What is a Sandwich?

The Nobadeer from Jetties

The Nobadeer from Jetties

Sandwiches are pretty great, aren’t they? They possess qualities both practical and sentimental. They can be as simple or as complex as one’s heart desires, and they are capable of satisfying the tastes and preferences of even the most fastidious appetites. They’re so, so delicious.

If there’s one thing I like as much as sandwiches, it’s words. I dig how different people from different places and times use different words to describe the same thing. I also appreciate that despite these differences in vernacular and dialect, we usually figure out how to communicate without too much trouble.

When I started planning Eat a Sandwich, I had in my head a pretty solid idea of what I would and would not consider to be a “sandwich” for the purposes of our content. Most people enjoy the luxury of freedom from strict definitions of what is and is not a sandwich, but when writing a sandwich blog, some parameters become necessary. Sandwiches are incredibly versatile and diverse, but there must be limits: When does a sandwich stop being sandwich and become something else altogether?

Over the past two years—and particularly during the course of several spirited conversations on this very topic — I’ve moved increasingly closer to a precise definition. I’m now prepared to unveil publicly for the first time Eat a Sandwich’s answer to the eternal question, “What is a Sandwich?”:

A sandwich is a portable food item eaten by hand and composed of any combination of meats, vegetables, spreads and garnishes stacked between two slices of bread or tucked within a roll, bun, or similar leavened bread product.

Take a moment to let that sink in…

Got it? OK, let’s analyze this a bit. There are a handful of critical rules at play here, and drilling down will help clarify our thinking:

  1. Bread/not bread/bread. This basic structure forms the foundation for a vast universe of possible sandwich combinations, but it also draws an important line in the sand. Those things that have come to be known as open-faced “sandwiches”? Sorry, however delicious they may be, they are fundamentally not sandwiches. After all, how are these single-slice creations any different from pizza? Or bruschetta? Also significant is the inclusion of buns: You might not consider a hot dog a sandwich (we do), but many of history’s most famous sandwiches are on buns, rolls, or sliced loaves. The Philly cheesesteak, the French dip, the lobster roll and all manner of hoagie are just a few examples.
  2. Portability is paramount. The first “sandwich” was created to allow its owner, John Montagu, the 4th Early of Sandwich, to eat his meal at the card table without greasing up the cards. Sandwiches are meant to be eaten by hand, so if you find yourself grasping for a fork and knife, it’s probable that what you’re eating is not a sandwich. So, for instance, that thing they call a “hot brown” in Kentucky? Sorry, not a sandwich. (It’s important to note that an overstuffed or otherwise sloppy sandwich is still a sandwich; it’s just poorly made.)
  3. Bread is leavened. This is a controversial one. I’ve been called a sandwich ethnocentrist for my exclusion of tacos, burritos, and pitas. It’s probably a fair accusation, though, to be clear, I love each of these great portable meals as much as the next guy. Still, it’s hard to deny the fundamental difference between leavened breads, which bring to any great sandwich a range of distinct textures and flavors, and tortillas and pitas, which are simply vehicles for the fillings they contain.
  4. Sandwiches are modular. Of all my rules of sandwich-hood, this is the one I’m least sure of. The basic idea is this: Sandwiches are constructed of disparate parts. Almost without exception, the components of a sandwich are prepared separately—whether by grilling, searing, brining, chopping, etc.—and subsequently combined per the guidelines explained in Rule #1. As such, foods like calzones or empanadas, despite potentially meeting the other requirements outlined here but constructed and (typically) baked as a single, cohesive item, are not considered sandwiches.

So there it is. I’ve thrown down the gauntlet. Do you have a different definition? Let us know in the comments. Let’s talk it out.

2 Responses to What is a Sandwich?

  1. Dude, a pita is a leavened bread product.

  2. Oh, the pita is a tough one. The wiki says it’s “slightly leavened”, and the gyro seems like a classic sandwich, but it’s rolled, not stacked and requires paper to make the thing easily portable. I think a strict sandwich constructionist could justly exclude pita-based wraps from the sandwich pantheon.

    As for rule four, what about a cheese steak? The meat, onions, and peppers are all cooked together on a hot surface, topped with cheese, and then scooped into a bun. I’ve also seen a ratatouille sandwich, which meets rules 1-3, but not four.

    I love this, though.

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