Inventing Sandwiches

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I didn’t invent this sushi sandwich. Two years ago, I bought it, I think, at the local Whole Foods. Whole Foods, like many grocery stores, sells a number of pre-made sandwiches. The pre-made sandwich offers convenience and expectation: If I want a turkey sandwich, I can have one. This sushi sandwich, however, was not in the sandwich section but in the sushi section. Among rolls and sashimi, there was something unexpected: a sushi sandwich. I posted this photograph to Facebook because I often post on Facebook pictures of what I eat. Why do I do that? Because I have no interest in lecturing others about how they should behave, and I’m not interested in sharing CNN headlines in my feed as if I am a reporter who just received breaking news. Also, I like to eat. And I like to write about what I am eating whether anybody wants to hear about it or not.

Many people doubt my sandwich inventing abilities. “You did not invent that!” is a common response to my claims of invention. Out of all the things one could be doubtful of regarding my life or culinary abilities, why would anyone, I ask, throw shade on my sandwich inventions? I have spent a considerable amount of time over the years documenting on social media the various sandwich ideas I have invented — from the duck egg and brioche sandwich to my most recent creation, The Lexington Hot Brown.

James Beard used to say “I love to eat!” He began his cooking career as a caterer making tiny finger sandwiches for wealthy parties. Party sandwiches already existed, but Beard experimented with the expectation of what a party sandwich should be. “We shopped in foreign sections of the city for unusual items,” he recalled. “We discovered the trick of using various smoked sausages and meats as cornucopias and developed a dozen stunning ways to offer stuffed eggs.” Foie gras, beef tongue, and Roquefort cheese were among the “unique” ingredients Beard introduced to New York’s elite. When I was a kid, I ate a cheese sandwich for breakfast each day. My kids don’t eat sandwiches. It drives me crazy. Out of all the things we expect children to eat, the sandwich is one of them. I belong to a number of sandwich making Facebook groups. Occasionally, I’ll share one of my sandwich ideas there too. I wish, though, I had invented the sushi sandwich. Sushi, on its own, is basically a sandwich anyway — rice encasing fish. A taco is a sandwich. A gyro is a sandwich. A quesadilla is a sandwich. A burrito is a sandwich. All cultures have sandwiches, even if they lack the tradition of bread. I have written about sandwiches before. I know the debates. A hot dog is, in fact, a sandwich. The sandwich topos is bread and something between bread. But topoi are commonplaces, which basically means that they are simply placeholders for meaning. Meaning is fluid and not bound to commonplaces. When we live only according to commonplaces, we don’t live with meaning. We live with repetition. There is a difference.

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Consider the obstacles sandwich invention poses: you are limited to topoi which function as ideological pre-conditions such as the sandwich must have bread, condiments are typically required, vegetarian bias must be overcome, if cheese isn’t melted, people are suspicious. This, too, is how criticism works. Criticism — the rhetorical kind — is bound to commonplaces. Work outside those commonplaces, and you encounter obstacles. I have spent most of my career writing outside of commonplaces, and sometimes being criticized for such. Even when this occurs, though, I remain devoted to my method of invention. This method, like how I make sandwiches, searches out the alternate, the experimental, the less common narrative or approach. But criticism, like gastronomy, sometimes relies too heavily on the expected or basic.

On the one hand, a sandwich can be basic. Here’s a recipe that conforms to a commonplace assumption regarding the sandwich:

· Take two pieces of bread

· Put something between that bread

· Close the bread (cutting in half is optional)

· Eat

Here is James Beard describing a cucumber sandwich. “First of all, the cucumbers were peeled and seeded, and salted for an hour. Finally they were drained and placed on bread which was spread with a lightly flavored chive butter.” Anthony Bourdain’s recipe for the Bodega sandwich “is bacon, egg, and cheese on a hard roll — cooked on a griddle and served by someone who addresses you as papi or mami.” Kenny Shopsin named sandwiches after people: Greg, Bridgette, Andy’s Way. J.J.’s Way. J.J.’s Way includes two boneless chicken breasts on 7-grain bread with bread stuffing and coleslaw. “We have two customers named J.J.” Shopsin writes about the sandwich. “One we call Good J.J. and one we call Bad J.J.” It turns out that Bad J.J. was Hollywood producer J.J. Abrahams.

Some sandwiches cause conflict. Think of Jack Nicholson’s character Robert Dupea in Five Easy Pieces ordering at a diner which doesn’t allow substitutions, thus preventing him from ordering a side order of wheat toast. He eventually comes up with a solution (invention) and way to anger his obstinate waitress. “I’d like an omelet, plain, and a chicken salad sandwich on wheat toast, no mayonnaise, no butter, no lettuce, and a cup of coffee….now all you have to is hold the chicken, bring me the toast, give me a check for the chicken salad sandwich and you haven’t broken any rules” “You want me to hold the chicken?” the grumpy waitress asks. “I want you to hold it between your knees,” he tells her before pushing everything off of the table and onto the floor.

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When I came up with falafel banh mi, I made sure to share this brilliant idea with one of the sandwich Facebook groups I’m in. I got a few likes. falafel banh mi is basically three falafel patties on a baguette with a dressing and some greens. It really does not resemble a banh mi sandwich at all, or not the banh mi I ate when I was in Vietnam. Another sandwich I invented is the Israeli salad on a homemade biscuit. Technically, an Israeli salad is just chopped tomatoes and cucumbers. This one had feta cheese and lettuce. People who like biscuits were not happy with this sandwich since it appeared to deface the commonplace assumption regarding what goes on a biscuit (butter or jam) and what does not (salad). I also invented the cheesy meatloaf sandwich. Unlike the meatloaf sandwiches I ate as a kid — ground beef with onion and garlic inside it with ketchup on top and baked in an oven– this one had a lot of cheese baked into the ground beef and no onions since my son won’t eat any meat that has onions in it. I basically made an inverted cheeseburger. I posted a picture of it to one of the sandwich Facebook groups I’m in and called it an inverted cheeseburger. I got a few likes.

