Sandwiches and Not Sandwiches

(The title is supposed to be a play on the title of this book, which is called “Men and Not Men” in English. I want to strongly recommend it, even though I don’t agree with it and didn’t even like it that much at the time. Still, it’s one of those books that stays with you and you think about.)

This is a sandwich. I want this sandwich. I am so hungry right now.

Okay, so a few days ago I was looking for news of Alex Edler’s potentially Canucks-whole-season-derailing injury, and so I got to listening to my favourite hockey podcast – the Pass it to Bulis podcast, of course. Surprisingly, the conversation turned to sandwiches, and more specifically, whether a hot dog is a sandwich. Actually, that wasn’t even remotely surprising, because (1) it’s right in the title and (2) Harrison and Daniel have a penchant for doing this kind of stuff. The proportion of hockey-related material in PITB podcasts is a solid 60% or so, I would guess. The debate went unresolved, but to help PITB, we are going to delve in and settle it now. Whether a hot dog is a sandwich or not (it obviously is) is not a hard question, but precisely what is and isn’t a sandwich is very hard. It’s also a very deep question, and to examine it properly, we will need sociology, law, cladistics, and linguistics. But it will all be worth it, because sandwiches are delicious, and so furthering our understanding of sandwiches is a positive good. Are you ready? We begin below the fold.

A Hot Dog is a Sandwich

Before we get to the tough stuff, let’s field the easy one. Is a hot dog a sandwich? We show that it is by simple analogy. Is a vietnamese sandwich (banh mi) a sandwich? The answer is yes. You can argue otherwise by claiming that calling it a vietnamese sandwich is like calling the kiwi a chinese gooseberry – that is, the banh mi is supposedly the vietnamese analogue of a sandwich, but is not itself a sandwich. But I don’t think that’s what’s happening. “Vietnamese noodle soup” and “vietnamese coffee” refer to objects that are undeniably noodle soup, and coffee, respectively (and undeniably delicious, irrespectively). Besides, who calls a kiwi a chinese gooseberry? That’s just dumb. “Vietnamese sandwich” is also the most common term for a vietnamese sandwich that I hear, so  it’s not as if that’s some esoteric naming of a banh mi.

If the vietnamese sandwich is a sandwich, our work is mostly done. What if you replaced the meat in a Vietnamese Sandwich with a sausage? Would that somehow make it less of a sandwich? The answer is no. So, something approximating a Japadog, then, is clearly a sandwich. If so, it would be snooty to deny sandwichdom to the hot dog, its common cousin. Sandwiches are the food of the people, Earl of Sandwich be damned.

What are the Essential Qualities of a Sandwich?

So far so good, but let’s turn to the general case. And to do that is to ask: what is it that makes a sandwich a sandwich? Is it bread? Is it layering? Is it the tangy zip of Miracle Whip? Dictionary definitions are to essays what crank calls are to pranks – mostly ineffective, lacking in imagination and beloved by high schoolers; since we are trying to define a word, though, I’m afraid we need one here. So here’s wiktionary: “dish or foodstuff where two or more slices of bread serve as the wrapper or container of some other food”. That definition is clearly wrong – because it neglects cases of one piece of bread split in two, such as the sub or po’ boy or the vietnamese sandwich discussed earlier – but it offers a starting point. It shows that there are two possibilities for the essential quality of a sandwich. One, that a sandwich is food sandwiched between other layers of food (in which case the taco and the KFC double down and the Oreo are sandwiches). Or two, that a sandwich is bread + other food (in which case bruschetta, garlic bread and canapés are sandwiches).

Sandwich Descriptivism

Because at bottom we are discussing rules related to the word “sandwich”, we have to decide how we will treat language rules. That decision is usually viewed in terms of descriptivism vs. prescriptivism, but the difference between the two is often misunderstood. Descriptivists still believe in the existence of real language rules, and a descriptivist can very much tell you that “you’re doing it wrong.” What distinguishes descriptivists and prescriptivists is that a descriptivist would never say “everyone is doing it wrong”: if most people use language in a certain way, then that is the correct way to use language. Thus, if everyone uses “sandwich” to mean something, then that is what “sandwich” means, regardless of the intent of people who made up the word, what the authorities say, or anything like that. To me, the relative merits of the two approaches depend on the size and amount of isolation of the group. If your group is “everyone who speaks or writes English today”, the descriptivist model makes the most sense. If you are considering a small self-contained group that nevertheless has to interact with people outside the group regularly, then prescriptivism has its place. But “the people who eat sandwiches” is pretty much everybody, we will be strictly descriptivist here. That means, a sandwich is what people mean when they say sandwich. So I decided to ask the first person I see what they mean when they say “sandwich”. Luckily, my room has a giant mirror. So here is what I say: if I asked for a sandwich, and someone brought me bruschetta, I would not think that particularly strange. If someone brought a taco or an Oreo, though, I would. Since writing about stuff on the internet is all about assuming your experiences are universal and other people’s experiences can be discounted at will, let’s assume that that is what everyone thinks. In that case, the bread-plus definition of sandwich is the better one, and so is the one we must choose.

Sandwiches sensu stricto v. Sandwiches sensu lato

This is not a sandwich. Also, I got it from a URL called which is just the most stereotypically endearing thing ever.

