David Dudley is the executive editor of CityLab. He is the former editor in chief of Urbanite magazine and a former features editor for AARP: The Magazine.
July 17 is National Hot Dog Day. Time to celebrate one thing that millions of Americans have in common.
A much-discussed Gallup poll has revealed that the percentage of Americans who say they are “extremely proud” of America has reached a low (45 percent) unseen in the 19 years the pollsters have been asking this question. Things are, for lovers of the republic and all it represents, looking rough.
But take heart, patriots, because it’s time to eat some hot dogs.
According to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, Americans eat 150 million hot dogs at parades and backyard cookouts over the July 4th holiday, “enough to stretch from D.C. to L.A. more than five times.” It’s a metaphor with a certain resonance: a nation girdled by an unbreakable chain of wieners, looping around two much-hated coastal enclaves and linking them up with everything in between. Maybe the hot dogs can hold this damn thing together.
The Baltimore journalist H.L. Mencken, who understood the power of national symbols, colorfully dismissed the franks of the late 19th century as “cartridge[s] filled with the sweepings of abbatoirs” and “rubbery, indigestible pseudo-sausages.” But he clearly could not stop eating them, devoting one of his columns in the Baltimore Evening-Sun of 1929 to a florid call-to-arms for wholesale American hot-dog improvement: “Throw off the chains of the frankfurter,” he wrote. “There should be dogs for all appetites, all tastes, all occasions … the hot dog should be elevated to the level of an art form.”
The push and pull of delight and loathing that Mencken wrestled with vis-à-vis hot dogs is one that could apply to any number of American icons in 2019. They are, like many industrial products, objectively bad things, cruelty-laced choking hazards that corrode arteries, hijack social media with dumb debates, and fuel barfy binge-eating spectacles. In the 1970s, consumer advocate Ralph Nader called hot dogs “America’s deadliest missiles” because of the rising levels of fat and cancer-linked nitrites in corporate frankfurters; he was, as ever, completely right and oh so wrong.
The hot dog—a gift of refugees, the migrant who is always welcomed—colonized American cities and was adopted nationwide by a rainbow of local cultures; Greek diner owners in New Jersey and Mexican street vendors in East L.A. have since achieved the state of frankfurter excellence of which Mencken dreamed. New Yorkers and Chicagoans have boring fights about which city’s dogs are best, and they’re probably both wrong. (It might be Toledo, home of a bun signed by Jimmy Carter.) Los Angeles consumes the most (31 million pounds of franks, per the Hot Dog Council), but every town in America probably has at least one place that serves a dog that will haunt you. (For me, that’s Ted’s Hot Dogs in Buffalo, New York. But I also often recall one particular New Orleans Lucky Dog consumed at dawn on New Year’s Day in 2002.) Our nation is richly marbled in a miraculous variety of smoked meat products, and for this we should be grateful today.
In downtown Detroit, rival hot dog places stand next to each other on Lafayette Boulevard, each claiming primacy as the originator and superior vendor of the Detroit-style Coney, a chili-with-mustard variation that is fiercely beloved locally. As lore has it, the two are locked in an ancient blood feud, one that has riven the city’s Coney eaters into two irreconcilable tribes.
The full truth may be a little more complicated, but the idea feels right. Hot dogs may not be powerful enough to erase national divisions; sometimes they just end up feeding our grudges, like everything else. But at a time when Americans find little to agree upon, there’s still something to be celebrated in the fact that, briefly, 150 million of us manage to share one delicious and terrible thing.