It seems petty to jeopardize your personal relationships over a hot dog. But I think it’s important to stick to your guns, no matter how many times your girlfriend threatens to leave you. I mean, she didn’t actually say that, but I saw it in her eyes.
She made the bold—and I’m talking Guy Fieri donkey sauce bold flavors bold—claim that a hot dog isn’t a sandwich.
Of course it’s a sandwich, I explained. It has bread; it has meat; it’s portable; people eat it with potato salad and at picnics and stuff. Whether or not it has two separate, parallel slices of bread is irrelevant—if it walks, talks, and tastes like a sandwich, it’s a sandwich.
She told me I was shouting, and that we were in a restaurant, and I was causing a scene. I semi-successfully groveled for forgiveness on the walk home.
Still, it wasn’t something I could let go of so easily. In light of the stress it was putting on my relationship, ‘what makes a sandwich a sandwich?’ seemed like a worthy question to pursue—and I was certainly not the first to go down that road.
The question was posed on Chowhound, which prompted almost 500 responses all from people who thought they knew the one true definition of a sandwich. The Guardian wrote a 2,000-word feature to try and answer the question in July of 2014, and a blog on ESPN even got in on the action shortly thereafter.
Most of these sources tended to agree that the hot dog is a sandwich, but they were all based off of overly simplistic dictionary definitions. To actually get at the nature of sandwiches, to ostensibly define the barriers of sandwich-hood, you need a source that can think, react, and respond to all the different potential problems and quandaries.
In my search to uncover these hidden truths and find answers, I figured it was time to turn to an expert—that’s where Dr. Calvin Normore comes in. Dr. Normore is a professor of medieval philosophy and Cartesian metaphysics at UCLA. He’s currently working on a book about Descartes and the transition from medieval to modern philosophy. I read the Spark Notes for Plato’s Republic four years ago—so I wouldn’t necessarily call us intellectual equals.
But when I asked him via email if he’d be willing to sit down with me over lunch and discuss the philosophy of sandwiches—how they’re defined, how they’re categorized, the ontological implications of sandwich-hood—he was stoked by the idea.
“That sounds like fun! Kit Fine has a paper on the metaphysics of ham sandwiches by the way!” he told me. Suddenly, I felt less stupid asking a professor and published author to eat hot dogs with me.
Since I promised him lunch, my job was to get in the kitchen and create five edible philosophical quandaries, all of varying degrees of sandwichness—a hot dog, lobster roll, falafel pita, goat cheese tartine, and a classic ham sammy—and see how they lived up to their definitions.
I met him outside his office in a courtyard that seemed designed specifically for lunching professors. We passed a group of his suit-and-tied colleagues, who all stared at my picnic basket filled with vague, tin-foil-wrapped objects.
‘We’re discussing sandwiches today!’ Dr. Normore told them. They nodded casually, as if philosophy professors are constantly fielding these kinds of requests.
I expected to discuss sandwiches, but I didn’t expect to talk about the rise of Taco Bell’s breakfast menu, and whether or not rollerskaters posed a serious threat to human safety. I like to imagine this is what the old Socratic dialogues were like: Just two guys hanging out, shootin’ the shit, and then gorging themselves on sandwiches. Or, not sandwiches—depending on what you gleaned from this ordeal.
How familiar are you with sandwiches? Would you call yourself a fan?
I am a fan indeed. I eat sandwiches quite often. I eat them on the run; I eat them on the walk; I eat them while sitting still. I am also quite the fan of hamburgers, especially the Australian iteration with a thick slice of beetroot. But I suppose that raises a very pertinent question: Are hamburgers sandwiches?
That caused a huge fight between my girlfriend and I the other day. Hamburgers are definitely sandwiches. Any other answer is wrong. Especially my girlfriend’s.
Well that may be the case: after all, it has two pieces of bread with meat quite literally sandwiched in between. But, part of the problem is what Paul Grice would have called issues of implicature. So here’s the thing: A convention of language is that you don’t say something less specific if a more specific thing to say is available and is appropriate. That’s an issue that comes up here because some things that people might call sandwiches have more specific names. So, even if it would turn out that a hamburger falls under the broader category of sandwich, we would never refer to it as such, because it has a more specific—and therefor more meaningful—name.
What about a Reuben? It has a specific name that implies specific components, but more people would be likely to call that a sandwich than, say, a hamburger or a hot dog. Is that just because it’s less ubiquitous?
No, it likely has to do with the stereotype of a sandwich. So, many concepts have associated with them a stereotype, which you might think of as the clearest model that something has to mimic to fall under a category. For instance, the things we’re sitting on are pretty close to the stereotype of chairs. Now, there are lots of things to sit on that are very far from looking like these. We still might count them as chairs, but they’re farther from the stereotype, therefor less recognizable. A corned beef Reuben meets the stereotype of a sandwich pretty much perfectly: It has two pieces of bread with sliced meat in between. You would have no hesitation to call it a sandwich, even if there were a more specific name. The hamburger is a little further from the stereotype, right? Now, I’d be inclined to think that if you pressed me for an answer, I would agree that it is a sandwich.
Sweet, so my girlfriend actually was wrong?
Ha! It’s very possible. Despite its specific name, it still satisfies any plausible definition of a sandwich, so I count it as such. But, if I asked you to bring me a sandwich, and you brought me a hamburger when you could have brought me a Reuben, you would have slightly misled me.
