May 22, 2015

Food for Thought Friday: Sandwiches are Stupid

It’s true. They are.

But let’s not even address this from the perspective of low carb eating. Grain flour that’s been baked into some sort of spongy, edible “thing” is a completely unnecessary element in the human diet. Bread, rolls, buns, pita, naan, bagels, panini – carbohydrate, insulin, blah, blah, blah. Old news. It’s Friday, and since I like to have a little more fun with these posts than I tend to let slip in things like the cancer series or the fuel partitioning series, let’s look at the ridiculousness of sandwiches from a perspective that has nothing to do with aspects of carbohydrate that we’ve all heard about a million times over.

How about we tackle the sandwich from a functional and socio-cultural perspective?  

Let’s get one thing straight, right off the bat: sandwiches are a food with built in utility and convenience. But that utility and convenience are designed for specific situations. Think about it: sandwiches are designed for people who need a hand free while they eat, or in circumstances in which tableware and utensils are impractical or unavailable. (I could mention some circumstances in which you might have only one hand free—especially the men—but I doubt anyone’s got sandwiches on the brain at that time. Unless its a human sandwich involving hot blonde twins or some such, right? HA! Told you I’d keep things fun today.)

The legend of sandwich creation goes something like: Great Britain's Earl of Sandwich was a big-time gambler/card-player, and he ordered his cook to create a meal that he could eat using just one hand, thus keeping the other hand free for playing cards, so he wouldn't have to take time out of the game to eat. (Unless “playing cards” was a euphemism for something else.) The cook put the traditional meal of sliced, roasted meat in between two pieces of bread, and the rest is history. I don’t know if this is true or not, but it sounds good, and it also illustrates my point: there’s really no purpose for eating a sandwich in any situation that does not require you to have a hand free.

There is no reason to order a sandwich when you are sitting with other humans at a table, where you can just as easily eat your food off of a plate, and use your hands to operate a fork, knife, and/or spoon. Aside from the phrase “breaking bread” (not to be confused with breaking bad), surrounding foods in bread adds nothing to the communal experience of eating.

And yet, the sandwich is a daily lunch staple for the young and the young at heart.

Let’s talk about something I witness on the days when I work the day job unrelated to nutrition. (Yes, it’s true. I am still beholden to the corporate/government man. Want me to work nutrition full-time? Tell a doctor with a booming practice to HIRE ME!) Anyway, a few days a week, I actually have to get dressed, leave the house, and go to an office. (Yuck.) I can’t disclose to you where this office is, but, as Ive mentioned in the past, the building has five sides, so it would not be inaccurate if you were to call it a pentagon.)

Okay, office, big building, populated by lots and lots of grownups. Professional-type men and women, all walks of life, and everybody from janitors to 4-star generals. And in all the various eating establishments and food courts scattered throughout the building, I regularly see grown adults eating lunches that consist of: a sandwich, chips, and soda or juice. And every time I see it, all I can think is, what is this, 5th grade? It reminds me of something a kid would pull out of his lunchbox in the middle school cafeteria. Or maybe on a class field trip to the science museum or something, because it was the lunch included in the $5 trip fee.

This sandwich thing is even more inexplicable to me when I’m out at a restaurant for dinner and someone orders meat between some kind of bread, or a burger with the bun. In the American psyche, the socio-cultural construct that is "lunch" practically demands a sandwich of some kind. The two are inseparable. But for dinner? Really? Really? A buffalo chicken sandwich? A turkey wrap? A meatball sub? (Or hoagie, or grinder, or whatever they call it in your neck of the woods.) Seriously? When you are sitting down? At a table? With other grownups? And access to utensils?

When you are sitting at a table, with both hands free, interacting in a civilized manner with other human beings, there’s no reason you can’t employ actual utensils to deliver food to your piehole. Sometimes I picture a construction site, where strong, hardy guys (and gals!) bring their lunch pails and take a break for their midday meal. The image that most often comes to mind is a sandwich, probably because I’ve seen this in person a few times. But why a sandwich? It’s not like they’re working while they eat, and need a hand free to wield a hammer while they use the other one to hold the sandwich. Even these folks sit down and eat before going back to work, so they don’t require the convenience of sandwiches, either. Leftover chili in a container, with a spoon, anyone? Leftover slice of meatloaf you can cut with a fork, instead of defaulting to sticking it between two slices of bread? The possibilities are endless; all this requires is a little thinking outside the box bread and bun.

In the ten years or so I’ve been at this low carb thing, not once have I felt the need to surround meat, cheese, and/or vegetables with bread. I have not felt the need to stuff meat into a pita pocket, nor add a doughy bun to the top and bottom of a burger—or, as Ash Simmonds calls them, “burger handles.” (Not to be confused with Berger handles, which are my hips.) Sure, I’ve had some some slips & slides here and there, but I’ve never good and truly strayed from low carb, nor been so far away from it that I would have considered myself to have “fallen off the wagon.” And yes, I’ve eaten bread in the last decade. Lots of it. (Once in a while, there’s just nothing like a good olive oil & rosemary focaccia.) This isn’t a tirade against bread. It’s just a lighthearted look at the sandwich as a social construct that makes little to no sense for most people in most dining situations.   

