The Essence of Sandwich

28 Jul

My colleague, Jon Schwartz, claims that in order to be an “authentic” sandwich, the presence of meat is a necessary condition. PB&J, grilled cheese, and vegetarians “sandwiches” don’t qualify in his view. This notion of a sandwich is unnecessarily restrictive – especially given that he leaves the remaining features of a sandwich poorly defined.

According to a 2006 Boston, MA court ruling, burritos are not technically sandwiches. The Worcester Superior Court Judge Jeffery A. Locke claims the distinction here is between the two-bread classification for sandwiches and the single tortilla: “A sandwich is not commonly understood to include burritos, tacos, and quesadillas, which are typically made with a single tortilla and stuffed with a choice filling of meat, rice, and beans.” If we are to follow this logic, then Mr. Schwartz’ accolades for the Middle Eastern shawarma and falafel are inconsistent. While the comparison of tortillas to pita bread is not perfect, I think that they are not different enough for pita bread to fall outside of the Boston burrito ruling. (Moreover, by Mr. Schwartz’ own standard, the falafel is out – it’s made of chick peas and/or fava beans!)

The question here regards what standard we hold our sandwich to. By its very nature, the sandwich is a versatile food construction – it is its flexibility that makes it so widely accepted and allows for such diversity among cultures and classes. Would it be reasonable for us to restrict it’s nature in such an arbitrary way?

I don’t buy that a sandwich needs some sort of meat validation or must pass the two-bread test. Those concerns do not get to the essence of the sandwich. I’ll grant that perhaps originally, meat was an initial feature of the sandwich – but why should such originalism determine the authenticity of a sandwich now? Basketball has changed a great deal since its inception – are we to believe that LeBron James was bought by an unauthentic team to play an unauthentic game? Claims about authenticity and its merit should be examined critically no matter the scenario, with respect to the sandwich though, we must be particularly critical because by its very nature the sandwich pushes culinary boundaries and genres.

I think I have demonstrated why the standard, content-oriented measure of a sandwich is a false dictum. Now I’ll present my theory on how we define a sandwich:

The essence of the sandwich is structure-oriented.  Nearly everyone agrees that the two-bread model qualifies as an authentic sandwich. The more interesting scenarios come with open-face sandwiches, stuffed baguettes, tortillas, and pita breads. A stuffed baguette made by scooping out the middle of a baguette and filling it with food stuffs. The bread is cut from the top but not laterally. It should be clear that this passes the two-bread test – it simply a matter of slicing the bread once more so that the baguette is in two halves. I think this also helps explain the place of pita bread which also would only need one more arbitrary (and damaging) cut to fully pass the two-bread test.

Open face sandwiches are tricky because they do not fit the exact two-bread model of two slices of bread and filling. Instead, it is one slice of bread with a topping. It satisfies portability requirements, but if we allow the smørrebrød, then must we also accept pizza? It too has bread and toppings. The difference here is the nature of consumption. The open face sandwich is itself the unit of consumption. For a pizza, the unit is the slice. A key element of the sandwich is that it is a stand-alone item. But that only shows that the open face sandwich is not other foods, it doesn’t help much in the way of showing it is a type of sandwich. To this, I am willing to concede that it might not be an authentic sandwich. Although it seems compelling enough for me that the open face needs only one more slice of bread to meet the standard and that when placed with another open face, it also meets the requirement. It seems like it should be considered a sandwich because it too it simply pushing the boundaries for the accepted closed bread system.

The case for tortillas is also a bit of a challenge, but it meets a requirement that the open face cannot: it “sandwiches” the filling. That is, it presses inward on the contents of the meal.

Here are the qualifications to being an “authentic” sandwich. If he if has problems with these qualifications, I suggest Mr. Schwartz propose and defend his own:

1) There must be a form of a bread and at least one other filling.

2) It must be portable.

3) The content may be culturally or economically determined. (That is, there is no quality requirement).

4) The filling must be pressed inward by the contents further out.

5) It must be able to be eaten as a single, standard unit of consumption. (I may reconsider this as a condition.)

6) Foods that might not meet these requirement on there own, but when modified can qualify as a sandwich, can only be considered sandwiches in their modified state (e.g. two slices of pizza facing each other qualifies as a sandwich). It is recommended that the modified sandwich takes on a modified name (e.g. “pizza sandwich” or “sandwiched pizza”).


