You might not know it, but you owe a lot to John Montagu. You’d know him better as THE Earl of Sandwich, sandwich inventor and gastric pioneer. Many myths swirl about the creation of his legendary foodstuff, originally served as sliced salt beef betwixt toasted slices of bread. The PG version claims he was a busy and dedicated naval administrator, so overworked he invented a way to eat with one hand.
The other story claims he gambled heavily, and needed to eat one-handed so he wouldn’t have to take a break from his cards. He was a known member of the infamous Hellfire Club, a "secret" society from the 18th century (Ben Franklin was believed to be a member at the same time as Montagu) with a reputation for “mock rituals, items of a pornographic nature, much drinking, wenching and banqueting.” This sounds much more like a man who needs a sandwich.
Alas, Montagu is dead, and therefore cannot weigh in on one of the most persistent food debates of the 21st century: what defines a sandwich? Fortunately, we have Dan Pashman. Host of the phenomenal podcast The Sporkful, Pashman specializes in high-level food geekery and often finds his show as a de facto forum for settling such disputes. So, what IS a sandwich?
“The first rule is pick it up and eat it with your hands without your hands touching the fillings. The second rule is the fillings must be sandwiched between two discrete food items. That’s why a burrito is not a sandwich,” he told Newsweek.
He invoked the Earl himself to define the first rule. It’s why open-faced sandwiches are not actually sandwiches, because you eat them with a knife and fork. “If you put eggs benedict in front of the Earl of Sandwich would he be like ‘oh my favorite! Sandwiches!’ No, he would not. He would not pick it up and eat it with his hands,” Pashman said.
The second part of Pashman’s rule is the most subjective. Even the semantics cause controversy. He says he is frequently accused by “the literati” of committing the sin of tautology, or using a word to define itself. But, like the Earl of Sandwich, Pashman is not afraid to defy convention. In fact, he believes the tautology itself supports his rule that a sandwich, by definition, must be sandwiching.
“When a verb was born out of the noun then its valid to assume that one will be involved in the definition of the other,” he explained. “If we did not have the verb ‘to sandwich’ without the food ‘sandwich,’ it seems logical to say that a sandwich cannot exist if nothing is being sandwiched.”
There is one notable exception to having two separate halves to a sandwich: the hinged bun. Pashman argues the hinged bun is what makes a hot dog a sandwich, despite vociferous opposition from Big Hot Dog. As he explains it, the bun itself provides a well-known sandwich use case.
“We would all say a meatball sub is a sandwich, even though that's typically served on a hinged bun, a v-shaped roll. If a meatball sub is a sandwich, why isn't a hot dog a sandwich? It's the same structure, just a different piece of meat in the middle,” he said.
Tautology? Use case? Isn’t this a bit much for talking sandwiches? For some, sure, but Pashman has found an audience (and a career) delving into these issues time and again on The Sporkful.
“It felt like a fun challenge to see how much time we could spend discussing this ridiculous minutiae before it runs its course. And what we've learned is its quite a lot of time,” he said.
“It's the same impulse that makes us want to put people in different categories. People want things to fit into boxes that can be organized. And sandwiches are a big part of the world around us.”
The Sporkful mission (“we obsess about food to learn more about people”) is anchored in this sentiment. Pashman cites a family full of lawyers as an influence on his love for “fun debates.” Which is not to say that The Sporkful is all fluff. Notable recent episodes include an examination of how cultural diets affect marriages, an investigative report to find the family behind a legendary sandwich shop in war-torn Aleppo and life advice from 92-year-old food critic Mimi Sheraton.
“It's always fun for me when these debates lead to deeper issues,” he said. “Sometimes when you dig into the underlying issues of why do you view food this way and the other person views food that way, you realize it says something bigger about their personalities and why they do get along or don't get along. And that's exciting and fun for me because it reinforces the idea that food is really a stand-in for identity.”