Murphy\’s Bye-Laws

Law #4: Any fool can make a rule, and any fool will mind it. –H.D. Thoreau

Zen and the Art of the Sandwich

Posted by PintofStout on April 3, 2008

I talk a lot about limits and extremes and thresholds on this blog. Mostly, I’m in a camp that argues at the philosophical extremes to expose principals that characterize actions that may masquerade under alternate pretensions. Today, I want to talk about balance, though – moderation, even. As usual, I will use metaphor to accomplish attempt this.

I am a huge fan of sandwiches big and small. My mother (the one with the large stores of peanut butter and marshmallow fluff) tells me that, even at a young age, I would prefer a sandwich to pretty much anything. This in comparison to my brother who was a meat and potatoes kind of kid. I’ve expanded my palate over the years and my definition of a sandwich changed with it. Now a Sandwich (Big S) is a sub-category of contained foods to be eaten with the hands – sandwiches (little s). Burritos and other such wraps fall into another sub-category that don’t involve leavened bread products. I’ve put much thought and experimentation into sandwiches: what they are, proper proportions, ingredients, assembly, and ingestion methods. These thoughts translate into other matters of life pretty readily.


Generalization can be a powerful tool for sorting and classifying, for highlighting differences amongst things – even sandwiches. Applying a descriptive label to something highlights characteristics that that something has in common with other things. For instance, labeling people as male or female helps to identify traits that are likely to be common amongst other people with that label. Generalization can also be a tool for the lazy or malicious, though. For instance, saying that a particular person labeled female is irrational and then expounding on that to assume that all such people with the same label are therefore irrational is either laziness or purposefully malicious against the rest of the holders of that label.

There is a subtlety that needs to be exercised when using labels that doesn’t cloud what the subject really is – or isn’t. Presented with an open-faced meatloaf sandwich with gravy, one may be puzzled when they didn’t really receive a sandwich so much as something that has whole slices of bread in it. This is not a sandwich any more than French toast with maple syrup is an open-faced syrup sandwich. Just because someone decided to call something a sandwich and includes the rhetoric of bread doesn’t make it so, but instead dilutes the label further into meaninglessness. This happens with all labels, so be careful how labels are used, especially when applied to one’s self (and sandwiches).

Ingredients and Assembly

Ingredients are a vital part of any sandwich theory. They are the building blocks of the theory. If the ingredients, or the core principals, of the sandwich are of poor quality or outright awful, the sandwich doesn’t stand a chance of rectifying all their individual shortcomings. Of course, the ingredients are rarely ever all horrible or all spectacular, not to mention the personal taste and subjectivity that comes with such value judgments. The good sometimes have to be combined with the bad in order to make a complete sandwich – the alternative of going without a sandwich at all is unfathomable. Trying to eliminate or improve the ingredients that are unsatisfactory is a natural and endless process. Combining ingredients that are better quality with those of lesser quality can raise the overall quality of the sandwich by more than just the sum of its parts. Maybe the most important consideration in regards to sandwiches, then, is in assembly.

Assembly takes into consideration the ingredient physical hierarchy (the order or position of ingredients), overall orientation of the sandwich (which way is up and, corollary to orientation, which side is on the tongue side when consuming), and proportions of ingredients. As the various ingredients – different breads, meats, cheeses, “salad” spreads, condiments, and fixins – combine differently with each other it is important to consider the order the sandwich is assembled. Too moist a condiment or topping on too soft a bread can result in compromised bread if not eaten in a timely fashion. When there aren’t structural or ingredient integrity concerns, it can be a matter of taste or best practices. For instance, does the mustard go directly on the bread (and is it spread), or does it go on the last layer of topping before capping with bread? When looked at as a final product, the position of the mustard hasn’t changed, but some swear that where the mustard is actually applied makes a difference. With sandwich assembly, as with so many things, there are very few concrete rules, leaving the rest to personal taste and experimentation. Those who espouse one particular method – no matter how loudly – cannot change the fact that a different way may taste better to someone else.

Once the sandwich is assembled, I tend to think that the orientation of the sandwich when consuming makes a difference based on what parts of the mouth are getting certain parts of the sandwich first. Stronger tastes and textures are the two major contributors to achieving a positive mouth-feel and initial flavor experience. Options of how to consume the sandwich are limited based on the formation of the sandwich; i.e. a chili dog that can easily spill its contents vs. a pb&j that is virtually indestructible. The constraints introduced by the formation of the sandwich have to be planned for in the assembly thereof to achieve the desired effects. The order of assembly and orientation are linked in that some ingredients that may be grating to the palate – when taken alone or as the first taste – need to be placed near mellowing ingredients and in a position that will not jump out as an initial taste, thus blocking the consumer’s mind from enjoying the other ingredients.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, proportions of ingredients must be a concern. Every sandwich has a focus, whether it is a particular meat, or a particular cheese, or all of the main ingredients (not counting toppings and condiments). When proportions are askew the focus of the sandwich can be lost in the shuffle. How many of us have had a sandwich from a commercial establishment on which we ordered lettuce ( a good cool, crunchy addition to so many sandwiches) and been given so damned much lettuce that the ham and cheese were relegated to topping status on a watery salad bar sandwich? Lettuce is a fine topping, but, when used in an overwhelming manner, can ruin the sandwich, especially if trying to adjust the lettuce level manually means removing some condiment and tinkering with other such variables (not to mention the great mess it makes). Likewise, loading a sandwich up with too much of a focused ingredient makes all the other ingredients (if there are any) and toppings obsolete, and makes the sandwich a uninteresting, one-dimensional, I’ll-just-eat-it-for sustenance bore.