3 Responses to “The Essence of Sandwich”

  1. Ben Freed July 30, 2010 at 1:44 pm #

    You correctly identify structure as the defining characteristic of the sandwich, yet you do not explicitly spell out that this is what renders a position such as Jon’s so untenable. If it is the case that form rather than content determines whether or not a given amalgamation of bread and filling constitutes a legitimate sandwich, then it seems no argument whose premises deem a specific sandwich filling as a necessary condition could be sound. For the properties of the content of a sandwich would be unessential to the sandwich itself and thus have no bearing on the status of the sandwich’s legitimacy. There is, admittedly, one exception which is applicable to any sandwich: all fillings must be edible. But even this does not seem to isolate a specific filling and identify it as a necessary condition rather than acknowledge a much broader necessary condition so basic- a sandwich must be able to be consumed by humans- that you don’t seem to bother to mention it so much as accidentally include it as part of your fifth sandwich qualification. Clearly, the task here is to distinguish sandwiches from other types of food and not from everything else in the universe. For the sake of completeness though, it’s worth noting that for this condition to be met, all components of the sandwich must be edible. (The fallacy of composition does not apply to this case, for it seems that in order for a single entity to be edible, all of its constituent parts must be edible). But this broad requirement (strict presence of food) is the exception, and pleas for narrower requirements (presence of meat) seem to lack substantial support if it is structure and not content that really matters.

    I gather that, already aware of this point, you assumed this critique of Jon’s position was implicit in your article. It is, sort of. However, you would have done well to make it explicit, as it is considerably stronger than the critique you put to Jon, which leaves open too wide a gap for a pro-meat-presence rejoinder. You allow that meat may have been an original feature of the sandwich and then go on to argue that original features have no bearing on present essential characteristics. This is a valid line of reasoning, but it does not address the underlying pro-meat-presence intuition and probable meat-presencer rebuttal which holds that presence of meat is not merely an original feature but an original essential characteristic of the sandwich. If you allow this, it becomes substantially more difficult to defend against the pro-meat-presence position using the same ‘past/present’ strategy. For although it is reasonable to assume that inessential features of a concept may change over time, it is difficult to imagine how one might argue that an essential or determining characteristic may change over time while leaving the concept itself unchanged. Indeed, a concept is defined by its essential features. If the essential features change, the concept changes as well. This would put you in the uncomfortable position of arguing that the concept of the sandwich has changed since its advent, and that what we once referred to as a sandwich would be unrecognizable (as a sandwich) to sandwich eaters today. Instead of taking up this daunting task, it is far easier to simply deny that the presence of meat ever was an essential characteristic of the sandwich, and the most efficient way of supporting this claim is by employing the argument stipulating structural composition as the sandwich’s essential characteristic.

    Once again, you seem to imply all of this, but I find it strange that it wasn’t explicitly stated, as it certainly seems to be the brunt of your argument, or at least the reason for which you thought it worth while to provide a more detailed sketch of the sandwich. That said, I do think there is a more significant omission, which I believe causes you to inadequately defend the open face sandwich (you almost seem to argue that it is not a sandwich but one half of a sandwich) and leaves you awkwardly scrambling to exclude the pizza on grounds of inadequate units of consumption (when pizza could be and often is made and served as an individual unit). Your first qualification enumerates the working parts of the sandwich- the bread and the filling, but despite your original claim that the crux to the sandwich’s essence resides in understanding its structure, none of the your other qualifications, except perhaps the forth, which I find rather vague, seek to identify the unique structural components of the sandwich. Many foods are portable and designed to be eaten as individual units, but what is it about a certain structural composition that qualifies some of some of these foods as sandwiches? The answer lies in the first qualification, which if elaborated upon, will shed some insight on problem cases like open-facers and pizza.

    In any given sandwich, the bread must play an enabling role. Specifically, the bread enables the agent to contain the filling in such a way that she might bring, with her hands, the entire food unit up to her mouth so as to consume the unit one bite at a time. The sandwich must be designed in such a way that the bread to filling ratio remains constant during consumption, so although the bread plays a crucial role in allowing the filling to be eaten, both the bread and filling are eaten at an equal rate, which almost masks the bread’s facilitating role. (Compare this to other foods whose parts contain buttress-like qualities like the ice cream cone: after the ice cream is finished, one has the impression of staring at a shish kebab skewer; the cone may be edible, but it doesn’t exactly entice one’s appetite). It is important to note that we may say that the bread ‘contains’ the filling because, without it, it would be highly impractical or impossible to move the entirety of the filling to the face with the hands. ‘Contain’ here, then, simply implies restricting all the filling to a relative vicinity which may be moved to and from the mouth with the hands. Crucially, ‘contain’ here does not entail any act of circumscription; the filling needn’t be encapsulated or have it’s entire surface area be enveloped by the bread. As a result, there is no positive reason to believe that the open-face couldn’t rightly be called a sandwich, as it clearly falls within the bounds of this newly formulated definition, which is simply an elaboration of your first qualification: a food unit, the contents of which are contained by a morsel of bread whose function consists of allowing the entirety of the content (or filling) to be moved, with the hands, to and from the face so that the entire unit may be eaten in such a way that the bread and filling are consumed at an (approximately) equal rate.

