Forget partisan warfare. Capitol Hill has a new clash of rivals: It’s veggie burgers vs. hot dogs.
On Wednesday, the North American Meat Institute held its Hot Dog Lunch, an annual tradition that goes back 25 years and basically involves staffers and lawmakers gorging on processed meat while mingling with baseball legends. Years ago, PETA established an alternative event in which lettuce-leaf-bikini clad models served up meatless versions of the iconic treat.
And now, a new entrant is challenging the meat-lovers for the position of top dog — the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine threw its inaugural “Veggie Burger Smackdown” lunch just steps away from the flesh-chomping bacchanal. Their event relied not on sexy servers or sports celebs but on competition: The gist was that Todd Gray, the renowned chef of downtown’s Equinox, whipped up meatless burgers with toppings inspired by the home states of four vegetarians of Congress, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), and Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.). Diners voted for a winner.
The contrast between the two lunches was clearly intentional.
And it was something of a rematch for competing spokespeople — Physicians Committee President Neal Barnard and the Meat Institute’s National Hog Dog and Sausage Council President Janet Riley last faced off in a 2011 “Daily Show With Jon Stewart” segment titled “Death from a Bun.” On Tuesday, their jibes were as sharp as a snappy yellow mustard.
“They’re welcome to do it,” sniffed Riley. “But I would bet in a side by side competition, you’d see Americans choosing the real thing.”
“If there is one thing that is certain in science, it’s that hot dogs are bad for you,” Barnard shot back. In addition to skewers of fruit, platters of faux burgers, and a roomful of enthusiastic young staffers, his event featured a scary-looking poster detailing “The Dangers of Processed Meat.”
Nevertheless, the Hot Dog Lunch, with its quarter-century of history, drew bigger crowds to the courtyard of the Rayburn House office building. Members of Congress queued up for pictures with former Cincinnati Red Tony Perez, Bill Buckner of the Boston Red Sox and New York Mets veteran Mookie Wilson. The smell of diced onions was heavy in the air.
“The trick is to start with a small base,” Rep. Randy Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) was overheard telling a colleague, explaining his strategy for approaching the all-you-can-eat tables as he snacked on a small dog. “That way, you can build from there if you want and not get too stuffed.”
Barnard seemed to relish (yep, pun intended) his group’s role as the upstart. But he warned the hot dog purveyors that their days are numbered. Asked if someday, the veggie-burger gathering might be of equal size, he scoffed. “As big as? Let’s not be modest.”