September 26, 2014

by Rocco DeMaro

Is a Hot Dog a sandwich?

"Of course not. It's a hot dog (you imbecile)… " would be your response, if you're anything like the average major-league baseball player.

Point of Order—while no major leaguer actually called me an imbecile over the past few weeks, I have been using an official MLB credential to ask whether they felt a Hot Dog is a sandwich. As such, I could sense they wanted to verbalize "imbecile." It's in the eyes.

But before we lose focus on my potential imbecility (did not expect that to get through spellcheck), please snap back to the matter at hand and consider this whole Hot Dog/sandwich thing because, first of all, we're talking about Hot Dogs here, people. HOT DOGS. No food-thing is more essential to the ballpark experience—not beer, not nachos, not peanuts. If you're at a baseball game and you're not eating a Hot Dog at some point, you're doing it wrong. And secondly, this Hot Dog/sandwich thing is a really nuanced situation.

What makes something a sandwich? Which criteria are mandatory? Which aren't? When we call something a sandwich, what's the specific idea we're trying to convey? Does the shape of a sandwich's components matter? What lines do we draw here and where do we draw them?

We'll get to some fun baseball player conversations on this topic in a bit, including a chat with, arguably, the most educated player currently in MLB. We'll also have some data to glance at, covering more than two dozen opinions on the matter. First, though, some context.

"Basically the hot dog-as-sandwich debate has been something Twitter has discussed for as long as I remember," opined BP's Craig Goldstein. "I am just a bit player in it."

Upon informing Sam Miller that I'd spent a couple weeks aggregating opinion on the "Is a Hot Dog a sandwich" debate, and that I'd planned on presenting my findings as a fun little aside, he basically told me I was stupid, and that I should turn it into a full-fledged piece, and that I should reach out to Craig, as BP's leading philosopher on the issue.

So what gives Craig this status among the sandwich-classification intelligentsia?

"I delight in taking matters of pure opinion and talking about them as though there are distinct borders upon which they operate, and this frustrates the living hell out of people."

Breaking new ontological ground we're clearly not. That said, I have to think Plato, Descartes, Kant, Sartre, et al would welcome this sort of discussion. Back to Craig: I asked for his original conception of what makes something a sandwich.

"I think I was like most people, with a very basic understanding. Two pieces of bread with something in between—be it meat, veggies, peanut butter or what-have-you.

"This is where it gets tricky though. People have visceral reactions to the ideas of non-standard sandwiches being considered as such, but if you get into the nitty-gritty of what a sandwich is, you start to have to have rules."


"If you ask somebody to go make you a sandwich, they're not gonna make you a Hot Dog." -Pirates infielder Josh Harrison

Harrison's quote was one of several reasonable angles taken by the No crowd. It's a particularly good example because, on some level, passing a test of cultural pragmatism seems legitimate when it comes to these sorts of debates.

Consider that, through the sheer power of cultural familiarity, the official definition of "literally" has literally been changed to also imply "figuratively."

Personally, I loathe the change to "literally." It's stupid and wrong and stupid and stupid. But the culture has spoken. The shared idea of that word has become so broken, so pervasively misused that the linguistic tail has won out and wagged the dog. We've had to reverse-engineer the damn thing.

The lesson here—we underestimate the power of shared culture at our peril. Which brings us back to the Hot Dog question.

"No, it's not a sandwich. It's a Hot Dog."

That was the exact quote from both Zach Duke of the Brewers and Brock Holt of the Red Sox, each of whom was unwittingly supporting Josh Harrison's implied argument in favor of cultural sandwich conceptualization. We have more proof of this cultural norm; among the players who were simply asked The Question without any followup… a sort of control for our experiment… 14 of 15 gave a flat "No."

As for Duke and Holt (coming to TBS this fall!) both guys also declared the Hot Dog to be in a class by itself, which was a familiar refrain among respondents; almost a quarter (6/25) of those polled believed the Hot Dog to be unique in its classification.

But an even larger percentage of players belong to a group we'll call Changers—guys who initially went with No, but upon being Socratic Method-ed, changed their minds.

One example of a Changer was Red Sox rookie Mookie Betts. Here's our conversation in full:

Me: Is a Hot Dog a sandwich?

Mookie Betts: No. It's not. I feel like a Hot Dog is in its own category, not really a sandwich. That's my take on it.

Me: Is a Hamburger a sandwich?

MB: Yes, I think that's a sandwich.

Me: So what makes a hamburger a sandwich?

MB: I think a hamburger's a sandwich because the meat goes between two pieces of bread. I'm getting myself into a corner here.

Me: Yes, you are. Do you even need meat for it to be a sandwich?

MB: I guess not. PB&J. Grilled cheese. Those are both sandwiches.

Me: So let's go back to the start. Is a Hot Dog a sandwich?

MB: Yeah, I think it's a sandwich.

It really was a textbook reversal from the affable Mr. Betts, who, to his credit, had an open mind and was willing to let me play Devil's Advocate (which I did for both sides of this debate with each poll-ee).

Perhaps my favorite Changer was Pirates backup catcher Tony Sanchez.

Me: Is a Hot Dog a sandwich?

TS: No. Absolutely not. First thing that comes to my mind as a sandwich includes deli meat, sliced deli meat and lettuce, tomato, onions, mayo, mustard. A Hot Dog, regardless of how much mustard you put on it, is not a sandwich.

Me: So because the bologna is delivered differently when it's in Hot Dog form, it's no longer a sandwich?

TS: Correct. Right.

Me: So the form of the meat is determinant when it comes to classifying something as a sandwich?

TS: I would say so, yeah. And I'm gonna stick by that… … … even though you bring up a very valid point… … … Shoot!

