America’s obsession with hot dogs, explained

“I don’t think we have enough hot dogs,” Julianne Moore’s character whispers gloomily in Todd Haynes’ 2023 film May December. The scene that quickly became iconic online for how amusingly melodramatic it is also captures, perhaps inadvertently, America’s strange relationship with the oblong food. Is there such a thing as having enough hot dogs? As a culture, the answer seems to be no. The National Hot Dog and Sausage Council estimates that we eat somewhere in the region of 20 billion hot dogs every year, or about 70 per person. (Hot dog eating contest champion Joey Chestnut once downed a record 76 in 10 minutes.) 

The hot dog’s popularity isn’t exactly surprising. It’s an undemanding food, coming to you precooked and ready to eat. It’s so easy to make that a child could do it, and indeed many of us did as kids. During the Covid lockdown, when other people had their hot girl walks, I entered my hot dog era, eating nothing else for a week straight in the stifling kitchen of my apartment. It turned out that I wasn’t alone: In March 2020, hot dog sales were already up by 127 percent for the year. 

“We saw, during the pandemic, pretty large spikes in hotdog consumption,” says Eric Mittenthal, president of the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council. “Particularly as families were stuck at home, they wanted something easy and convenient to make.” According to Nielsen data, about 944 million pounds of hot dogs were sold at grocery stores in 2020 — last year, about 896 million pounds.

If you’re looking for cheap and easy, few foods fit the bill as well as the hot dog. Yet despite the hot dog’s affordability and popularity, it’s also undeniably a weird food. For one, the habits around when and how they’re typically consumed are pretty limited; they’re not your usual lunch or dinner time consideration the way a sandwich or delivery pizza might be. We tend to make them at home for backyard barbecues, or as an easy meal for kids, or eat them when we’re out, but they’re more closely associated with ballparks and beaches than restaurants. For all its ubiquity and easy consumability — you can easily down a hot dog with one hand — they can also be somewhat tricky for meat manufacturers and restaurants to sell because there’s perennial wariness over the quality of the mystery meat. A hot dog might be a quintessential American food, but it’s also the quintessential odd food — in origin, the way it’s made, the way we talk about it, even its very shape. 

How hot dogs got so hot

If you’re a hot dog lover, thank the German immigrants who came to the US in huge waves in the 19th century, porting over their love of sausages and beer gardens.

“It originated as a home food among Germans, and then went to the street, where it became commodified as a cheap product to be eaten on the run by immigrants,” says Bruce Kraig, a historian who has written two books about the culinary and cultural history of the hot dog. “It’s kind of poor folks’ food.”

Street food itself boomed with the rise of public amusement and leisure as more Americans got time away from constantly working, a novel phenomenon. Top among public amusements: baseball games and seaside boardwalks, like Asbury Park in New Jersey. Early vendors were mostly poor immigrants selling the bun-and-wiener combo for a nickel a pop, and hot dogs were such a hit because they were relatively cheap to both buy and sell. As hot dog carts popped up coast to coast in the early 20th century, a few lucky enterprising souls struck it rich from their hot dog business — like Nathan Handwerker, founder of the Nathan’s Famous hot dog chain that crowds flock to on Coney Island to this day.

Almost 40 percent of the billions of hot dogs consumed in the US every year are eaten between Memorial Day and Labor Day

Thanks to its association with leisure — specifically, being out and about in warm weather — hot dogs also became indelibly associated with the summertime. Today, almost 40 percent of the billions of hot dogs consumed in the US every year are eaten between Memorial Day and Labor Day. (Hot dog sales at baseball games don’t make up as much of total sales as one might think: only about 20 million per year, according to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council.)

For the, ahem, big dogs of the industry — billion-dollar companies often owned by even larger food conglomerates — business has been pretty good the last few years. In 2021 especially, profit margins in the meat processing industry jumped as companies raised prices. Tyson Foods, which owns the popular Ball Park Franks hot dog brand, made a whopping $1.46 billion profit in just their prepared foods category (which includes deli meat and hot dogs) in 2021, compared to $743 million in 2020 and $746 million in 2022. 

In popular culture, hot dogs often communicate some kind of absurdity. (See: the viral I Think You Should Leave sketch.) A recent TikTok trend asked people what they would yell if they were a hot dog hawker at a baseball game; since 2020 there’s been an uptick in people who aren’t from Washington, DC, calling hot dogs “glizzies” all over social media. There’s also a long-running online obsession with the dirt cheap Costco hot dogs, a dependable go-to in an economy that feels more topsy turvy every day — you can even buy a Costco hot dog memecoin

The double-edged sword of being cheap

At Costco, a hot dog and drink combo is still $1.50, a price that has not budged since 1985. (Sam’s Club has its own rival cheap hot dog.) Hot dogs remain pretty affordable compared to other meal options — but at other places, they weren’t immune to inflation. Prices for frankfurters went up 7.3 percent from May 2023 to May 2024. A basic hot dog at Nathan’s is now $5.99 on Coney Island. Pushcart vendors inside New York City parks aren’t allowed to charge more than $4 per hot dog.

