Hot dogs are America’s sacred meal.
Do not blaspheme against the all-beef frank. There are rules.
We’re not talking about traditions or preferences or regional styles, either. These rules were handed down by a higher power: the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, which is a real thing.
The NHDSC has been a thing since 1994 when the American Meat Institute decided the American consumer should know more about hot dogs and sausages. They tackled the easy stuff first: nutrition, ingredients, food safety, that sort of thing.
They wanted to inform the consumers, they said.
As this most special of special-interest groups nears its 25th anniversary, their scope has widened and deepened. Today, they’re sorting through the weighty issues that fill every sausage casing just as surely as ground variety meats and a proprietary blend of spices.
They settled the debate over whether a hot dog is a type of sandwich (it is not). They’ve cleared up how many bites it should take to consume a standard-length dog (five). Most contentiously, they published a list of acceptable toppings for the true American frankfurter.
These include chili, mustard, relish, cheese, onions, and spices. Sauerkraut makes the cut, but only just. Fans of a certain sweet red condiment will already have noticed that something is missing from this list.
“Don’t use ketchup on your hot dog after the age of 18,” says the Council’s guide to hot-dog etiquette. It is as plain as day.
Why no ketchup? Let alone fancy catsup?
The NHDSC does not explain its edict. It doesn’t have to. The Council holds the authority.
Luckily, other sources are eager to explain why pouring ketchup on a hot dog is like serving pork with cream sauce at a Kosher deli.
“Ketchup smothers the flavor of the hot dog because ketchup makers add sugar to their products,” wrote Cecil Adams, founder of The Straight Dope and expert on expertise. “That takes the edge off the highly acidic tomatoes, but it takes the edge off everything else, too.”
Northwestern University literature professor Bill Savage traces the ketchup ban to something deeper than culinary snobbishness.
“This is one of those Chicago tempests in a teapot things,” Savage told the Chicago Tribune. “But it’s become this kind of Chicago identity—like if you put ketchup on your hot dog you’re not really a Chicagoan.”
So why should the rest of us care?
The bulk of the world’s hot dog eaters don’t live in Chicago. We’re scattered all across this great nation, and we don’t bow to Chicagoan cultural law.
If only there were someone who could represent all Americans, someone whose authority rivals that of the NHDSC itself. If only someone like President Barack Obama would weigh in on the issue.
Which, of course, he did.
Anthony Bourdain interviewed the then-Commander-in-Chief in 2016. He used his unrivaled journalistic access to ask about hot dogs and condiments.
“Is ketchup on a hot dog ever acceptable?” Bourdain asked.
“No,” Obama said. “I mean that…that’s one of those things, like, well, let me put it this way: It’s not acceptable past the age of 8.”
Obama’s rule is even stricter than the Council’s. With that, we’ll consider this case closed.