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Hot Dogs Vs. Hamburgers: Which Is More American?

Leon is an American writer and essayist from Horton Bay, Michigan.

It doesn't get much more American than a hamburger, hot dog, and fries.

It doesn't get much more American than a hamburger, hot dog, and fries.

The Most American Foods of All Time

An American backyard cookout would be incomplete without two iconic foods: hamburgers and hot dogs. These cheap and easy-to-prepare foods are liable to make an appearance at a number of thoroughly-American locales, such as baseball games, Fourth of July block parties, campsites in the vast outdoors, and street corners in bustling cities. But which of these two delicacies is more American?

On the one hand, “hot dog” sounds much more American than “hamburger” (it has even become an idiom, as when someone exclaims “Hot dog!” or “Hot diggety dog!” to express delight or enthusiasm), but, on the other, hot dog is just an Americanism for the weiner’s true name: the frankfurter, or, "frank" for short.

This article will make a case for the hamburger as the most American food in the world. The worthy hot dog sits in second place for the reasons discussed below.

The Hamburger: By Americans, for Americans

The origin of the hamburger is more mysterious than that of the hot dog, but all the available evidence points to the American people as the inventors of the burger as it is known and loved today.

We must first expel the myth that hamburgers originated in Hamburg, Germany. While it is true that the Germans may have had an influence on what would eventually become the hamburger, the city of Hamburg is known not for the hamburger, but for the Hamburg steak: minced beef blended with garlic, onions, salt, and pepper, and cooked in the shape of a patty. Bread and condiments came into play only once the Americans got involved.

During America’s industrial boom in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, crafty restaurateurs and food stand vendors were the first to put Hamburg steaks on buns for easier handling and eating. Industry in the United States created a new group of middle and working-class Americans, and these hard-working men and women needed something they could eat while on the move.

As time progressed, the hamburger became a thoroughly American dish, unique to the country and the people it was made to satisfy. Nearly every restaurant began to offer hamburgers and cheeseburgers, and most still do today. Before long, restaurants that sold only hamburgers (sometimes referred to as “burger joints”) sprouted up, some of the most notable being White Castle and McDonald’s.

American popular culture also embraced the hamburger as its own, with early comic strips like E.C. Segar’s Thimble Theatre featuring a hamburger-coveting character named J. Wellington Wimpy. Modern TV shows and movies, such as Spongebob Squarepants, Bob's Burgers, and Good Burger, to name only a few, also include the hamburger (or in Spongebob’s universe, the “Krabby Patty”) as a large part of their storylines, further solidifying its place in American culture.

In short, the hamburger is not only delicious, but it is also a ubiquitous feature of American life and is thus more American than hot dogs.

Like wine and cheese, and hamburger and a hot dog are a perfect pairing.

Like wine and cheese, and hamburger and a hot dog are a perfect pairing.

The Hot Dog: An Americanized Import

Unlike the hamburger, the hot dog was imported from Frankfurt, Germany, renamed, and claimed by Americans. Hot dogs became closely associated with America as vendors began to sell them at baseball games, and street carts began to offer them on the avenues of busy cities.

Like the hamburger, hot dogs were a natural success in the states because of their convenience. Easy to carry and eat, most Americans took their hot dogs (and still do) with only mustard and ketchup, the more ambitious among them adding relish, onions, and, in today's brave new world, chili and cheese. Numerous variations of the hot dog emerged in different parts of the country, such as the Coney Island dog and the “red hot,” leaving no doubt as to whether the hot dog is a contender with the hamburger for the title of the most American food.

Still, hot dogs remain a novelty, rather than a staple of American cuisine. Whereas one can find a hamburger at nearly any food-selling establishment they wander into, hot dogs are harder to find.

No amount of analysis will make the hot dog any less delicious, and the goal of this article is not to argue that the hamburger is tastier than the cherished hot dog, but when it comes to the matter of whether the hot dog or the hamburger is more American, the hot dog is simply too global a food.

Whether it be Germany, Poland, Ireland, England, or Mexico, one is sure to find a variation of the hot dog. The same cannot be said for the hamburger. (Unless you’re able to locate a McDonald’s, that is.)

Carts selling frankfurters in New York City, circa 1906. The price is listed as "3 cents each or 2 for 5 cents."

Carts selling frankfurters in New York City, circa 1906. The price is listed as "3 cents each or 2 for 5 cents."

The Statistics

HamburgersHot Dogs

McDonald's sells 75 hamburgers per second.

7-Eleven sells the most hot dogs in America: 100 million annually.

The burger market is a $73 billion business.

The hot dog market is a $2.1 billion business.

Americans eat 14 billion burgers every year.

Americans eat 9 billion hot dogs every year.

With 6,000 burger restaurants, California has more burger joints than any other state.

Los Angeles residents consume more hot dogs than any other city (more than 36 million pounds), beating out New York and Philadelphia.

71 percent of all beef consumed in restaurants is in the form of a burger.

Most hot dogs are sold eight to a pound. Approximately 35 percent are offered in 10 to the pound packages.

Meat from more than 1,000 cows can go into a single patty.

All hot dogs are cured and cooked sausages that consist of mainly pork, beef, chicken and turkey or a combination of meat and poultry. If variety meats such as liver and hearts are used in processed meats, the U.S. Department of Agriculture requires the manufacturer to declare those ingredients on the package with the statement "with variety meats" or "with meat by-products."

© 2018 Leon Dupuis