Consider the Sandwich – Or Don’t

Ann begins her blog today by telling us about a hilarious episode of All in the Family back in 1976 when Archie Bunker claims that the sandwich is the “perfect food.” It should be noted that Archie was not the first fictional character to idolize the sandwich. Dagwood Bumstead started making his famous colossal-sized sandwiches in the early 1930s, and at about the same time Popeye’s “special pal” J. Wellington Wimpy, was wolfing down countless hamburgers.

The fact that these two comic characters were touting sandwiches at this particular time in history may not have been a coincidence. The first bread slicing machine was put into operation in 1928 and by 1930 sliced Wonder Bread became widely available (and popular) in American markets. According to an episode of the PBS The History Kitchen Series, this was a time when

sandwiches found a new audience. Mothers could easily assemble a sandwich without the need to slice their bread, and children could safely make their own lunches without the use of a knife. The portability and ease of sandwiches caught on with families, and the sandwich became a lunchroom staple.

I was 9 years old when this ad was on tv. No wonder it was called Wonder Bread! I also wonder if the nutritional claims were a bit exaggerated.

There can be no question that the advent of sliced bread boosted the popularity of the sandwich and profoundly changed our food landscape. Indeed, modern day Americans on average eat over 200 sandwiches per year. But what are the implications of this shift? Is our culinary life better, worse, or somewhere in-between? Having recently “discovered” and become a big fan of British journalist and food writer Bee Wilson, I began perusing her writing to see what she may have to say about this.

The first thing I read of hers was “The Way We Eat Now” which she published in 2019. Her insights struck a chord with me largely because she thinks so much like – how should I put it – a sociologist. Rather than laying all of the blame (or credit) for how we eat at the feet of an individual’s attitudes or preferences, she challenges us to look at the larger structural factors that channel and shape the way we eat. I could go on about what she has to say about that, but I’ll stay focused on the sandwich.

I was initially disappointed that she barely mentions sandwiches in The Way We Eat Now. But I hit pay-dirt when I discovered that in 2010 she had written an entire book devoted to the history of the Sandwich.

Published in 2010

One of the first things Bee Wilson tells us in her sandwich book is that historically, the origin of the sandwich is a riddle.

Common sense tells us that the thing itself – meat, cheese or whatever else happened to be on hand wedged inside bread – must be one of the oldest and most universal types of meal, at least in bread-eating countries. Yet the name itself is very specific and belongs to one man – the fourth Earl of Sandwich, John Montagu (1718–1792), who, too busy to stop for dinner, called for some beef between two slices of bread. So the earl gets credited with inventing something that must have been around for hundreds if not thousands of years.

Wilson goes on:

A more plausible – and much older – candidate for the first sandwich is the Korech or ‘Hillel sandwich’, eaten as part of the Jewish Passover meal. In the first century BC Hillel the Elder (born circa 110 BC), a distinguished rabbi, created the custom of eating bitter herbs sandwiched together inside matzo bread, the herbs (maror) symbolizing the bitterness of slavery and the unleavened bread commemorating the hasty flatbreads made by the Israelites as they fled Egypt. In the Bible, Exodus 12:8, the rules of Passover state that ‘they shall eat the flesh in that night, roast with fire, and unleavened bread; and with bitter herbs they shall eat it’.

Hillel the Elder teaching a man the meaning of the pastrami sandwich? (Photo from Wikipedia)

This is all very interesting but doesn’t answer my question about whether the upswing in sandwich consumption is a good thing or a bad thing in terms of our health and well-being. Although Wilson does not directly answer this question, she does make an observation that I think is highly relevant –  “…how we eat is as important for our health as what we eat“. 

She supports this assertion by pointing to the findings of a study of the diet and health of Japanese men living in California (who tended to be healthier than their non-Japanese counterparts). It turned out that it wasn’t just their daily diet that contributed to good health. The research suggested that the key to the better health outcomes was “a stable society whose members enjoy the support of their fellows in closely knit groups.”

Of course, I’m not suggesting that we ditch sandwiches and adopt Japanese cuisine and cultural practices. But I agree with Bee Wilson’s contention that the “rituals of eating matter.” Along these lines, I also agree when she says “a meal eaten from china sitting down is more restorative than one grabbed out of a wrapper“. Of course, we can’t expect to experience every meal on ceramic plates, but I suggest that we consider slowing down with at least some of those 200 sandwiches that we consume annually and enjoy them at a properly set table in the company of family or friends (and, optionally, with a nice glass of wine).

I will close with this apropros song by Fred Penner (a well-known Canadian writer/singer of kids’ songs). The lyrics are below.

Lyrics to Sandwiches are Beautiful

Sandwiches are beautiful, sandwiches are fine
I like sandwiches, I eat them all the time.
I eat them for my supper and I eat them for my lunch;
If I had a hundred sandwiches, I’d eat them all at once!
Sing that again with me – ready?
Sandwiches are beautiful, sandwiches are fine –
I like sandwiches, I eat them all the time.
I eat them for my supper and I eat them for my lunch;
If I had a hundred sandwiches, I’d eat them all at once!
Mm-hmm!
Well I’m roamin’ and a-travelling and a-wanderin’ alone,
And if you care to listen I will sing a happy song;
I will not ask a favour and I will not ask a fee
But if you have yourself a sandwich won’t you give a bite to me?
Sandwiches are beautiful, sandwiches are fine –
I like sandwiches, I eat them all the time.

2 Comments

  1. Agatha Hoff says:

    I remember taking 3 Muni buses to go to someplace in the Mission to get day old Wonder Bread, where they cost 10 cents a loaf. That’s what thwe kids wanted to take to school, rather than sandwiches made with my home made bread!

    Like

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