According to the National Sausage and Hot Dog Council (totally a real thing), an estimated 21.4 million hot dogs were consumed in baseball stadiums in 2014. That’s a lot of wieners. They are consistently the best-selling concession food at MLB games, with 63% of fans polled ranking it as their #1 snack.
I can see the practical appeal of hot dogs at stadiums. They’re usually cheap, easy to assemble, and easy to eat (they come in their own edible container-bun). A win-win for both vendors and consumers. But I can also see how befuddled foreigners may be by American baseball’s love affair with low-grade encased meats.
How did such a throwaway food become equivocated with America’s favorite pastime?
The actual origins between hot dogs and baseball are murky and unclear. Some historians suggest that the hot dog’s late 19th-century popularity as a street and carnival food, particularly in the summer, translated naturally into concessions at baseball stadiums. Others cite Chris Von de Ahe, a St. Louis entrepreneur who owned a bar, an amusement park, and the St. Louis Cardinals (then known as the Brown Stockings), as the mastermind behind the hot dog-baseball intimacy. The origins of the term “hot dog” itself are still largely untraceable.
Yet, despite this vague history, the feelings of loyalty and pride—toward our favorite baseball teams, our hot dogs, and our nation—are unwavering, even fierce. This is, in fact, how nationalism works. According to scholar Benedict Anderson, nations are an “imagined community.” That is, we feel like we are part of a nation through the cultural practices and values that we think we share. The feelings precede, and then produce, the reality. Hot dogs in ballparks are delicious because we feel like it’s what Americans do, and that we are participating in a national pastime.
Nations, according to Anderson, are founded backwards: we imagine ourselves as a nation, and we go back and search for historical events that “prove” it. For the U.S., this would be Columbus “discovering” America, which is a complete myth and factually untrue. For the rise of hot dog nationalism, I suspect a post-9/11 patriotism required its own myths to be made (remember “freedom fries?”), something that could embody nationalist pride, but not too expensive to make. I guess I am arguing that hot dogs are like Christopher Columbus—a myth that we all know is a myth that we keep on believing in anyway, thus keeping the myth alive.
In fact, the National Sausage and Hot Dog Council was founded only in 1994 by the American Meat Institute, one of the most powerful lobbying organizations in the U.S. Clearly, it was founded in an attempt to promote a more positive image of the hot dog, popularly known as being made up of chicken beaks, pig snouts, cow eyeballs, and a host of other animal by-products and chemicals. In fact, almost all information online about hot dog history can be traced right back to this Council, cheered on by their spiffy little mascot.
Despite our ideas that hot dogs have long been equated with baseball culture, it is only recently that MLB franchises have started to seriously promote them as plates of regional-ist cultural pride. These include treats like the Braves’ “Dixie Dog” (deep fried, natch), the Reds’ “Skyline Chili Dog,” the Phillies’ “Cheese Steak Dog,” the Padres’ “Carne Asada Dog,” and the Royals’ “All-Star BBQ Dog.” Who could resist any of these? They’re like tourist souvenirs for your mouth.
We are also witnessing the dawn of the Big Dog Era, with stadiums vendors vying for attention based on size, not unlike another similar-shaped object I can think of that certain men like to measure. The Rangers (of course) are home to the 24-inch, 3-pound “Boomstick” ($26). Not to be outdone, the Diamondbacks introduced the “D-Bat” ($25) an 18-inch deep-fried corndog stuffed with bacon and cheese. In Minneapolis, fans can order “The Bratdog,” ($12) a hot dog stuffed into a bratwurst wrapped in bacon, which wins for girth, not length.
The plain hot dog, surprisingly, is perhaps the most dangerous health hazard of them all. They are the #1 killer of food-related choking deaths in children aged 3 and under. According to Gary Smith, pediatrician and director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy, “if you were to take the best engineers in the world and try to design the perfect plug for a child’s airway, it would be a hot dog.” The size, shape, and texture of a standard hot dog make it, basically, a baby-killing weapon.
Perhaps our unwavering loyalty to the hot dog is due to its original form—a wiener in a bun—being such an ideal food to dress up in both condiments and ideology.
News broke last week about the U.S. Department of Defense paying 5.4 million (taxpayer’s) dollars to 14 pro teams in the last four seasons for their patriotic displays. They may be a bit silly compared to the spectacle of stealth-bomber fly-overs, but unassuming hot dogs, I suggest, are just as loaded with patriotic values.
So the next time you chow down a dog at the ballpark while F-18s streak above your head, just remember what’s really behind our beloved hot dog: 1) they’re made of meat byproducts, or the euphemism that’s not really a euphemism at all, “animal trimmings,” 2) each bite is an endorsement of a deep patriotism grounded in myth and folklore at best, insidious military propaganda at worst, and 3) you might be inadvertently supporting baby killing.
A shout out to Dana Rilke, whose deep and multi-layered hatred of hot dogs inspired this piece. A shout out also to my sister, who has never stopped using Bobby Lee’s signature line, “uh-oh hot dog,” since it first aired.
Serenity Joo is an educator, thinker, spectator sport fanantic, and nacho enthusiast. She grew up in the Deep South, which explains everything. Her body currently resides in Winnipeg, Canada. Serenity is a 2015 Dat Winning fellow.