It’s surprising how many hard-fast, nit-picky rules there are for such a relaxed, no-fuss food as the humble hot dog. It’s just a casual American wiener, so what’s the big whoop when it comes to putting ketchup on it?
The whoop is not only huge (in some circles), it is multi-faceted. Here are some of the reasons ketchup haters have given for their campaign against the sugary tomato sauce.
No one should squirt ketchup on a hot dog after the age of 18, say officials at the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, part of the American Meat Institute.
“You have to grow up sometime,” says council president Janet Riley, a.k.a. “the Queen of Wien” in her Hot Dog Etiquette video.
So apparently it’s immature to use ketchup on your hot dog. Maybe that’s because ketchup is so sugary, and you’re supposed to be over that as an adult and into good ol’ salty meats with chopped onions, vinegary mustardand sauerkraut, or chili. You want to enhance the all-beef dog, not camouflage it. Ketchup is what parents smother over everything to make kids eat their food, after all.
People are pretty frank about the horror that this pairing creates, perhaps none more so than Chicagoans. “Ketchup on your hot dog is the end of the world,” says Bill Savage in the Chicago Tribune. Savage once gave a “Ketchup: The Condiment of Controversy” talk at the Chicago Hot Dog Festival. For Savage, you’re not a real Chicagoan if you put the tomato-based condiment on your dog. It’s an identity thing. That’s not the way his people do it.
“Ketchup on your hot dog is the end of the world.”
When you push people past their outrage and spouting of the 11th commandment—Thou Shalt Not Put Ketchup on a Hot Dog—and make them give a good reason, it always comes back to sugar.
“Ketchup smothers the flavor of the hot dog because ketchup makers add sugar to their products,” says Cecil Adams in his reply to this very question on The Straight Dope. “That takes the edge off the highly acidic tomatoes, but it takes the edge off everything else, too.” Adams merely repeated the reasoning given by Mel Plotsky, sales manager for the David Berg hot dog company in Chicago.
As if you didn’t already know, Chicago is one of the Hot Dog Holy Cities. It’s usually an all-beef Vienna dog with yellow mustard, chopped onion, relish, pickle spears, sliced tomatoes, hot peppers, and celery salt. In New York, it’s a Sabrett-brand dog with brown mustard, stewed tomatoes and onions, and sauerkraut. In the South, they like coleslaw on it.
So with all these regional taste differences, why the nationwide fuss over the red stuff on the loveable tube steak? “Because ‘no ketchup on a hot dog’ isn’t a regional taste, but rather a universal condemnation,” writes Michigan Daily food columnist Giancarlo Buonomo in 2014. “One of the heads of Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs in NYC referred to putting ketchup on a hot dog as a sign of a ‘less sophisticated’ palate.”
Buonomo continues, calling it an “intuitively disgusting food pairing, like cinnamon in spaghetti sauce or blue cheese with chocolate syrup”—before he then refutes everything he just said, calling it all elitism (also, cinnamon in spaghetti sauce is edging into Cincinnati chili territory, and we all know that’s delicious). Having a strongly defined dislike is a way to place yourself in an imaginary in-group of people who know food and what’s proper in the food world, he says.
Food & Wine categorizes this popular no-no in the same list as drinking your wine with ice, eating your pizza with a fork, and dipping your french fries in mayonnaise. All of these rules are ridiculous, writer Justine Sterling says.
Next time you’re in shorts and sandals at the barbecue party or summer fair, you might hesitate before grabbing that Heinz bottle or packet and squeezing out a red zig-zag across your frankfurter. But if you like it, don’t bow to peer pressure—do whatever you want to your own wiener. We won’t judge. (Some of us will. But probably silently, at least.)
Not so Harry Callahan, with his famous rant from the 1983 Dirty Harry movie “Sudden Impact.” Clint Eastwood’s character can cope just fine with a filthy, brutal, and greedy world, but a ketchup dog? That’s a trigger for righteous rage. “Nobody,” Callahan says with a clenched jaw, “I mean nobody puts ketchup on a hot dog.”
A deep-fried favorite at fairs, corn dogs got it going on in the awesome food-on-a-stick category. Just ignore that “ketchup for dipping” suggestion and go with your own homemade spicy mustard. (We have the recipe for that too.) Get our Corn Dogs recipe.
When it comes to hot dog condiments, we’ve already established ketchup = bad and mustard = good, but what about mayo? We’ll allow it, at least when it’s accompanied by fiery Sriracha, crisp pickled vegetables, and fresh cilantro, à la a banh mi. Get our Banh Mi Spiral-Cut Hot Dogs recipe.
This might not fly in Chicago either, but we have no qualms about smothering a grilled hot dog in nacho cheese and pickled japaleños (plus crushed tortilla chips for that authentic crunch). Get our Movie Theater Nacho Spiral-Cut Hot Dogs recipe.