Every now and then, The Washington Post publishes something that provokes uniquely murderous rage from readers across the political spectrum. On May 24, that something was a recipe. For hot dogs. Made of carrots.
“If you show up to my cookout with carrot dogs I’m setting you on fire,” NFL blogger Lindsey OK tweeted, one of many threats of bodily harm made in response to Joe Yonan’s recipe for charred and steamed carrots, adapted from the Chubby Vegetarian cookbook. Golf Digest deemed the recipe a “despicable” and “horrid” idea that would “possibly ruin” Memorial Day Weekend. The conservative news show Fox and Friends aired a two-minute segment poking fun at the carrot dog, too, which featured host Pete Hegseth eating a raw carrot shoved between two buns. Ashley Nicole Black, who writes for the liberal comedy show Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, also got in on the fun. “If you put a carrot inside a hot dog bun and call it a vegan hot dog, I will cut you,” she tweeted.
Yonan’s recipe clearly hit a nerve. “I was very surprised by the vehemence of the anger,” he told me, comparing the reaction to the infamous New York Times recipe for pea guacamole. “People felt personally assaulted by these carrot dogs, as if I was throwing them out of a cannon.” Criticisms were made not just of Yonan’s recipe but of Yonan himself for making it. “The lamestream media really does want America to hate them,” libertarian scholar Aaron Ross Powell wrote.
On the one hand, America really loves hot dogs. The National Hot Dog and Sausage Council says Americans consume around 20 billion hot dogs per year—about 7 billion from Memorial Day to Labor Day—and that sales remain steady due to the growing popularity of high-protein diets. “Experts believe sales of the entire refrigerated processed meat category will continue to grow in the future,” the Hot Dog Council claims, despite the rise of millennials concerned about the environmental impacts of factory farming and the health impacts of processed foods.
But liking the taste of processed meat doesn’t explain why people get so mad at suggested alternatives. That may have more to do with the hot dog’s longstanding place in American culture. “This is a food specifically geared to American patriotism,” says culinary historian Bruce Kraig, who has written two books about hot dog culture around the world. America’s hot dog patriotism did not occur by accident, he says, but by design: starting with an early national desire to distinguish America as a meat-eating (and therefore prosperous) country. It then spread like wildfire due to savvy advertisers who sought to capitalize on that desire.
“Underlying the defense of hot dogs is the idea of American values,” Kraig said. “In this case, those values are xenophobia and American exceptionalism.” If those values were powerful enough to help secure the presidency for Donald Trump, it’s no wonder they helped secure the hot dog’s place in Americans’ hearts.
The hot dog’s origin story is murky, but a few things are concrete. It’s a sausage made mostly of beef or pork. The original recipe came from Germany. It started proliferating in the U.S. in the late nineteenth century. “A hot dog was the first way to get cheap meat on the go,” Kraig said. “Even before hamburgers.”
Cheapness and portability were the keys to the early hot dog’s success. As American farmers began raising vast quantities of livestock, meats became cheaper and accessible beyond rich households. The cheapest meats were sausages made of less savory parts of the animal, and thus those were the products shoved into buns and sold by vendors at fairs, baseball games, boardwalks—anywhere on the street, really. (Nathan’s Famous, for example, started as a five cent hot dog stand opened by Polish immigrants on Coney Island in 1916).
The public squares where hot dogs were sold—baseball games especially—were melting pots for all different ethnicities and incomes. And everyone ate hot dogs. “They quickly became a democratic food,” Kraig said. “People start to have this feeling that they’re all Chicago White Sox fans—they forget their ethnic differences. Hot dogs are there for part of it.”
That feeling of togetherness, and therefore patriotism, was badly needed in post-Civil War America. But the rise of cheap meats—fueled by hot dogs but also salisbury steaks—fed into more nationalist sentiments, too. Americans began to feel as though they were better than Europeans, who didn’t have enough land for grazing to make meat cheap enough for the masses. “If you’re a working-class factory worker in Liverpool, you’re not going to eat as much meat,” Kraig said. “But working-class Americans could get it, and they knew that,” feeding a patriotic sense of superiority that played into late-nineteenth century American xenophobia, as well. In turn, “Most Europeans were absolutely appalled” by the level of meat-eating in early America, Kraig said. Hot dogs brought Americans together while setting them apart from the rest of the world.
But it was twentieth-century advertisers who turned hot dogs into a nation-wide, values-linked symbols of American identity. In the 1930s and ‘40s, The Visking Corporation—which sold “Skinless”-brand wieners—advertised them as a July 4 food; a food for fighting soldiers; a food that was good for rationing (since there was “no peeling or waste”); and a food that was good for kids.
Children became a particularly important selling point for hot dogs in the 1950s and ‘60s, as the end of World War II saw explosions in marriage and birth rates. In 1963, Oscar Mayer released its iconic jingle, “I’d love to be an Oscar Meyer Weiner.” Four years later, Armour Hot Dogs’ came out with the lesser-known “The Dog Kids Love to Bite.” That strategy of marketing to children, Kraig said, put a twentieth-century spin on hot dog nationalism: “Children were part of our American values.” And advertisers, whose job it is to “see what’s going on and use it for commercial purposes,” noticed.
In the middle of the century, patriotism, nationalism, xenophobia, and an emphasis on traditional family structures proliferated regardless of party identity. The values that fueled hot dog patriotism, however, are held most strongly today within the Republican Party, which perhaps explains the political leanings of the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council. The group—which promotes July as National Hot Dog Month, July 18 as National Hot Dog Day, and holds an annual hot dog lunch for Congress—was founded by the North American Meat Institute (NAMI), which sends 81 percent of its political donations to Republicans. For years, groups like NAMI have lobbied against federal nutritional guidelines recommending eating less meat. Once, NAMI called a criticism of the meat industry an attack on the “American way of life.”
But meat-eating is becoming less of a way of life for many Americans, which is exactly why Yonan wrote his carrot dog recipe in the first place. “It was merely an option for vegetarians who don’t want to eat a hot dog,” he said. “No one’s trying to take your hot dog out of your hands at your cookout.”
For what it’s worth, America’s premiere hot dog historian applauds the effort. He’s just not sure it’ll catch on. “Things are changing rapidly in America when it comes to food,” Kraig said. “But very few Americans are going to grill a carrot.”
This article has been corrected to reflect that National Hot Dog Day is July 18, not July 19.