On Sandwiches

A neat, snug study on a winter’s night,
   A book, friend, single lady, or a glass
 Of claret, sandwich, and an appetite,
   Are things which make an English evening pass

                                 (Byron, Don Juan)

Most lunchtimes, I linger in front of a chiller unit for longer than I should, staring at sandwiches that seem never to change. Each day, the same ranks of prism-shaped boxes, geeing up food that ought to lie flat, their plastic windows smudged with mustard or chutney. Each day, a quibble with myself over the familiar range: ham and tomato; egg and cress and chicken and avocado; and cheddar and tuna and prawn and brie and BLT and salmon and others with pickle. I pick up two or three boxes in turn and then shelve them again, as if weighing up bowling balls or quizzing the ripeness of peaches. Ultimately — invariably — I leave the sandwich shop in a fret, clutching a little package of compromise and mayonnaise.

Designed to save time, sandwiches nevertheless succeed in wasting much of mine. All that hedging over a baguette or a bap or some kind of bloomer. I have occasionally been so flummoxed by the choice of fillings — which can seem so tantalising or tiresome, depending on my mood — that I have bought a considerable selection platter to accompany me on a long train journey or through Byron’s ‘English evening’, making me the sole, satiated diner at a conference with one delegate or a cricket tea with no teams. Over a few hours, I can happily work through at least two of its three neat rows, orphaning only the little triangles of chicken salad. Sandwiches, as Woody Allen once quipped, may have ‘freed mankind from the hot lunch’, but they do very little to stave off gluttony. Amid all that twee talk of cucumber sandwiches in The Importance of Being Earnest, the real joke is that the actor who plays Algernon is obliged to dispatch an entire salver of them in the opening act every night: Wilde’s loafer gets more than his daily bread.

When I used to go to real conferences and even occasionally play cricket, the sandwiches were always the greatest draw. And years before that, they were the highlight of parties and picnics and long family car journeys; the secret life of Tupperware and the only great tenants of tinfoil. Indeed, one of my earliest disappointments — and one of my earliest memories, aged two or three — was at a birthday party for my godfather, a flamboyant, Skimpole-like figure who died before he or I could grow up; I well remember his flat that day, festooned and long on chocolate like a toddler’s jamboree, and my confusion and ensuing tantrum at not finding a sandwich in sight.

For me, no food is so freighted with expectation. Ortolans and suckling pigs and fossanes slipped into the stew have nothing on sandwiches. Their very expediency — their portability — also makes for an obligatory struggle to defer the first bite. John Keats, who knew so much about appetite and desire, enjoyed his own fancy for sandwiches as well as its marvellous bathos:

I must leave joking, and seriously aver, that I have been very romantic indeed among these Mountains and Lakes. I have got wet through, day after day—eaten oat-cake, and drank Whisky—walked up to my knees in Bog—got a sore throat—gone to see Icolmkill and Staffa; met with wholesome food just here and there as it happened—went up Ben Nevis, and—N.B., came down again. Sometimes when I am rather tired I lean rather languishingly on a rock, and long for some famous Beauty to get down from her Palfrey in passing, approach me, with—her saddle-bags, and give me—a dozen or two capital roastbeef Sandwiches.

Keats is never far from flippancy, not least when he declares his earnestness (here, his ‘N.B.’ makes a palindromic acronym out of Ben Nevis, the mountain he is descending). The joy is palpable as both his mind and his prose alight on a pious sexpot, so generously proffering her sandwiches.

Keats’s ‘dozen or two Sandwiches’ is accurately imprecise: he knows how there are always either not enough sandwiches or too many, and how this snack or meal or food of betweens — D’Annunzio called it the tramezzino, or ‘in-betweener’ — can generate a truly mundane excess. One sandwich is never quite satisfying, but another sandwich can feel like a glut; and the appetite for them can, when sated, turn to disappointment at their not having been a plate of other things. No sooner has Leopold Bloom settled on a gorgonzola sandwich in Davy Byrne’s pub than his mind sets off on ‘that cutlet with a sprig of parsley’. Both he and his lunch are filled with ambivalence: ‘Mr Bloom ate his strips of sandwich, fresh clean bread, with relish of disgust, pungent mustard, the feety savour of green cheese.’

