Americans love their hot dogs, eating about 7 billion from Memorial Day to Labor Day, according to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council. And Hulu’s hit show “The Bear” has not only sparked a great thirst for handsome line cooks, but it has also reignited a great debate over which condiments are acceptable on a hot dog.
Take, for instance, the following conversation from Episode 4:
Richie: “What kind of a**hole puts ketchup on a hot dog?”
Carmy: “A child, Richie.”
It turns out Carmy isn’t the only Chicagoan who thinks that way.
The National Hot Dog and Sausage Council has identified 18 regional-style hot dogs across the United States, but there are likely way more. In New York, hot dogs are eaten with mustard and steamed onions. From Arizona through California, the Sonora hot dog is wrapped in bacon and topped with pinto beans, jalapeños, spicy grilled peppers and crema.
But in Chicago, where “The Bear” is based and hot dogs are legendary, the idea of putting ketchup on a hot dog can be controversial.
The classic Chicago hot dog has mustard, neon-green relish, raw onions, a full pickle spear, tomatoes, a little bit of celery salt and a poppy seed bun; sport peppers are optional. Historians link the Chicago version to the Depression, when people could get a full meal from a hot dog and toppings.
But don’t even consider putting ketchup on it, at least according to certain Chicagoans. Even President Barack Obama, a longtime Chicago resident, said several years ago on CNN that “it’s not acceptable past the age of 8.”
Some Chicagoland hot dog stands pride themselves on not serving ketchup, such as Gene and Jude’s in River Grove, just outside the city.
Other Chicagoans take a more live and let live approach. Bill Savage, a professor at Northwestern University and a Chicago historian, said the whole argument is about identity and authenticity.
“If you like ketchup on your hot dogs, and you put it on there, who really cares?” Savage asked. “Nobody, except some judgmental person who says, ‘Oh, you’re not really authentic.’”
But there may be some practical reasons why ketchup may not be an ideal condiment, from a flavor profile perspective.
“Generally the reasoning behind it is just the sweetness of the ketchup,” said Eric Mittenthal, the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council president. “It’s just not an ideal complement to the hot dog.”
Doug Sohn, the founder of Hot Doug’s Inc. who is known for pushing the limits of encased meats with toppings of foie gras and other unique ingredients, doesn’t love ketchup as a condiment in general.
“I think the flavor elements of ketchup, both in its sweetness and acidity as well as the cinnamon, cloves, etc., that are in it, clash with the other hot dog condiments,” he said.
Other experts believe ketchup confuses and overpowers other condiments, and not just the ones on a Chicago-style hot dog, said Manolis Alpogianis, owner of America’s Dog & Burger, known for serving eight different kinds of regional hot dogs.
Mustard is a different story, observed Bob Schwartz, a Vienna Beef hot dog executive and author of ”Never Put Ketchup On A Hot Dog.” It “blends more with the hot dog,” he said.
Ketchup is kid’s stuff
Children tend to be given a pass. Of course, the cutoff age is a controversy as well. Obama said 8. The National Hot Dog and Sausage Council says 18.
But the same reason that ketchup might not work for adults may be the reason that children like it: the sweetness. Alpogianis explained that kids tend not to like more complex flavors of mustard and onions.
But taste is not just a factor of age.
“Both age and genetics combine with our culture to shape our love of particular foods, including ketchup,” said Danielle Reed, associate director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. “Some people are born with genetic variants that promote a greater liking for sweetness, which can be exacerbated by age, with young children generally preferring sweeter foods than adults.”
For Reed, the ketchup vs. mustard debate is really about the war between sweet and savory. “Some people strongly object to what they view as the over-sweetness of many prepared foods while others love sweetness,” she said.
There’s shame in the ketchup game
Chicago may not be the only place to eschew ketchup. In the roster of regional-style hot dogs, none list ketchup as an ingredient.
But Schwartz and Alpogianis both agree that it’s really in Chicago where this debate rages on. Some places in the U.S. use ketchup as a matter of course, others just don’t. Culinary conflict is part of it, but it’s also cultural, explained Schwartz. In some places, it’s just tradition not to put ketchup on a hot dog.
Of course not everyone upholds tradition. A 2021 survey of 1,000 Americans (represented in the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council graphic below) found that mustard is the most popular condiment for hot dogs, followed by a tie between ketchup and onions:
At its core, the flexibility of toppings is one of the best things about the hot dog, allowing for personal creativity.
“There’s only two kinds of foods: good and bad,” Sohn explained. “And if it tastes good, then go ahead.”
CORRECTION: A prior version of this story misidentified Barack Obama as a native of Chicago. He was born in Honolulu.