If you’re making them at home or bringing them to someone’s backyard cookout, though, they’re a pretty good deal: According to the latest available Consumer Price Index data on frankfurters, the average price per pound in April 2022 was $5.22. At Walmart, some Oscar Mayer beef franks are $4.19 per pound, but there’s also an eight-pack of Bar S brand hot dogs available for just $1.18, at the time of writing. 

It’s nice to have an inexpensive food option when grocery and restaurant prices have shot up, but being too cheap also fuels the concern that people have always had about the food. What’s in that meat?  Maybe you don’t actually want the cheapest wiener money can buy. “Hot dogs have always been suspicious in the American mind,” says Kraig. In the early 19th century, Kraig reports in his book, Americans would joke about all kinds of ingredients — rats, stray dogs, feces — making it into the meat grinder. One 2018 consumer survey from Applegate (which promotes its uncured hot dogs as cleaner and higher quality), claimed that 43 percent of respondents were “scared” to know what was in hot dogs.

“I think there was a moment for fancy hot dogs,” says Soleil Ho, a food writer and cultural critic at the San Francisco Chronicle. Attempts to elevate the humble frankfurter include a $29 version at Manhattan’s Mischa that came with a whole host of sauces and toppings you could adorn your sausage with, including kimchi and pimento cheese, that Eater critic Robert Sietsema reluctantly adored. (Unfortunately, the restaurant closed down earlier this year.) But they’ve mostly gone the way of the fancy cupcake craze of the early 2000s. 

The weird way we consume hot dogs

There’s something unusually specific about the occasions where it’s normal to have a hot dog: at someone’s backyard cookout, at sports games, at an airport, on a first-time trip to the Big Apple (but only from a street cart), at the movie theater if you’re feeling a little freaky, before or after an exhausting shopping trip at Costco, or perhaps during a hot dog eating contest. You probably wouldn’t go to a fast-casual restaurant, or even most fast-food chains, and decide to have a hot dog on a whim after you browse the menu. 

Hamburgers, on the other hand, were actively promoted as a hearty option Americans might regularly want to eat, thanks to McDonald’s and other burger chains popping up along the vast, newly built US highway system after World War II. “Hamburger culture spread all over the place,” says Kraig. The burger was thought of as a more meaty meal, while a hot dog was more about fun. 

Kraig notes that several chains have certainly tried to sell hot dogs, but “they’ve never quite made it.” Established chains, including Burger King and McDonald’s, have tried offering hot dogs once upon a time, only to discontinue them because they weren’t very popular or because the mystery meat was deemed too low-quality even for fast food. Carl’s Jr. actually started as a hot dog stand, but now is more known for its burgers and overtly sexual ads; it doesn’t even have hot dogs on its menu anymore.

Burger King and McDonald’s have tried offering hot dogs, only to discontinue them because they weren’t very popular

The closest thing we might have to a national hot dog chain is Nathan’s Famous, but it only has 230 franchise locations across 17 US states, with a large portion of locations in New York, New Jersey, and Florida (there are none in California.) Its hot dogs are also available in a few other countries, including at Ukrainian gas stations. It also now sells wings, burgers, milkshakes, and more, branching out far beyond frankfurters. These storefronts aren’t the main way the company makes money, either — a huge portion of its revenue comes from licensing its brand of sausages to other establishments with hot dogs on their menus (like casinos, amusements parks, sports games), or by selling Nathan’s brand wieners in grocery stores. Its revenue from restaurants in 2024 was just $5.4 million, while its total sales were $138.6 million.

When it comes to street vendors, Americans’ tastes have moved onto other, newer meals immigrants have brought to the country, whether that’s a taco truck or a halal cart. And that’s when you can find street food at all: Big cities, including San Francisco and New York, have been shutting down or imposing penalties on street vendors, often for not having proper licenses that can be extremely expensive and difficult to obtain.

Such independent sellers helped build the hot dog’s huge presence in American culinary tradition — vendors in various parts of the country would put their own spin on the fast food staple, turning it from just a sad-looking cylinder of reddish-brown sausage in a squished bun to something delightfully weird. The Chicago dog, for example, is stuffed to the gills with tomato slices, a whole dill pickle, chopped onions, and relish, all on a poppy seed bun and, crucially, no ketchup. In New Jersey, there’s a famous deep-fried hot dog that looks like a delicious heart attack. People tend to have strong feelings about their regional hot dog style — or even about newer fusion styles — which also helps explain why there isn’t a national chain selling a standard hot dog to Americans everywhere. 

“I feel like most people don’t go out for hot dogs,” says Ho. “It’s like going out for a simple bowl of rice or a piece of toast.”

The fact that there isn’t a big hot dog chain may be part of the meal’s charm. It still evokes memories of an individual selling them out of their humble cart, or a family member grilling them in the backyard, or a cheap snack offered to tired shoppers that Costco doesn’t seem to mind taking a loss on. It’s this ultra-processed, mass-produced food that’s nevertheless steeped in domestic nostalgia. At the same time, the hot dog is a little bit — well, maybe more than a little bit — gross. You’re drawn to its perfect portion size, its one-handed portability, but the imagination conjures images of the sharp blades of a filthy, terrifying meat grinder. The mind resists getting too close to the inscrutable hot dog’s true nature.

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