Will Self: Thoughts on the hermaphroditic hot dog

More Marquis de Sade profanity than Enlightenment sweetmeat.

David Cameron gets a hot dog with New York Mayor Bloomberg. Photo: Getty.

The hot dog is the mangina of fast food – and I mean that most sincerely. You’ve only to consider its doughy and plump labia majora, the pubic shock of its fried onions and, yes, of course, the frankphallus itself. A large part of this comestible’s appeal must reside in precisely this: its hermaphroditic union of human genitalia, which exists in lubricious synergy with snackers’ mouths and hands, so enabling them to co-ordinate cunnilingus with fellatio while on the go. 

In Woody Allen’s New Yorker squib “Yes, But Can the Steam Engine Do This?”, he imagines the creative torment wrapped up in the Earl of Sandwich’s invention of the sandwich: such avant-garde prototypes as two slices of ham with a piece of bread in between them, or three pieces of bread piled on top of each other, fail to grab the public’s attention – although philosophers such as Hume and Voltaire support the revolutionary food technician.

After he finally achieves the world-beating 2:1 ratio of bread-to-filling, the earl is lionised and in a late flowering of genius invents the hamburger, giving flipping demonstrations before admiring crowds in opera houses throughout Europe.

My point here is that Allen says nothing about the invention of the hot dog, because such a creation is impossible – even in jest – to reconcile with the Enlightenment. The hamburger – and all things sandwich-form – is sacred but the hot dog is profane.

If one were to hypothesise a single originator for this most salacious of sweetmeats (why, the very name itself is an incitement to bestiality), it would have to be the Marquis de Sade. You can picture him, banged up in the Bastille, with only spiders for company and bread to eat, when some corresponding Teuton, taking pity, sends him his wurst. The marquis toys with it, inserting it in all the orifices he has to hand – he even tries it on with the arachnid – before, with a stroke of sheer genius worthy of Ferran Adrià, tearing his bread open and sticking the sausage inside.

You can get hot dogs of the de Sade type to this day: the frankfurters are cooked impaled on spikes and then thrust into the core of sectioned sticks of French bread – but let’s face it, these are bastard creations, on a par with an ordinary hot dog bun stuffed with a sausage.

No, for a hot dog to be fully achieved the bun must be bland and white, save for its industrially browned upper lid, and the frankfurter must be red and so tumescent that when you bite into it the meatish filling (a disturbing pulp of pigs’ eyelids, anuses and other unpopular body parts) gushes inside your slavering chops.

And yet . . . and yet . . . the smell of a broiling frankfurter never fails to act on me like the smell-made-sight trails of meatiness that so sorely afflicted Butch the bulldog in the Tom and Jerry cartoons. I used to live near the Queens Park Rangers ground at Loftus Road, and most Saturdays I would still be crapulent and abed when the man whose pitch was immediately beneath my bedroom window lowered the wire basket of chopped onions into the small vat of boiling oil on his stall; the tremendous “Chssshhhh!” this made would jerk me awake and before I had fully gained consciousness I’d find myself standing in the street – on at least one occasion bollock-naked – and grouting the pasty pasty with the mastic gun of the sauce bottle. 

Almost all handheld foods now have their own dedicated chain of outlets but, so far as I’m aware, there’s nowhere in Britain that specialises in the hot dog alone. This could be an anti-German thing, but I think it has more to do with the chimerical nature of the food itself; like the gustatory equivalent of a gypsy, the hot dog is at once cast out – and has also elected – to wander the highways and byways in convoys of little carts.

I quite like hot dogs, and often I’ll cry “Hot dog!” when I bite into one. What other foodstuff allows for such a perfect denotative act? I mean, you can’t imagine biting into a wrap and shouting out “It’s a wrap!”; unless, that is, you happen to be on a film set at exactly the right time. However, I do have problems with the markup. I don’t know why – after all, I’ll tolerate people flogging me bread discs slathered in tomato purée and cheese at ten times the cost of their ingredients without demurring, but three quid for boiled offal in bread? Well, unlike the slickly lubricated hot dog itself, this has a tendency to stick in my craw.