Even if we agree on the bread-plus definition of sandwich, that still leaves open the question of how “bready” something has to be to fit this definition. Is flatbread bread? Is wonderbread? How about things that don’t even have bread in the name, like matzoh, or pizza crust? Is french toast with fruit on it a sandwich? Are piroshki? The boundaries get murky very quickly. My friend and former lab-mate Will is a proponent of what one sandwich columnist calls “the radical position”: the most expansive definition of sandwich. In his classification system, all dishes are sandwich, soup, or salad. Thus, to him, not only is a taco or a pizza an obvious sandwich, but so is a baked potato, spring roll, and any meal with a carb wrapper or holder. That’s clearly not reasonable if we are to be sandwich descriptivists: if I ask for a sandwich and get a baked potato, I would assume malice, like if I asked for a chair and got a bobcat. In fact, there’s a pretty good Tim Horton’s ad on the topic of what happens when the definition of sandwich is too lax. A guy is travelling the world, and asks for a chicken salad sandwich in all sorts of exotic locales, getting something different and bizarre each time. He then is ecstatic to go to Timmy Ho’s, order a chicken sandwich and receive an actual chicken sandwich. When sandwiches are poorly defined, people are ecstatic about the sandwiches at Tim Horton’s. This is what happens. YOU SEE WHAT HAPPENS, LARRY?? Clearly, getting the definition of sandwich right is of utmost importance.

And yet, though Will’s definition for sandwiches is bad, “food with a carb-based holder or wrapper” is a useful thing to be able to say. And “sandwich” is the closest we can get to saying this. English has no better alternative. This is what the poets must be talking about when they lament the poverty of language to truly express our innermost thoughts. It’s like comparing stars to diamonds, for chrissakes. We must admit, then, that “sandwich” in the English language is an overloaded term, i.e. one with multiple meanings. Sandwiches sensu stricto – bread plus food, and sandwiches sensu lato – carbs plus food.

A Legal Opinion

In the United States, some boundaries of what is and isn’t a sandwich has been settled by the courts, in a case called White City Shopping Center v. PR Restaurants. In my imagination, the situation escalated to lawsuit like this:

White City: Hey, could you make me a sandwich?

PR: Sure. Here you go [brings a taco]

White City: What is this? This isn’t what I asked for! I am offended and going to sue!

The reality, which luckily doesn’t at all correspond to my imagination, is as follows: Panera breads had an agreement with a shopping centre that they would not rent space out to other sandwich shops. The shopping centre rented out space to a burrito place called Qdoba.  Panera breads thought that this violated the agreement, since burritos were a type of sandwich. They sued, but the Worcester, MA superior court found that a burrito is not, in fact, a sandwich. Case closed. Or is it? How much credence do we have to give this legal opinion? For one, Worcester superior court is hardly the highest court in the land, and we don’t know how the US Supreme Court would have handled the question (although we do know the opinion of Justice Scalia). For another, we are Canadians, and so not bound by the US legal system. For a third, even if a burrito is not a sandwich, it doesn’t say much about what is. But the arguments surrounding the legal case do help point the way to a resolution.

The Importance of Culture

If we are to be descriptivists about the definition of sandwich, we must admit that the answer is culturally dependent. In discussing White City v. PR Restaurants, Parker Higgins quotes Marjorie Florestal, who says that race played a role in the decision, in that burritos “have a race” and that that race is Mexican, while sandwiches are “white.” That assumption seems problematic to me, and not just because of rye bread sandwiches. Rather, that kind of conclusion flies in the face of tortas, which are undoubtedly also Mexican, and undoubtedly also sandwiches. Also race seems a clumsy substitute for culture here, as foods are obvious cultural markers. But the central insight is right on. Sandwiches are a Northern and Western European dish in origin, and in North American culture today we feel uncertain about ascribing sandwichdom to anything without sufficient Northern or Western European influence. The vietnamese sandwich has no problem being called a sandwich because its French colonial roots are on display. But we have not yet expanded sandwichdom to foods that don’t have that colonial history. Even a gyro is not widely accepted as a sandwich. But language, and sandwich (it occurs to me that the words rhyme. Coincidence? I think not!) are ever changing. The future is sure to hold a different definition of sandwich than today. We see this happening with other foodstuffs, for example with tea. In this buzzfeed listicle about tea drinking around the world, all sorts of things that are, to my old-fashioned perspective, clearly not tea are labelled tea: maté, mint tea, rooibos, etc. These drinks have entered the pan-thé-on. And similarly, I believe in a future with a far more inclusive definition of a sandwich. My friend Will is simply ahead of his time.

A Surprising Conclusion

So, for the time being, and to us North Americans, a sandwich seems to be food that is packaged in a Western or Northern European bread. I must confess that if, before I wrote two thousand words about the definition of sandwiches, you asked me what a sandwich was, I would have given you much looser definition than the logic of this post has led me to. I would have included the things we must admit as sandwiches: hamburgers, hot dogs, french toast. But I would also have certainly included wraps and gyros and burritos. Then again, if you asked me before I wrote two thousand words about the definition of sandwiches whether I would ever feel like writing two thousand words about the definition of sandwiches, I would say no. Or, actually, I would say “No. Are you stupid? That sounds like a gigantic waste of time. I would never do that.” Clearly, before I wrote two thousand words about the definition of sandwiches, I was not well informed.

This entry was posted in language, shit we have no idea about, whimsy. Bookmark the permalink.

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