At this point Tony began laughing, his resolve wavering.

Me: So does the shape of the bread matter? The type of bread?

TS: No. Bread is bread.

Me: So is a wrap a sandwich?

TS: No! Heck no. Absolutely not! A wrap is a poor excuse for a sandwich. But godblessit, a sub is a sandwich. And the bread… I'm so rattled right now.

Me: Is a Hamburger a sandwich?

TS: No. No! A hamburger is a hamburger!

Me: So why isn't a hamburger a sandwich?

TS: Because you grill the meat on a barbecue.

Me: The hell does that have to do with it?

TS: You're right. You're absolutely right. Because you throw lettuce on it, tomatoes, mayo, mustard, ketchup. A hamburger is a sandwich!! You're blowing my mind, dude. You're blowing my mind. The next time we barbecue and someone asks me if I want a hamburger, I'm gonna say, 'Yeah, I'd love a sandwich.'

Me: So back to the original question. Is a Hot Dog a sandwich?

TS: (deep breath) A HOT DOG IS A SANDWICH!! [Maniacal laughter.] A Hot Dog is a sandwich. Unbelievable.

Me: Seeing the evolution of your thought process there was rewarding.

TS: You threw bologna in there and blew my mind. How could I argue against bologna? Just because a Hot Dog isn't thinly sliced deli meat; it's just a different form factor. People evolve and sandwiches evolve.

Other Changers include the Pirates' Andrew McCutchen, and Arismendy Alcantara and Ryan Kalish of the Cubs.

In terms of guys who were Yes Men right out of the gate, the list, such as it is, is incredibly small. It consists of one large man, Jared Hughes of the Pirates, who was easily the most open-minded player polled when it came to ontological sandwichness. Jared, by default, had hamburgers, wraps and hot dogs all as sandwiches. Open-faced sandwiches? Of course. A bagel with cream cheese? A sandwich.

The only example Jared originally believed to be in the No column was that of a burrito. But even then, he was willing consider alternative arguments after learning that the State of New York had legally declared a burrito to be a sandwich for taxation purposes.

You read it right by the way—rulings have come from State Benches on the issue of what constitutes a sandwich.

This seems like a good point to bring our Craig Goldstein back on board. I sent him a draft of the piece to this point and sought comment.

"I guess what makes this fun for me is exactly what took place with the Changers. Their immediate reaction is of course, "No, a hot dog is its own thing." But if you delve into the whys, it becomes clear the issue is deeper than that. We're so instinctual in our actions and reactions that we don't pay attention to what we might actually believe. You see this in the Changers—when they stop and think about it for a minute they realize their position makes no sense. The guys who still think no? Well, cognitive dissonance is a hell of a thing.

"I'll add that, while everything above is accurate, I'd be lying if I didn't acknowledge that frustrating others is half the fun. That said, I'm actually dying to know what Breslow has to say on this."

Let's get to it, then, and end our Hot Dog/sandwich examination with a man who may be the game's most educated player, Craig Breslow of the Red Sox, owner of a B.A. in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry… from Yale.

As with the rest of our participants, I asked Breslow whether a Hot Dog was a sandwich. What followed was a laugh, seven seconds of contemplated silence, and then…


Huh. I was kind of expecting a Yes there, if I'm honest. Fourteen more seconds passed before he spoke again.

"I think there needs to be intent on the sandwich's part to close on all sides."

Intrigued by this new idea, I asked him how many sandwiches he knew of that closed on all sides.

"Well, the intent, right. There's no reason that a peanut butter & jelly sandwich can't have a seam all the way around with contact. But (with a Hot Dog), there's no intention for the top pieces of the bun to connect. Symmetry matters."

I was flummoxed. My usual Socratic blueprint was useless. No bread fallacies. No meat fallacies. Breslow was on point.

So why should something as superficial as the symmetry of a thing be determinant here?

"Is a wrap a sandwich? No. Is a pita a sandwich? No. A pizza? I think appearance is very telling."

With zero preparation and forethought, Breslow had seemingly gotten to the heart of the cultural argument Josh Harrison and others had made previously and combined it with an implied biological foundation. Think about it—to most of us, and in many, many things, appearance matters. We might not want the looks of a thing to dictate choice, but more often than not, it does. We are a visual species.

From an old Discover Magazine article:

"In the brain itself, neurons devoted to visual processing number in the hundreds of millions and take up about 30 percent of the cortex, as compared with 8 percent for touch and just 3 percent for hearing. Each of the two optic nerves, which carry signals from the retina to the brain, consists of a million fibers; each auditory nerve carries a mere 30,000."

Humans are evolutionarily hard-wired to place a high value on visual cues, and to make snap judgments based on that data. And Breslow instinctively understood that.

Even more interestingly, despite agreeing that bread isn't necessary for something to be a considered a sandwich, and agreeing that a sandwich doesn't even have to be food—"I suppose not, but then I would not recommend eating it"—Breslow wouldn't be swayed from his No Crowd vote on the Hot Dog matter. He was a really interesting guy—both intensely intelligent and true to his evolutionary roots.

Of course, he was dead wrong about the Hot Dog thing—of course it's a sandwich—but hey, nobody's perfect.


The Data:

  • Initial Noes: 24
  • Yes Men: 1

Among those properly interviewed on The Question:


  • Hot Dog is in a Class of Its Own (included in No Crowd): 6

Hot Dogs eaten during the creation of this piece: 3

Hot Dogs eaten at ballparks by the author, lifetime: So, so many.

Ideal Hot Dog preparation for the author: An irresponsible amount of brown/spicy mustard, Heinz ketchup if available (no ketchup if not). [Ed note: Ketchup? Oh, brother.]

Rocco DeMaro is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 

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