    This definition allows us to completely abandon any form of the two bread test, which you yourself deem unsatisfactory yet seem to rely upon, asserting that sandwiches like the falafel qualify as such based on how close they are to passing the two bread test. This is no longer necessary, as the legitimacy of falafel, stuffed baguettes, open-facers, burritos and the like is justified by the precise structural relationship between the bread and the filling rather than how many slices of bread are present. One might also note that the pizza’s status as a non-sandwich is also easily explained given this new definition: what might be considered filling-the cheese- does not in fact rely on the bread in order to be contained for hand-to-mouth mobility. Indeed, cheese, even baked cheese (if one allows it time to cool) is self contained enough to be eaten with the hands. In cases of excessive cheese or in which the cheese is too soft to be easily handled, some wax paper would eliminate the need for additional support. As bizarre as this would be, the point is that the addition of bread would not really serve any structural role, but rather, it would serve only to enhance the quality of the dish in terms of taste.

    Admittedly, the structural definition I have offered does not eliminate all problem cases. For instance, the same line of reasoning that disqualifies the pizza would also disqualify grilled cheese. However, I feel that denying the grilled cheese sandwich status, although initially bizarre, is much easier to accept after a reflecting upon the structural conditions of a sandwich which apply to so many other easily identified sandwiches.

  2. Brent Butgereit July 30, 2010 at 2:44 pm #

    This is an excellent criticism. I agree with you on much of what you said, although I would like to make a few clarifications:
    1) Much of the first section of your criticism is worth mentioning, but given the fact that I did not want to bore the readers too much, I excluded what I consider a somewhat obvious position: that we are talking about edible food stuffs as filling and as the container of that filling.

    2) I agree with what you have to say about the weakness of my “unit of consumption” argument. After thinking about it for a little bit I realized that you could simply readjust the size of a pizza to be unitary and so I tacked on the “I may reconsider this” claim at the end of number 5.

    3) Going down I did and comparing open face sandwiches to pizza was ultimately unnecessary, because I rejected them both for the fact that they don’t actually “sandwich” anything. Indeed, I probably should have emphasized this feature more. This is also the point behind 4. I think the fundamental structural feature of the sandwich is that it pushes the filling inward (it “sandwiches”). I, however, don’t see the direction that the filling is being sandwiched in as being important (it doesn’t matter if the filling is pushed flat or just toward the center as in a wrap).

    4) I’ll have to think more about your definition and conception – I find nothing wrong with it at the outset. But my use of the two bread test, I think made my argument stronger. I don’t think that having two pieces of bread is a necessary condition for having a sandwich. But if nearly everyone agrees that having two slices of bread with some filling certainly constitutes a sandwich, then using that understanding to show that the only difference between two breads and other forms of the sandwich (pita, stuffed baguette) is a cut seems effective. Maybe I’m wrong on that. But what I think it also highlights is that a two bread content definition is not sufficient. These other sandwiches only differ by a cut: is that reasonable justification for excluding them from the “sandwich” category?

    My position was not as well defended as it could have been, indeed, I suggest the whole exercise might be a fool’s errand as I’m not sure I buy into authenticity arguments at all. Good response, though

    • Dev Varma July 30, 2010 at 3:43 pm #

      It still seems to me that your arguments on the essences, construction, or being of a sandwich (what you Brent call “sandwiching”) are still simply arguments on notation. Definitional arguments seem inherently to be arguments on convincing someone not of a necessary reality but a perceived notation. At least this is the way I see this all playing out. Ben and Jon and Brent will argue about the essences of sandwich without proving anything more concrete than that a concept of sandwich exists, and that within certain contexts (what I would gloss as arguments, in allusion not only to what has been going on here but to the idea that within the practice of logic we all make assumptions which serve as both the underpinning and the potential pitfalls for the certain truth [located within a matrix of other truths] we seek to pronounce as True.) some things one person sees a thing he would call sandwich while another would call wrap. The meaning of a term is the ascription of an essence that is only useful. Language is pragmatic, not universal, or essential.

      Ben, have you read the Blue Book yet?

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