This guest post provided by Dr. Rachel Chamberlain. Please enjoy this fun little insight from Dr. Chamberlain on hot dogs and the discourse of power.
What do hot dogs and Karl Marx have in common? The punchline is in who controls the means of tube meat production. The humble hot dog is more than just a sausage with bread and toppings; indeed, it holds quite a lot of shared meaning for us.
Think about it: if you were to describe a hot dog to someone beyond the basics of its ingredients, what would you say? You might reach further into shared understandings about how a hot dog is produced or what it means to you in a cultural sense. Perhaps you have fond memories of eating a hot dog at a baseball game. More likely you have shared a joke with someone about the “mystery meat” contained in the hot dog.
It may be full of rat pieces for all we know, but Americans gobble it up. We consume roughly 20 billion hot dogs per year. That’s a lot of synthetically processed meat bits. But it isn’t just anyone eating hot dogs, right? After all, if we were to consider who in a class structure would be more likely to eat hot dogs, it wouldn’t be the most rich and famous among us. More likely, if we placed the hot dog on a visual representation of class structure, say, “The Pyramid of the Capitalist System” taken from a Russian flyer in 1901, it would fall on the bottom.
Diets and preferences for food are shaped by our access to different foods. The condition of our class determines this access. During my childhood, when my family was on a fixed income, I remember frequent lunches of hot dogs mixed with baked beans or boxed macaroni and cheese. It sure wasn’t a bento box carefully constructed with vegetables and fruits cut into fun shapes, a trend made popular by “momfluencers.” Making a show of children’s lunches, packed to the brim with diverse and nutritious foods, is a luxury of a class unlike my own as a child. It is the luxury of time and resources that we did not have, where the main concern was feeding a child an affordable meal.
Many people turn their noses at the hot dog for this reason, associating the food as a cheap meal, one that is overly processed and bad for your health. A recent study claimed that eating just one hot dog could take 36 minutes off your life, suggesting that high amounts of processed meats could lead to a shortened life span. Hot dogs may commonly fall into the category of junk food; even the word “junk” has the connotation of refuse, something that is meant to be thrown away. Anything associated with junk or cheapness can then be shameful - even our beloved hot dog.
According to French philosopher Michel Foucault, there is power in language and discourse. As humans, we collectively create narratives that shape our societal perceptions. While the hot dog may have national significance and even culinary sophistication for some (think Chicago-style hot dogs), the discourse around hot dogs often centers around the lower class. It is cheap, easily accessible, or not good for you. People who do not have a lot of money eat hot dogs. I certainly wouldn’t expect to see them at a 5-star restaurant where people with influence, fame, or power go to eat.
This discourse is the connection between hot dogs and Karl Marx. Marx posits that the capitalist few have predatory interests to subjugate the working class. The powerful use language to shape the way society sees and believes everything, from food to fear to policy. The working class may not have access to higher quality, more expensive foods. The perpetuated shame around eating a hot dog keeps them in their place. This occurs even though they do not have a choice on their access to food.
The discourse around hot dogs may not shape nations, but it does shape our values around food. Next time you consider eating a hot dog, examine the feelings you have about it. Is there a twinge of guilt because you are not eating a healthier option? Is it a slight feeling of ick from believing you may not know all of the ingredients? These feelings come from the discourse we’ve been conditioned to accept. A simple choice of what food to eat places us above or below others, albeit subconsciously.
So eat the damn hot dog. The discourse is a human construct. At the end of the day, it really just is a sausage with bread and toppings.
Dr. Chamberlain is a well-known educator advocate who usually doesn't talk about hot dogs and socialism, but instead tries to improve the lives of students in public schools through research. You can learn more about her (again, non-hot dog) and her achievements on her LinkedIn.