The idea of a sandwich

A couple of weeks ago I spent the morning with the family at an art museum, and we wanted to stay past lunchtime, so we decided to grab a sandwich at a temporary café they had opened. “Temporary café” is a phrase that makes me nervous. I tried to size the place up. There were some upscale things on the menu that cost more than I wanted to spend. On the flip side, I suspected that anything potentially greasy was likely to be severely greasy, perhaps disastrously so. The only vegetarian option I could see was a kids’ PB&J. So I ordered what looked safe, a turkey and brie sandwich.

Which the guy promptly handed me from a refrigerator case.

The turkey was at least recognizable as roasted turkey. The bread appeared on sight to be some sort of foccacia-like thing, but refrigerated it was just bland and chewy. The brie had no flavor whatsoever. Even good brie served cold is pretty bland; cheaper stuff straight from the fridge might as well be cream cheese or commodity baby Swiss. To make matters worse, the architect of this sandwich had determined curry mayonnaise and chutney to be the appropriate accoutrements. Had the sandwich been toasted, the brie gooey and aromatic, the condiments might have set off the strong flavor of the cheese.. Cold, I couldn’t taste anything but curry. Cold, chewy curry.

The sandwich was, in short, a waste of cheese, bread, meat, and money, all because somebody stuck it in the refrigerator for a few hours. Did I mention this sandwich set me back nine bucks? Did I mention we were a captive audience?

My first impulse at times like this is to gripe about attention to detail. For want of a nail, etc.. They made other sandwiches to order (including a Reuben); why not this one? Why not make the little extra effort to do it right? Or else serve me a decent plate of beans and rice, with which I’d have been perfectly happy.

On reflection, though, I hadn’t paid nine dollars for a sandwich. I paid nine dollars for the idea of a sandwich. I was, after all, in a fairly large art museum, where they cater by necessity to people who have money and would like to think they have taste, who will, I suppose, gladly spend nine bucks on a sandwich just because it has “brie” in the name and not care much what it actually tastes like. They have what they wanted before they even take a bite.

But there’s no point picking on people with money to burn: this sort of thing is endemic in American culture. Or, maybe, it’s that practically everybody has money to burn. The wealthy have always blown their wealth on food intended to impress rather than nourish, but Americans have so much money and food is so cheap that we are nearly all, by historical standards, ludicrously wealthy. I was reminded of Pete Wells’ now-famous review of Guy Frieri’s American Kitchen & Bar in Times Square, in which it became clear that this restaurant could serve anything, or not quite get around to serving it, whatever, so long as it convincingly sold the idea of Having a Good Time in That Guy on TV’s place. Or: Yesterday, watching a football game, I saw a Burger King ad for an “Angry Whopper,” which has bacon, jalepeños, and what appeared to be onion rings, plus something called Angry Sauce. The diminishing part of my brain that still thinks it’s seventeen years old thought awesome, and then the rest had an intervention. I’m pretty sure the idea of that sandwich is more entertaining than the real thing, too.

Seriously, how often do we eat the idea of food rather than the food itself? What is (was?) a Twinkie, if not the idea of a cream-filled cake abstracted from reality, flavor, nutrition, and context? What are most restaurant meals, beyond the brief excitement of words on a menu, a few bites in which to convince oneself that it lives up to expectations, and enough fat, sugar, and salt to sate an ox? What is a frozen dinner or a takeout pizza or (I shudder to say) a Cinnabon?1 If we actually ate any of this thoughtfully, engaged with our senses and with the people around us, would we eat any of it?

You know how Michael Pollan wants you to just eat food, and not strange food-like substances with unpronounceable names? I would add: and not just the idea of food. Stick with the real thing. Ironically, I think we’d eat less.

4 thoughts on “The idea of a sandwich”

  1. I work in the center of downtown Portland with a huge range of cooked-to-order food options in the $4-7 range (food carts within a couple of blocks of all the major work areas) and I still regularly see people choosing the embalmed triangle-packed sandwiches from the drugstore freezer at the same price point. It’s not because all the options are scary-ethnic, either: you could get a cheeseburger or hand-fried fries or chicken-n-waffles or a sub. Maybe it is germ phobia?

    I wonder if the chilled antiseptic brie might feel safer than an oozy brie sandwich.

  2. Well, at least they didn’t serve it to you on hot bread!

    More to the point, I agree with you so far as restaurant meals are concerned–who needs to even eat the food once you’re read the three-line description!–but I don’t know that you can entirely separate what we actually eat from the idea of it. Isn’t our impression of every meal colored by our expectation of it? From anecdotal evidence, for example, people who like spending time with their family enjoy the Thanksgiving dinner more than the ones who would really rather be elsewhere, and that can’t only be because dysfunctional families are all bad cooks.

    On the other hand, it does often seem like lots of people have the expectation that restaurant food–even from temporary cafes–is good, while homemade is bad; it’s that sort of attitude that leads to a family blowing two weeks grocery money for a passable dinner at a “Contemporary American bistro”.

  3. Danny, I take your point — certainly the people we eat with matters at least as much as the food itself. Although the hype of Thanksgiving probably doesn’t help much, either…

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