Now, before the food police come after me, I’m not saying sandwiches aren’t delicious. If anything, that is a better reason to eat them than anything to do with “convenience.” There is something to be said for the construction of the perfect bite. Chefs build these things into the dishes they create—perfectly orchestrated combinations of soft, crispy, hot, cold, sweet, salty, acidic, and fatty, designed to light up your taste buds and endorphin receptors like a Vegas slot machine—so that your first bite makes you swoon, the second bite makes you close your eyes and moan, and the third makes you want to go back for more and more. (And maybe by the fourth bite, you do require a free hand, if ya know what I mean!)

So yeah, sometimes you do lose some of that gastronomic and gustatory architecture when you avoid the bread. Think about a rare, juicy burger, with cool, pickled red onion on top, or crispy bacon, or maybe deep-fried crispy onion straws -- all those complementary flavors and textures. You can still get the experience of those combined aspects if you cut into the burger with a knife and fork, but even I can admit it’s not quite the same as when it’s surrounded by a toasted bun—especially if the bun is buttered. Same goes for a Reuben sandwich, with its corned beef, Russian dressing, sauerkraut, and Swiss cheese. The rye bread does add a little something, as does a toasty onion roll to a roast beef sandwich—especially when you dip the roll in the jus. And let’s face it: a Philly cheesesteak just ain’t the same without the roll.

So if you’re one of the fortunate among us whose intestines don’t require a 3-day sequestration in the loo upon consuming wheat, and if you’re comfortable with the metabolic effects of consuming bread once in a while, have at it! I’m not the food police, and I’m definitely not the boss of you. Like I said, sometimes the only justification anyone needs to eat anything is that it’s damn tasty! Reese’s cups? Tasty! Mint chocolate chip ice cream? Tasty! B-Spot burgers? I've never been there, but in the pictures Michael Symon retweets, they look really tasty! (Full of carbs, sugar, and other crazy stuff? Yes. So what? Underpants rule! Eyes on your own plate!)

And all that said, I stand by my claims about sandwiches being just plain unnecessary. Especially for people who do not regularly dine in grade school cafeterias.  ;-)  

P.S. If, like me, you are interested in the social and cultural aspects of why and how we eat the things we do, allow me to recommend Consider the Fork. It's not a nutrition book. (And thank goodness. I do get tired of those after a while.) It's a look at a handful of specific cooking vessels, utensils, and other implements, how they came to be, and how they have influenced the foods we eat and the manner in which we eat them. Much cooler than it sounds, I promise! Great book!

Remember: Amy Berger, M.S., NTP, is not a physician and Tuit Nutrition, LLC, is not a medical practice. The information contained on this site is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical condition.


  1. No, I don't know what you mean by needing a spare hand, please explain.

    Dirty girl.

    My favourite sandwich as a kid was vegemite and bbq flavoured chips/crisps. Close behind was peanut butter and jam. It's a miracle my pancreas survived to adulthood.

    I do love some decent bread these days, just not on a burger or sausage.

    Have a good weekend.

    1. I'm the same -- an occasional bit of bread, but not crappy sandwich bread with a million ingredients I can't even identify. Maybe a good, fresh-baked something or other with some bite to it. PB&'s a miracle that I, too, have any beta cells left whatsoever! ;-)

  2. Ah, delicious post ;).

    You did not mention money a single time. I guess deliberately. Just made my organic circle order. One 1/2 pound organic romaine head $3 gives about 10 lettuce wraps (4 cal/$0.3/wrap). 2 pounds organic white wheat flour $3 gives about 30 rolls (110 cal/$0.1/roll). Or for the gluten restricted 2 pounds organic parboiled rice $3 gives about 30 servings (113 cal/$0.1/serving). You could make a claim about micronutrients but for a poor people, or people valuing other things more than food or business which wants to make a profit, this is no guess work.

  3. And thanks for the book tip too !

  4. Giving up the sandwich food group by going Paleo/Primal, was a particular challenge. I've tried Montreal smoked meat on salad, not quite the same thing. : ( So for that 20% time of not eating Paleo/Primal, it's Montreal smoked meat on rye, with butter and mustard. : )

    Thinking of sandwiches brings up memories of training and a field sandwich. Take a slice of bread, add your meal, and top with another slice of bread. Chow down while leaving your other hand ready to take care of business.


    1. What's Montreal smoked meat? Fill a girl in! (Also, yes, this is what 80/20 is all about! If this is something you really enjoy, and you have no major reasons to avoid bread, go for it!)

    2. "What's Montreal smoked Meat?" It's the best meat!!!

    3. Sounds like Jewish deli corned beef, especially with their references to Jewish cultural foods, and the rye bread, with the pickles right there on the table. ;-)

  5. It's not true. They are not