Peter Sagal, the amaretto smooth-voiced host of NPR’s Wait Wait... Don’t Tell Me!, is a man of intimidating erudition—a necessary trait for presiding a weekly radio quiz show 20 years running.
Running is a theme in Sagal’s life. He took up running as he neared 40, and ever since has competed in 14 marathons—including, memorably, crossing the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon moments before a bomb exploded nearby. Sagal is the author of a new memoir called The Incomplete Book of Running, out October 30.
He can’t run away, though, from us asking whether a hot dog is a sandwich.
The Takeout: Is a hot dog a sandwich?
Peter Sagal: When in the course of human events certain people, including people I admire and like such as my friend John Hodgman, are entirely and completely wrong about something, it becomes necessary to correct them, particularly in regard to the history and current status of a beloved American foodstuff, and its established place in the lineage of invention sparked by the Earl of Sandwich and continuing in a long and glorious spreading tree of comestible evolution to this day, and say: yes, the hot dog is a sandwich.
To prove this, we must invoke the wisdom of Marcus Aurelius and examine the essential nature of the subject under discussion: what is a sandwich? As the legend has it, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, John Montagu, gave his name to the dish when he demanded his servants bring him meat between two pieces of bread, so he would not have to leave the gambling table. Defenders of the Earl’s reputation as a sober statesman say it was actually so he would not have to leave his work as First Lord of the Admiralty, meaning that in addition to inventing the sandwich, the Earl also invented the sad desk lunch.
Whatever its origin, a sandwich may be defined as a filling, usually but not necessarily meat, between pieces of bread. The true essence of a sandwich is not its taste—nobody ever said, “You know what would make this salami taste better? Some bland starch!”—but its utility. You can’t pick up a piece of beef or cheese or roasted eggplant, with its tasty and often fluid accoutrements, without messing up your hands and then quite likely your work papers and/or keyboard. No—the bread is there as a handle, a protective yet edible shield between your hands and the filling. Thus, any kind of meat served in a folded piece of bread or between two pieces of bread is a sandwich, no matter the meat’s shape or distinctive texture.
The primary objection to this obvious truth in regard to the hot dog is first, the nature of the meat (a coherent tube of protein, rather than the traditional filling) and the type of bread it’s served on, that is, a bun, a single piece of bread incompletely sliced through, so it retains its unitary nature. Still, we may deduce the hot dog’s essential sandwichness simply by changing any variable. Swap out the hot dog—also known as a frankfurter, or Frankfurt sausage—with an Italian sausage and you’ve got a sausage sandwich. Fill the same kind of bun with cold-cuts or marinated roast beef and you’ve got a “sub sandwich” or “Italian beef sandwich.” Thus, we see that any other combination of filling, including other sausages, in the same kind of bun is naturally a sandwich, and defenders of the “hot dog is not a sandwich” theory are left grasping for additional distinctions. Or, if you prefer, notionally replace the bun with two slices of white bread (which I often had to do back in the dark days of my youth when hot dogs came twelve to a pack and buns only eight). Obviously, the awkward sad thing you then hold in your hands is a sandwich.