Ketchup Shame Is a Plague on Hot Dog Eaters Everywhere

Hot dogs are sacred, especially in the US, where they've become a quintessential “American” food by ticking off all the requisite boxes: They’re hand-held, they’re fatty, and they were hijacked from another culture and rebranded as ours.

Let’s be real though: This particular sacred cow -- or pig, or chicken, or little bits of each jumbled together with whatever nutria or other creatures found their way into the grinder -- isn’t exactly high brow. Yet for a food that consists of an intestine jammed full of offal, tendons, and other stuff that the general public would generally scoff at if presented in non-tube form, there is no sect of food fan more inherently snobby than the hot dog eater. Bougie "foodies" don't have shit on the average baseball fan, blue-collar eater, drunchie-seeking hipster, or 5-year-old.

Want proof? Put some ketchup on a hot dog and watch the room turn on you. I do. Often. Because to me, it's the best way to eat a hot dog. And if you're too up your own ass about eating a food made of parts of an animal's digestive tract, you're missing out. 

Before you get your pitchforks out -- which, in a perfect world, would be adorned with hot dogs to roast over my corpse -- let’s consider the myriad toppings people find acceptable on hot dogs. Chili. Slaw. Mac & cheese. Relish. Beans. Nacho cheese. Fruit. Grilled onions. Peppers. French fries. All perfectly acceptable.

There are more than 40 regional takes on the hot dog. Some involve wrapping the thing in bologna or bacon. Others transform them into a tortilla-less burrito variation. And while you hear the wayward grunts from purist over variations like the Seattle dog, they all seem to get a pass. Largely because most of them are great. Of course they are. They're hot dogs!

Yet throw a nice little strip of ketchup on a hot dog in front of a crowd and I guarantee at least somebody is going to give you shit. It’s weird, not only because it’s about the least offensive thing you can do, but also because of the seemingly acceptable behavior involved: Short of busting out a rotisserie chicken at a PETA meeting, in what other situation would somebody feel compelled to approach a stranger and tell them what they’re eating is an abomination. Yet the minute the Heinz comes out at a hot dog shop, the world goes silent for a moment, then erupts in feigned outrage. 

Cole Saladino/Thrillist

To be clear, I am a lifelong hot dog snob, not some pleb. I take my hot dogs very, very seriously, and refuse to compromise on quality. I grew up on Koegel’s Viennas, the single greatest hot dog manufactured in these United States. They're made in Flint, Michigan and still respect an old code of hot dog purity that's basically the tube-meat equivalent of the German Reinheitsgebot. They're great hot dogs.  

Anyway, where I grew up, everybody covers their dogs in a dry chili made of offal and ground hot dogs, topped with raw onions and mustard. These coney dogs -- different than their also-great Detroit cousins -- are delicious, but when you have an actual good hot dog at your disposal, you want to taste that sucker, from the first snap to the nub. And barring a naked dog, a little squiggle of ketchup really nails it.

Honestly, I don't even care about ketchup. I'm ambivalent to it. I'll dip a wayward fry in it. I'll mix a little in with the rest of the sauces on a burger. But a squiggle on a hot dog -- especially a good hot dog -- is magical, giving a little kick of sweetness and acidity that complements the smoked tube steak in wonderful ways. It adds a layer, not a blanket. And it's glorious.

Those who decry ketchup for "ruining" a hot dog are most often students of the mustard-only school, or Chicagoans who put half a salad bar on their dogs. Mustard can be a good complement, but gobs of the stuff just overpowers everything else on the bun. You'd be just as good eating a bun full of mustard. Which is fine! If you like mustard so much, go for it. Drown that dog in it. Cover it in pickles and sport peppers all you want. But don't claim to be a hot dog purist if you need to make your dog taste like something else just to enjoy it… especially a slice of tomato, which is just a cop out for anti-ketchup extremists.

Chicago dog
A hot dog hidden under a peppers, pickles, and deconstructed ketchup | Flickr/Marco Verch

But here's the real rub. People who claim to hate ketchup on a hot dog -- an abomination! -- will happily inhale a plate of BBQ swimming in BBQ sauce, which, nine times out of 10, is made with ketchup. The act of putting a little squirt of ketchup on a smoky little processed link is blasphemy. These same people will wait in a 50hour line for a slab of brisket -- which was smoked for a full day by a pitmaster who spent a lifetime honing the flavor -- then douse it in a mixture of ketchup, vinegar, and sugar.

But god forbid you put some ketchup on a precious hot dog. 

Look, if you want to smother your BBQ in sauce, go for it. It's your prerogative. Just like it's your prerogative if you want to load your hot dog up with mustard, relish, or any other condiments that mask the actual taste of the hot dog.

Me, I'll be enjoying my ketchup-kissed dog with a side of slings and arrows, as I always have. Just like you, I'll be judging your choices. But unlike you, I'll do it quietly. Because I'm an adult. Because I have manners. And because nobody should feel free to tell anybody what they should and shouldn't eat.

But let me ask you this: Do you even like hot dogs?

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If you spot senior editor Andy Kryza on a cross-country flight, there is a 93% chance that his backpack contains at least 50 frozen hot dogs from Michigan. Follow him to hear strange questions from the TSA @apkryza.