The Sandwich Issue

‘Wich is it?

When Rouses asked me to write about whether or not a hot dog is a sandwich, I knew I was going to make some enemies. I am still getting hate mail from those of you who like ranch dressing on pizza (which is the culinary equivalent of walking around barefoot in the mall) and those upset by my verdict on waffles versus pancakes (waffles are needy pancakes that require you to buy an appliance you’ll use twice a year). Rouses shoppers have strong opinions about food. But unless your opinion is the same is mine, you are wrong, sadly, and so, here goes: Hot dogs are not sandwiches. Hamburgers aren’t sandwiches, either. Before you begin your letter-writing campaign, however, hear me out. We are going to do a deep philosophical exploration of what is a sandwich. If, at the end, you disagree with me, you will still be wrong, but at least you will be better informed about how wrong you are.

First, we should probably talk about where sandwiches come from.

The sandwich as we know it goes back to John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, who distinguished himself from the three earlier earls by being a devoted gambler who did not want to stop playing cards to have dinner. While at the tables, he thus ordered a meal of meat between two slices of toasted bread, which did not require a fork to eat and allowed him to play without getting his cards greasy. His gambling addiction is the world’s gain.

The food became the rage of London — people ordered “the same as Sandwich” — and it remains the greatest, if not only, culinary gift that England has ever bestowed upon the world. (Considering its other gifts are weird meat pies, and steak and kidney pudding, it’s not like there was much competition.) Yes, people had come up with the notion of a sandwich before Montagu, but it was called (really) “bread and meat,” and sometimes “bread and cheese.”

Fast-forward to today: Let us consider the definition of a sandwich according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which ought to know. A “closed sandwich,” it says, is made of “at least 35% cooked meat and no more than 50% bread.” An open sandwich, meanwhile, is “at least 50% cooked meat.” First, I should say that there is no such thing as an open sandwich. An open sandwich is a slice of bread with things on top. Avocado toast is an open sandwich, which is self-evidently not a sandwich. Moreover, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, which, I will argue, is most definitely a sandwich, would not be according to the USDA due to its lack of meat. Their definition is a mess, and until it is corrected, the USDA should be defunded immediately. Our tax dollars deserve better.

OK, so the government got it wrong. No surprise there. But what about the dictionary? It’s not every day that I can cross swords with the USDA and Merriam-Webster, but seemingly from thin air, the dictionary authors decided that a “split roll” could also be included in the sandwich description, which of course is wrong. I’m going to declare for the world that a sandwich requires a minimum of two (2) slices of bread. More is fine. You can make a club sandwich with three slices of bread, no problem. (A Big Mac, however, which also contains three parts of bread, is not a sandwich. It is a hamburger, as we will discuss.) But one slice of bread is not a sandwich. It’s a roll-over, maybe. Or it’s a toast of some sort. If nothing else, consider that a single slice of bread with toppings, folded over, would allow one of those giant slices of overrated New York pizza to be considered a sandwich. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, according to the dictionary definition, by the simple act of folding it in half, it would be magically transformed into a cheese sandwich with tomato sauce. We know that not to be true, and can disregard it with no further consideration.

I propose that a sandwich is defined not by the ingredients delivered, nor by the mere presence of bread, but by structure. Like a hologram or fractal, every single element of a sandwich must spiritually conform to, and contain the nature of, that which is sandwichness.

Furthermore, sandwiches may only be born of bread intended to be sliced for multiple servings. What do I mean by this? Consider the hamburger bun. It is bread, we agree. And it must be sliced, I admit (a top half and a bottom half). However, a hamburger bun is intended only for a single hamburger. (Or cheeseburger, which is also not a sandwich. Or the aforementioned Big Mac: again, not a sandwich.) Sandwiches are inherently a communal food. By my obviously correct definition, a hamburger is therefore not a sandwich.