Of course, to dwell on the sandwich closely makes a mockery of its incidental nature. In a sense, it is a substitute for a meal, attendant on the working day or leisurely excursions, with a non-speaking role in the theatre of food. Taking it seriously can amount to tomfoolery, something the artist Claes Oldenburg acknowledged when he built his bloated BLT, an ironic, unstaling monument to snackery that cannot help transforming curators into mad Lilliputian kitchen staff each time they reassemble it. And indeed, the more I chew on sandwiches here, the more they start to seem an absurd subject — a food designed to be taken for granted, and remain a quiet participant in the detritus of daily life. Eliot: ‘The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers, / Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends / Or other testimony of summer nights.’

The sandwich is the straight-faced sustenance of routine; and it only loses its composure when we pause to notice it or start, like a character in Auden’s The Age of Anxiety, ‘building a little altar of sandwiches’. (Its most ludicrous aspect, of course, is hidden in plain sight, in the inane English whiggery of its aristocratic foundation myth.) Here is Dickens’s uncommercial traveller, pressing home the point at a cheap theatre:

[…] crowds of us had sandwiches and ginger-beer at the refreshment bars established for us in the Theatre. The sandwich — as substantial as was consistent with portability, and as cheap as possible — we hailed as one of our greatest institutions. It forced its way among us at all stages of the entertainment, and we were always delighted to see it; its adaptability to the varying moods of our nature was surprising; we could never weep so comfortably as when our tears fell on our sandwich; we could never laugh so heartily as when we choked with sandwich; Virtue never looked so beautiful, or Vice so deformed, as when we paused, sandwich in hand, to consider what would come of that resolution of Wickedness in boots, to sever Innocence in flowered chintz from Honest Industry in striped stockings. When the curtain fell for the night, we still fell back upon sandwich, to help us through the rain and mire, and home to bed.

Our reliance on routine can be unintentionally comic; the prose here, as so often in Dickens, knows how its own repetitions reach towards wit in a way that that constantly risks toppling into silliness. However preposterous it might sound to state it, sandwiches are closely worked into many people’s daily habits. And while eating the same ham sandwich on most days hardly seems outlandish, flagging up the fact (or ordering that sandwich to be concealed in a tree-nook on a daily basis, as Howard Hughes is said to have done at the Beverly Hills Hotel; or lunching solely on prawn sandwiches for a fortnight, as I once did, to research an article that was never written) exposes how close our routines might be to buffoonish compulsions, and how the everyday can flourish into farce.

The sandwich is one of those things — like the toothbrush, or shoelaces, or taking a piss — which art and literature might easily forget. But its very triviality, combined with the kitsch humour of stopping to think about it, can also make for the type of disconcertion that is particular to those moments in life and art — such as an unexpected break-up, or news of a death — when what ought to be quotidian suddenly seems invested with symbolic properties. Nothing is more threatening and discomfiting in The Homecoming than Teddy’s decision to bolt down his brother’s sandwich. And this too is why any sandwich in a Frank O’Hara poem will seem, as much as anything in his drifting craft, suspended between the haphazardness of life and something that could be far more resonant: ‘If I rest for a moment near The Equestrian / pausing for a liver sausage sandwich in the Mayflower Shoppe […]’.

Dickens writes so often about objects taking on unanticipated meanings, that it seems apt to close with another of his attention-grabbing sandwiches. No sooner does the travelling party’s coach begin trundling from Charing Cross in The Pickwick Papers, than the garrulous Mr Jingle launches into a cautionary tale about packed lunches. Once again, we are close to a joke on ‘our greatest institutions’, about how what should be fleeting can endure and what makes claims for perpetuity sometimes lapses:

‘Heads, heads — take care of your heads’, cried the loquacious stranger as they came out under the low archway which in those days formed the entrance to the coachyard. ‘Terrible place — dangerous work — other day — five children — mother — tall lady, eating sandwiches — forgot the arch — crash — knock — children look round — mother’s head off — sandwich in her hand — no mouth to put it in — head of family off — shocking, shocking. Looking at Whitehall Sir, — fine place — little window — somebody else’s head off there, eh, Sir? — he didn’t keep a sharp look-out either — eh, sir, eh?’