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In my forthcoming book, Authentic Writing, I devote a chapter to sandwiches. At one point, I discuss Adventure Time’s Perfect Sandwich, which contains only four ingredients: cheese, lettuce, tomato and bread. The perfection comes not from the ingredients, but from how the ingredients are prepared. The cheese, for instance, is made by spinning a cow on its side in a centrifuge. What emerges from the spinning cow is the cheese. The tomatoes are made by teleporting a jellyfish and red balloon together; in this transformation, they become a tomato and then a karate chop slices the tomato. Perfection, it turns out, takes the simple and makes it complex.

I view my sandwiches as fairly simple. Is complexity the heart of perfection? I belong to a profession that views every act as a complex one. Every political act or social reading instantaneously becomes complex once removed from the position of popularity experienced in circulation. Popular expression, which sandwiches should be a part of, must be transformed into something complex. Thus, a film is complex. A book is complex. A vote for a politician is complex. An advertisement is complex. Or, I often think, these acts are indeed complex, but, in academia, they are quickly reduced to simplicity via immediacy masquerading as complexity: “This is what this means.” The claim to meaning can often be quite simplistic. Immediacy claims presumption. Immediacy claims immediate knowledge. Immediacy depends on repetition of commonplaces and the fulfillment of expectation. To claim “This is what this means” is too often a reliance on what one expects a text or thing or sandwich to mean. Complexity really doesn’t work like that. I yearn, maybe like Roland Barthes, for an uncomplicated period. This is not a pretend call to return to complex times and paint them as simple. No, I yearn for a uncomplicated spatial period, one we cross through via writing and ideas, that allows for the space to not always have to prove that the world is made of texts to be interpreted and deciphered. This is why I invent sandwiches. To eat them. Not to read them. I can’t remember if Roland Barthes ever discussed sandwiches.

And yet, I feel sorry for Bill’s final meal in Kill Bill 2, a simple and boring sandwich. Bimbo bread with ham, turkey, Swiss and American cheeses, mustard and mayo. How could this simplistic meal be his last? Doesn’t Bill — the simple name for a complex man — deserve a complex final meal? On the opposite side of this last meal, I recall Frank’s simple approach to sandwich making in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. When Mac asks Frank what he is eating, he replies “a hoagie.” Mac says: “You are not eating a hoagie. You are just jamming meats and cheeses inside of your mouth.” Frank responds, “I like to make it in my mouth. It tastes better.”

Take all the pieces of any idea. Put them in your mouth. Don’t think about them. Don’t read them. Make an idea sandwich. They taste better. That’s what I tell myself anyway. Ideas taste better when you throw them in your mouth. I’m sure many of my professional colleagues would disagree. We’d have to decipher the ingredients first and then make sure to argue that not everyone actually has ingredients or a mouth or the mouth must be recognized for its role in capitalism or oppression and…..and….and….

What is invention? Inspiration. Appropriation. Borrowing. Too often, we are caught up in the fairly commonplace narrative of “cultural appropriation” as if any aspect of food is not a cultural appropriation. The Chinese appropriated chili peppers from the Portuguese. The Italians appropriated pasta from the Chinese. The Irish appropriated potatoes from Peru. American groceries appropriated sushi from Japan. New York appropriated pizza from Italy. Appropriation is hardly simple. Appropriation allows for an idea to move. Static ideas are not ideas. They are repetitions. Expectations. Boredom. Static ideas are basically the and…and…and…The drift back into expectation.

Take my invention of The Lexington Hot Brown, for example, as an appropriation. There already exists The Hot Brown sandwich. It originated at The Brown Hotel in Louisville in the 1920s. The Hot Brown is an open faced sandwich of turkey and ham covered in Mornay sauce. The Lexington Hot Brown, which I invented two days after Thanksgiving, is not open faced and consists of roasted turkey, stuffing, and vegetarian gravy on buttered toast. Did I culturally appropriate a Kentucky tradition? Or did I borrow and idea? Does it matter? Also, I really don’t like turkey. And I live in Lexington, thus the name.

The other day my horoscope read “To accomplish all the brisk innovations you have a mandate to generate, you must cultivate a deep respect for the messiness of creativity; you must understand that your dynamic imagination needs room to experiment with possibilities that may at first appear disorderly.” I spend a lot of time experimenting with possibilities: in university leadership, parenting, cooking, and writing. In my writing and in my teaching, I embrace the messiness of creativity. Too often, I feel my profession is bound to the opposite position: metrics, criticism, genre expectation. We work hard to insure that what we do is not messy, and sometimes that means we fail to innovate. We merely repeat. I don’t like to be bound by commonplaces are expectations. I don’t, of course, abandon the commonplace nor even some variation of repetition. If I ate a cheese sandwich for breakfast every day once, I repeated. I have no regrets regarding that repetition. A sandwich doesn’t have to disregard the commonplace in order to embrace the messy. My sandwiches have some sort of bread and some sort of filling. These are commonplaces. We expect a sandwich to have bread, and mine often do. But I like putting cheese in the meatloaf or thinking of ways to make an egg into a sauce that is not mayonnaise. The almost cooked not yet cooked kind of sauce that might bring a touch of egg to a dish but won’t be an egg sandwich. That kind of thing. Messiness. Complexity. Something not too expected.

Maybe a sushi sandwich.

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