Barry Goldwater once quipped, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. … Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” My calls for balance and moderation through metaphor do not contradict this. To fit Mr. Goldwater’s statement into my sandwich theory, defense of liberty, so long as it is not mere rhetoric, would be a key ingredient of a sandwich; extremism just makes that ingredient more dominant on the sandwich. Moderation in the pursuit of justice would simply be a weaker ingredient that becomes overpowered by other ingredients, rendering it less useful. A sandwich, like a person, is made up of many parts that have to harmonize to be delicious. If one ingredient overpowers all the rest and the sandwich flavors fall out of balance, then the sandwich becomes one-dimensional and loses appeal and interests only those focused on the one ingredient. While a one-dimensional sandwich will sustain someone, the true beauty in sandwiches comes from subtly and variety.


No metaphor is perfect. (No sandwich is perfect, either.) In the world of sandwiches, I often say that a sandwich tastes better when someone else makes it – a loved one, not a commercial joint. In a strict sense of this metaphor, this theory doesn’t hold up completely. It is always much more satisfying to built one’s own sandwich of self; some of the better ingredients may come from loved ones, but it is up to us to assemble and proportion all the ingredients into something truly delicious.

Warren Zevon, in an interview after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, had told his close friend David Letterman, when asked what he understood now that he was facing his own mortality that he didn’t know before, “Just how much you’re supposed to enjoy every sandwich.” I’m pretty sure he was simply referring to the little everyday things in life, but I am going to say that, in a metaphor about people and sandwiches, one should enjoy the sandwiches that others have built and make a sandwich that others can enjoy as well. Life is so much more than single issues or pungent meats. If care isn’t taken to achieve some balance and nuance, a really great sandwich could go unmade, uneaten, and unenjoyed.


11 Responses to “Zen and the Art of the Sandwich”

  1. RecessiveGenes said

    When a loved one makes a delicious sandwich for you, it is a simple expression of love. Whoever that person is, be it parent, sibling, or lover, knows you and your tastes. One can greatly appreciate this gesture. I nonetheless concur that the sandwich constructed by the sweat of your brow and your own two hands can taste that much better.

    Lastly, I laughed out loud at the idea of an open-faced syrup sandwich.

  2. I’m glad you enjoyed that. The idea of an open-faced sandwich actually being a sandwich has always annoyed me.

    In the literal sandwich realm, I think they will always taste better when prepared by a loved one. In the sense of my metaphor, I couldn’t say the same. Of course, I feel my metaphor, the person being the sandwich, is a bit forced and garbled – the ravings of a mad man.

    I hope all is well with you these days. Cheers.

  3. resistmuch1976 said

    Is a burger a sandwich, or does it have an exclusive classification?

  4. B_____ said

    I read this and thought about subjectivity and objectivity and definitions of words. I would defend the open face sandwich as “sandwich” because I enjoy them and because a group of people can agree when they look at that object that it is in fact a sandwich and not something else. Somewhere in our understanding of the concept of sandwich there is room for all kinds of deliciousness. As a side note, I wish popular political discourse would include other sandwiches and not simply the choice between creamy horse manure on wheat or zesty broken glass on rye.

  5. First, a hamburger is a sandwich. It is almost elite as a sandwich for its success. I also mentioned that hot dogs are sandwiches, too.

    About the open-faced “sandwich” thing, I’d say anyone who wants to consider an open-faced “sandwich” is probably a giant mess inside where they have come undone and are just drowning their sorrow with gravy. Freak.


  6. B_____ said

    Any man that puts down gravy isn’t really a man. I expect more from you. Tell me what essential sandwich-ness the open face sandwich lacks that excludes it from that category.

  7. I wasn’t putting down gray so much as saying that it just isn’t a sandwich. You have to be able to pick up a sandwich and eat it with your hands. If you show me how to eat an open-faced sandwich with gravy with your hands, maybe I’ll reconsider.

    I actually like the open-faced sandwich. It is a great vehicle for gravy consumption. I like casseroles, too, but they are as much a sandwich as the so-called open-faced variety.

  8. B_____ said

    Do you have a thing against sauces in general or just the degree of sauces? Say I make a meatball sub(marine sandwich) and I add too much sauce thereby rendering it uneatable by hands. Is it then something else entirely? As far as I can tell your definition of sandwich seems to involve bread on the outside and anything on the inside.

    An open face sandwich contains every piece of your closed minded definition of a sandwich while a casserole would not. Just because you’re too lazy to put the two halves together and eat them (you’re lazy because you don’t want to take a bath after consumption) doesn’t mean you can’t and it doesn’t mean it’s not a sandwich.

  9. It may be a degree of sauces thing, though, intent, also plays into it, I think. You’re meatball sandwich example would illustrate intent to eat it as a sandwich only to make a really sloppy sandwich. This intent is absent with the open-faced sandwich. If someone were to add, say, meatloaf with some mashed potatoes and a little gravy to some bread with the intent of picking it up and eating it, then you have a sandwich. Serving two slices of bread on the side of a plate of spaghetti, not a sandwich.

    Does any of this have to do with the crappy open-faced metaphor of this post, or is this strictly sandwich theory?

  10. “There is nobody as enslaved as the fanatic, the person in whom one impulse, one value, has assumed ascendancy over all others.”
    … Milton R. Sapirstein

  11. Loree said

    Happy Birthday!!! If you think 26 feels old, wait until you are my age (55 in a couple of weeks). My joints are feeling the age, but my brain is still stuck somewhere in childhood. And NOT my second one as you might assume. I never grew upce&230;h#n8e I work with kids LOL. Have a wonderful day!!

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