely would not sit in my car and eat a hot dog,” Megan told us. “It would be a social thing where I’d be with one of my friends. I would savor every bite because I only have hot dogs on special occasions.”
3. Sandwiches are “healthy,” right?!
Turns out the kinds of condiments we’re piling on hot dogs and sandwiches also have a lot to do with #healthgoals. Many people felt sandwiches were a full meal, whereas hot dogs were more akin to a snack, or part of a meal. (And if they did eat a frank as a meal, they might eat two.)
Sandwiches were often described as a food that people used to achieve health goals, layering them with lean proteins, veggies, and carb-conscious breads. This, despite the fact that a hot dog and a ham sandwich on white bread or a white bun have roughly the same number of calories, pre-fixings.
4. Hot dog moments are special moments.
One of the top words used to describe sandwiches was “regular”—in part because participants have sandwich ingredients on-hand more often than hot-dog ingredients. Sandwiches can also appear without much forethought or clean-up, because unlike hot dogs, they don’t need to be cooked. As James D. told us while he was toasting bread for a store-bought egg salad sandwich at 2 a.m., he wouldn’t be able to grill a hot dog at that late hour without upsetting the neighbors.
In contrast to the simple sandwich, the “job” of a hot dog goes beyond satisfying hunger. Hot dogs are an indication of some kind of celebration, whether they’re eaten at a holiday BBQ or a major league ballpark. Sandra S. said she’d never seen a sandwich on a menu at a professional baseball stadium, and that with good old-fashioned ballpark franks readily available, she had no desire to order one.
But those celebratory moments can happen anywhere. From inside her vehicle, one participant told us she bought a hot dog at a national drive-in as a special treat on a day off from watching her children, saying “I’m going to eat my hot dog in peace, and it’s going to be wonderful.” If she were having a sandwich moment, "it probably wouldn’t be warm and I’d probably be eating it standing up in my kitchen, because that’s where we eat the majority of our sandwiches...my kids would also be there.”
Finally, Randy B. told us he looks forward to eating his 100-percent-beef franks at home as an enjoyable accompaniment to one of his favorite TV shows, saying hot dogs are “special things I think America has created.”
So, what did our in-context research reveal about why the great “Is a hot dog a sandwich?” debate continues? Despite Merriam-Webster’s clear-cut definition, people are reluctant to call a hot dog a sandwich in large part because the two foods have very different meanings in the moment. We see sandwiches as a workhorse food, something easy to make, eaten any place at any time, and generally healthier for us. In contrast, we regard the hot dog as a food that takes longer to prepare, and is generally a less healthy (and less filling) meal. For many, hot dogs are primarily also a “condiment delivery device,” and that perception correlates strongly to the types (and nutritious value) of the toppings we like to pile on them.
Hot dogs are largely regarded as a celebratory and social food—and we’re uncomfortable eating them out of that context. In fact, many people think it’s downright depressing to eat a hot dog alone, or for no reason other than that it’s a Tuesday. Is it our perception about the hot dog’s health benefits (or lack thereof) that makes us wary of eating them alone? Do we feel more comfortable eating a food we think isn’t good for us because it’s a special occasion—and other people are doing it too? Perhaps it’s the concern that, if we can’t find a celebratory reason to eat a hot dog when we want one, we may not have enough to celebrate in our lives. Maybe it’s all of the above—what’s clear is that we want it to be special, and consider hot dogs as separate from the everyday sandwich experience. As one participant put it, a hot dog “is so tremendously great that it deserves to be in a category all on its own.”
If you’re the curious sort of person ready to weigh in on juicy topics (and earn some cash in the process), we’d relish the opportunity to hear your opinion in an upcoming dscout study. Just download the dscout app in the App Store or Google Play, or visit dscout.com/be-a-scout to learn more.
Ben is the product evangelist at dscout, where he spreads the “good news” of contextual research, helps customers understand how to get the most from dscout, and impersonates everyone in the office. He has a doctorate in communication studies from Arizona State University, studying “nonverbal courtship signals”, a.k.a. flirting. No, he doesn’t have dating advice for you.
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