In the intro to WNYC’s The Sporkful, a podcast about food and eating, host Dan Pashman argued a hot dog is a sandwich. As I listened I was filled with a deep, deep sadness. Not because I think a hot dog is decidedly not a sandwich. Frankly, I don’t care. Like most people, I’ve spent my waking hours tallying up the servings of processed meat I’ve unwittingly shoved down my gullet. If you don’t count the two weeks in Germany where I ate a sausage for every meal, I come out looking OK.
The humble hot dog always seems to play second fiddle to the mighty hamburger. They’re both quintessentially American foods, but, for whatever reason, eating a burger counts as an act of patriotism, like voting or owning a golden retriever. Eating a hot dog is like voting for Nader. Sure, it still counts as voting, but only technically. The Hamburglar would go to jail for a juicy quarter-pounder, but he won’t do time for a frankfurter. That’s all I mean. Eating a hot dog is what you do when you’re a little kid or if someone else ate the last burger.
I last ate a hot dog in July. I was at a movie theater with a friend and we had the following conversation:
FRIEND: What I really love about eating a hot dog is the nostalgia. It reminds me of a time when I was young and happy.
ME: What I really love about eating a hot dog is that I’m eating a hot dog.
When I first heard 2% of hot dogs contain human DNA, I shrugged and took it in stride. 1 in 50? I’ll take those odds; I’ll roll those dice. After all, the hot dog is in my DNA too. My Great Aunt Winnie lived in Washington, D.C. during the Eisenhower administration. In the 1980s, Winnie—now more than ninety years old—returned to the nation’s capital to see the first ladies’ dresses at the Smithsonian and visit my father.
To celebrate her return, her family and friends made a reservation at a fine dining establishment. As they walked to dinner, Aunt Winnie pulled my father to the side of the road to stop at a food cart. Aunt Winnie had somehow looked up the restaurant’s menu and, finding it unappetizing, decided to get a pre-dinner snack. Her choice? That’s right: a hot dog. “You can’t eat a hot dog before dinner!” my father implored. “Oh, when you’re 90 you can just tell people you’re not hungry.”
Aunt Winnie lived to 104, so take that science.
It’s true that the national media may have overstated the risk of eating red and processed meats. Listen to WNYC’s On The Media’s podcast special for a fair treatment of the science behind the World Health Organization’s report. Still, setting aside Aunt Winnie and my genetic predilection for hot dogs, it’s hard to argue with cancer.
If we’re being honest, it was already pretty clear that hot dogs weren’t exactly a health food—I’d never recommend eating more than three in one sitting—and yet we indulged anyway. But now, when you’re weighing a food on the health and happiness scale, actively ingesting a carcinogen might just tip the scale against the hot dog.
After a period of introspection, I looked to others for guidance. A co-worker told me, “It’s not how you die, but how you live, that counts.” I suppose that’s fair, but I just don’t know that I can do it. At least not like I used to. The days of going to a baseball game on $1 hot dog day just for the food are over. Gone are the days of chili-smothered dogs at Ben’s Chili Bowl. The days of hot dogs at the movie theater are probably over too. All that the hot dog has left to offer me is the nostalgia I once pooh-poohed. Next summer, at my first BBQ of the season, I’ll raise a veggie burger in one hand and toast to the time when I was young and happy and this was a hot dog.
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