“But David,” you say, thinking you have found a loophole, “What if I eat a hamburger patty on slices of Bunny Bread?” First of all, if you are doing that, it means someone at the barbecue forgot to bring buns, and you are probably pretty sad about the whole thing.

(Secondly, the tragedy is compounded due to the sad fact that no one at least had Evangeline Maid.) That hamburger would not be a sandwich because it feels wrong (feelings count): not quite a sandwich, not quite a hamburger. Rather, it is a mistake — an apostasy, even — with insufficient sandwichness. A sandwich is more than a mere delivery device of things to your mouth. All of the ingredients, together, must cohere elegantly as a sandwich.

Slices of bread are more than mere vessels for — to name a popular topping — peanut butter and jelly. They must instead be intrinsic parts of the whole. No one would lick a spoonful of peanut butter, then shove the spoon into a jar of jelly and add that to their mouth, chewing the two into magenta goo. The texture would be all wrong. The nature of the thing would be abominable. In the case of peanut butter and jelly especially, bread brings not only order, but balance. The two condiments are already in harmony, but they are incomplete, a mere half of a barbershop quartet. Only with the addition of two slices of bread do you achieve coherence. As proof, consider that no sane person would buy hot dog buns, spread peanut butter on one half, and jelly on the other, and eat…whatever you might call that. Even though the ingredients would be the same on a molecular level to a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, it would not be a sandwich.

You see that this discussion is not the result of a mind gone mad, but a mind staving off madness.

Now, consider a muffaletta. It has a bun, yes — a very large one. Within its confines are cold cuts and an olive salad spread. A vital consideration is that no one would ever eat olive salad and cold cuts on their own (though it does sound tasty, I must confess). Bread is required — again, for balance. But — and here is the important part for these arbitrary rules I have defined — a muffaletta is cut into multiple wedges intended for several people (or one very, very hungry person with a cast-iron stomach). By its very nature, it meets the threshold of sandwichness. A muffaletta is, therefore, a sandwich.

We must, while we dwell on New Orleans cuisine, consider another edge case: the po-boy. Long have I meditated on this one. Can a po-boy truly be a sandwich? It is composed, usually, of two slices of bread, and that bread generally feeds multiple people (or at least, is made to be divided into multiple servings). What of its constituents? Here is where I struggle. The ham and cheese ingredients of a ham and cheese po-boy can be eaten on their own, as anyone who has ever ordered charcuterie or eaten Lunchables can attest. The fried shrimp of a fried shrimp po-boy, obviously, can be eaten on its own, and if we include the thinly shredded lettuce that usually dresses it, yes, it would make a tasty shrimp salad, no bread needed. Therefore, a po-boy is not a sandwich. Its po-boyness is simply too strong. (Consider that no one would ever order a peanut butter and jelly po-boy, which is also proof of the sandwichness of a PB&J.)

The above example challenges the sandwich definition because meat and cheese are great on their own. However, two slices of (non po-boy) bread so improve the two that they become greater than the sum of their parts. They become a sandwich. Meat and cheese together is a snack. Meat and cheese on slices of bread is a satisfying meal, as the 4th Earl of Sandwich recognized in the 18th century.

What about an ice cream sandwich? I think you already know the answer. First, the chocolate cookie-ish cake part is not bread, and second, ice cream is ice cream. Nice try, dessert menu, but not on my watch. (They do have harmony, though, I will give you that…)

Which brings us, at last, to the hot dog. As discussed, a hot dog bun, though bread, yes, and though sliced (though not completely in two, making it ineligible to be a sandwich ex vi termini), it is still intended only for a single hot dog eaten by a single person, or if you are a parent, a single person, but the parent can finish whatever the child does not. But also, the actual hot dog itself — the meat part — is too weird for a sandwich. Like a po-boy, a hot dog is its own thing entirely, and not a subset of sandwich. The fact that I said “hot dog” — which is a meat — and you imagined the bun immediately, attests to how integrated and perfect it is as its own entity.

It is, however, a burrito. But that is a much longer discussion.