Few questions are as divisive as the hot dog / sandwich debate. I’ve certainly had it more times than I can count.
But what’s unique about the controversy isn’t how eager people are to argue; it’s how dead-set they are in their opinions from the get-go. Even the most ambivalent, indecisive people I know have strong opinions about the categorical identity of a hot dog. I’ve also never seen anyone change their mind on the matter. Nobody has managed to convince me that a hot dog is a sandwich. (I’m a non-sandwicher, for the record.) Our personal taxonomy is primal and ironclad.
What I also find interesting is that if you really get into the weeds of these debates, it becomes clear that everyone, on both sides of the schism, understands that they’re a little bit wrong.
“Do you think a hot dog is a sandwich?” I asked a friend the other day, in preparation for this article.
“It’s not the most typical referent for ‘sandwich,’” he mused. “But if someone said, ‘We’re only having sandwiches at this event,’ I wouldn’t be surprised if I showed up and hot dogs were part of the food.”
“Would you be surprised if they served slices of pizza folded in half?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he admitted.
“How are those different from hot dogs?”
“I’ll get back to you,” he said.
“A hot dog meets all the necessary and sufficient conditions to make a sandwich,” another friend insisted. “It’s a thing inside two pieces of bread. The shape of the bread doesn’t matter.”
“But a hot dog doesn’t have two pieces of bread,” I said. “It’s one piece of bread that’s folded.”
“Subway sandwiches aren’t always cut the whole way through,” he countered. “But you think those are sandwiches, right?”
“I guess,” I said.
Put another way: what is a “game”? Ludwig Wittgenstein was the first philosopher to address that question. He argued that there is no characteristic common and unique to everything we consider to be a “game.” It’s not rules (what are the rules of Catch?), it’s not competitiveness (plenty of games, like Hanabi and escape rooms, are collaborative), it’s not winning and losing (nobody wins traditional Tag), it’s not fun (nobody enjoys Monopoly, come on), it’s not the involvement of skill (Roulette), and it’s not group participation (Solitaire).
Similarly, we’re all aware (or we should be) that for any set of criteria we put forth to define a “sandwich,” naysayers can put forth a counterintuitive exception — an obvious sandwich or non-sandwich for which our nomenclature doesn’t account. Yet, our certainty about the definition of a sandwich remains, edge cases be damned.
That’s what’s brilliant about this quiz, created by Sarah Drasner, the head of developer experience at the web-developer platform Netlify. Click through, and you’ll be asked to identify the sandwich or non-sandwich state of various culinary artifacts: an empanada, a soup dumpling, a burger, a crepe. With each new item, you’re forced to rethink your definition of “sandwich”; just when you think you might have one that works, the next item sends you scrambling. It’s an exercise in humility — a deeply personal illustration of how difficult it is to describe our linguistic intuitions and how much more difficult it is to conform them to logic.
At the end, you’re not given a score. Instead, you’re placed on the traditional sandwich alignment chart with “ingredient purist” and “structural purist” on the axes. (I got Lawful Good — that is, an ingredient purist and a structural purist in both extremes.)
This is, I think, the correct way to approach the Hot Dog Debate. Certainly, it’s better than arguing ourselves into circles. It’s clear that people’s opinions on this matter aren’t likely to change based on logical reasoning. Language is our only tool for describing our realities to each other, and it’s just inadequate here. I deeply believe that a lobster roll is a sandwich and a hot dog is not. I will never be able to articulate why. But I strongly, metaphysically know it to be the case. Just like you will never, ever convince me that Solitaire is not a game.
So let’s not fight with ourselves; it’s not useful. On the other hand, it is useful to allow each other to categorize food in the way that makes sense to us. Maybe describing a hot dog as a sandwich helps it feel more familiar to people from parts of the world where hot dogs aren’t common. Maybe conceiving of a hot dog as separate helps a picky kid who doesn’t like sandwiches feel okay eating this one. I suspect most people have fallen into the camp that works for them.