There are many things in which my fixation showcases my proclivity towards pedantry. As a linguistic enthusiast, I get a lot of pleasure learning interesting but useless, and easily forgettable etymology (did you know that the ladybug is named after the Virgin Mary because of the seven spots on a specific variety found in Italy that are connected with the seven sorrows prophesized to Mary by Simeon? Aren’t you glad you do now?) or regionalisms (In Rhode Island, milkshakes are called cabinets! And really, both are just frappes!). One continual object of such droll, definition-centric hyper-fixation is a question that is of a little more universal interest: What is a sandwich?
For some, the debate may be closed with a quick visit to the Merriam-Webster definition of the noun. “1a: two or more slices of bread or a split roll having a filling in between, b: One slice of bread covered with food, 2: Something resembling a sandwich”. Let’s linger on 1 for the time being. On its face, this dictionary definition of sandwich seems perfectly agreeable. You could describe your standard ham and cheese, turkey club, tuna melt, or PB&J this way, all of which can be agreed on as sandwiches, I think. But in addition to specifying that a sandwich is not limited to two slices of bread but can be slimmed down to one (I’ll get to that later) or built on in “deckers”, it also specifies that creations on a split roll live under that sandwich category. And while I agree that a meatball sub or any other standard grinder is easily a member of the sandwich family, I am wary to extend this to other split roll meals like, for instance, hot dogs.
In its standard construction – split roll closed on one end with hot dog and toppings nestled into it – a hot dog does not fit in. No sausage-on-roll does, in my opinion. This has been a maintained sticking point in the sandwich conversation for me, indeed for many, as this is often at the very crux of the “What is Sandwich?” debate. However, during a dinner at which hot dogs were had recently, I found an exception. I had made hot dog rolls from scratch, split them down the side sub-roll style (as opposed to New England style), and toasted them in butter on the pan before frying the dogs. In splaying them out to get good toasting coverage, though, the buns separated completely, leaving us with a definitive bottom and top. With the condiments spread on either layer and fried hot dogs between, this iteration was justifiable as “sandwich” to me.
Yet, as I said before, I do not have any problem, and would indeed readily call a sub a sandwich, despite also being made from a split roll that is connected on one side. So why does it take a separation of bread for me to buy into a hot dog being included in the category while a turkey sub is acceptable to me as is? Is it to do with the contents of the bread and how it is layered? Is stacking rather than wrapping an essential component? If so, then that disqualifies wraps and burritos, which feel at least sandwich adjacent. Yet then we get into the land of tortillas. And while I feel that burritos are adjacent, tacos are much further removed and not sandwich to me, as is the case with quesadillas. Still, when one considers the basics of their construction – filling encased on either end by bread – they technically make the cut.
Then, there is the whole category of “open-faced sandwiches”. Circling back to the Merriam-Webster definition, 1b. takes care to state that “one slice of bread covered with food” is just as much of a sandwich as its fully enclosed counterparts. But this, I believe is a case where we should remember that dictionaries are descriptive, not prescriptive. Yes, many places advertise open-face tuna melts on their menu, or other such toasts with typical sandwich toppings, as sandwiches. This proliferation forces the hand of lexicographers, valiantly looking to accurately record the language use of today’s society, to include them in their publicationss’ lexicons. Yet right along with those open-faced sandwiches there is the ubiquitous avocado toast, which is definitively not sandwich. Similarly, when I receive the aforementioned open-face tuna melt, that too is not truly sandwich. That is toast with tuna salad and cheese melted on top. To make it a sandwich, another piece of bread is needed. And in the case of a tuna melt, that’s the way I want it. However, in the case of avocado toast, while putting a lid on it with another slice of toast would technically make it a sandwich, I either need some more solids to round out the mush (some well-seasoned grated carrot, thinly slice radish, roasted red pepper, and a bed of arugula would be enough, but I wouldn’t turn down some chicken or falafel either) to make it well-constructed, or would preferably like the lid kept off, maintaining its toast status.
Clearly, the Merriam-Webster dictionary is not servicing me in the way I need (a rare occurrence, I’ll admit). So, I looked to other dictionaries. Unfortunately, this did even less to help. Perhaps worst of all was the definition given by Collins Dictionary. Their first entry for sandwich reads “Countable Noun – A sandwich usually consists of two slices of bread with a layer of food such as cheese or meat between them”. Not only do I squirm at the use of a full sentence for the definition for no particular reason, but the phrase “layer of food such as cheese or meat” is unspecific and unhelpful. Why be general in “layer of food” and then give examples that do little to help this ongoing debate with “such as cheese or meat”? The one useful nugget to be found is the specification of “layer” which, to me, therefore discounts things like a burrito, wrap, and the infamous hot dog, as those things do not have layers so much as a mix of contents. But with the other sticking points in it, that boon is hardly enough to assuage me.
As one might imagine, I am not the first for whom the defining of sandwich has haunted the mind. Articles, social media posts, and podcast segments have been dedicated to the subject. Courts all across Americahave had to come to conclusions for various reasons, none providing a definitive answer. The best line of thinking I have come across in all my sandwich content intaking has been that heard on a podcast, which one I cannot remember. The speaker said that perhaps, like many things, the title of sandwich is not something that can be pinned down, but lives on more of a spectrum, and just how sandwich something is depends on how far removed it is from the ideal image that is conjured in the mind when one thinks of the word. More of a sandwich family tree, similar to this helpful sandwich alignment chart. There is the central trunk where one sees those that are easily agreed on as sandwiches – your meat/cheese/lettuce/tomato/onion sandos, your PB&J or PB&Bs, your grilled cheeses – and from there it branches off into sub-categories, including close siblings like, appropriately, the sub. Cousins that have a different last name and have been so successful that they are more of a thing unto themselves, like the many types of burgers. A branch for all things tortilla. And, somewhere among it all, the hot dog.
What’s a sandwich to you? What does your sandwich diagram look like? What kind of sandwich does all this sandwich talk make you crave? Let me know!
A good sandwich deserves good homemade bread, which I have certainly been churning out in a variety of forms these past many months. As I plow my way through our flour supply at a rapid pace, I’ve been very grateful to Old Mill of Guilford, where I’ve been able to reliably re-stock everything from whole wheat, to rye, to polenta and more! If you’ve also been eating through your flour supply faster than your sparse grocery run schedule can keep up with, consider placing on order with their small business.