That would be a total dick move—Reuben’s are the best. So, in terms of stereotypes, it seems like lobster rolls and hot dogs are pretty similar to each other.
Indeed, I have had many lobster rolls served inside many hot dog buns.
Right? But then why would people be more inclined to call a lobster roll a sandwich than a hot dog? Is it just because the classical image of a hot dog is more broadly recognized as a separate, unique structure?
I think it might also be because the history of the hot dog is different than the history of sandwiches as a whole. They almost exist on different temporal planes. When history’s first Frankfurter was made in Central Europe and stuck in a roll of bread, it was done outside the modern concept of a sandwich. So, yes, they likely are sandwiches, but only in the same sense that benches are also chairs.
Then in those terms, can sandwich-ness, at least for our purposes, only be examined in an American context? Like, in Scandinavia they predominantly eat open-faced sandwiches, which many Americans might not consider a sandwich at all. Is there any universal definition, or will the concept always be skewed across different cultures?
One of the issues that gets tricky is the relationship between the application of a word, and a concept, right? It often happens that a word gets used in such different ways that people are not prepared to think of the exact concept its describing. In Mark Wilson’s book Wandering Significance, which is one of the most aptly named books of our time, he discusses the history of the hazelnut and the filbert.
Wait, are they the same thing?
Aha! It turns out that from many perspectives, including from that of biologists and botanists, they are the same thing. But, there were social and economic reasons for North American growers to distinguish themselves from Europeans by changing the name of the crop. And they partially succeeded, to the extent that you had to ask, ‘are they the same thing?’
I feel really stupid. I thought filberts were a cheap knockoff of hazelnuts—like ‘krab with a k’ is to crab.
Don’t, the farmers who renamed the product were deliberately trying to confuse you. So with open-faced sandwiches, the fact that we use the term ‘sandwich’ may not mean that much. Remember that we still call forged checks ‘checks,’ even though they have the opposite utility. The fact that we’ve created a unique species for open-faced sandwiches might indicate that we don’t view them as a sandwich at all. After all, they lack the concept of betweenness that seems essential to sandwiches.
(I fold the open-faced sandwiches on top of each other) Boom. So now it’s just a sandwich, yeah?
Ha! And we see how fickle the differences really are! So this is really a case of ontology. All you’ve done is rolled one half of it over on the other; so, in essence, it’s the same object as it always was. How can a sandwich cease to be a sandwich with the flick of a finger?
Well that’s the idea that caused a coworker and I to start yelling at each other the other day. He ended up saying, “If I had a roast beef sandwich, and a gust of wind blew the top piece of bread off into a pile of dog shit, it doesn’t make it any less of a sandwich.” So then does intent come into play?
I think intention can matter in many concepts. And this is an interesting case with the roast beef sandwich. Certain things are constituted the way that they are because of the process used to produce them. But other things aren’t like that at all. For example, are phone books doorstops?
What’s a phone book?
I didn’t even know they still made phone books, but I received one in the mail the other day! Even though it has no more informational purpose because of smart phones and the internet, I still never would have told you ‘I received a door stop in the mail.’ So if somebody set out to make a pile of food that just happened to contain bread, and wasn’t at all concerned with it being a sandwich, then it likely wouldn’t be up for them to decide.
And that’s the case with a lot of BBQ. The meat’s served on a pile of Wonderbread, but there’s no intention of it being a sandwich.
Exactly! Even if you were to construct your own sandwich and eat it as such, it would be inaccurate to say that the pitmaster had been cooking up sandwiches all evening. That being said, I don’t think the maker has the final say. It’s not necessarily crucial for the person in charge of the raw materials to be the decision maker here. And this might matter in legal context. If you set out to not make a sandwich, and somehow the wind had blown all the ingredients together to resemble, say, a corned beef Reuben, despite your best intentions, would you still have to abide by sandwich law?
With that in mind, it seems like people have different motivations for defining certain categories and species. I know in New York, since all sandwiches are subject to sales tax, they go so far as to define burritos as sandwiches so they can be taxed as such.
That’s a general feature of language. When we use certain words we are either extending or contracting the associated concepts, partly by analogy. In legal contexts, this is often important. So if you have a prohibition against wheeled vehicles in Central Park, can that be extended to roller skates? You would first have to consider the question of why someone would want to prohibit them in the first place. If you’re afraid of people being run down, and you think of roller skates as being things capable of that, then you would rather assimilate them to the category of a wheeled vehicle rather than creating a separate law just for roller skates.
I had a buddy get a DUI for driving a motorized beer cooler at like 4 miles per hour, so that analogy hits close to home.
Similarly, you would have to think: What’s the point of a sandwich? Why do they exist? Well, you want something that’s easily carried, doesn’t require a plate, and that’s got its own packaging so to speak. So, from that unique perspective, you would be forced to look at the most base level of foods that satisfy those requirements. And so that standard for that word can only be defined by the purpose it is intended to satisfy.
So how far can we go until something can no longer be considered a sandwich? What’s the difference between an open-faced sandwich on unleavened crisp bread, and just a pile of loaded-up crackers?
I would think that if the crisp bread is small enough, it isn’t a sandwich. But, if it’s a hefty piece of crisp bread that contains a full meal, and I could carry it around, I don’t know that I would object to it being a sandwich. There would certainly be a bit of fuzziness around the edges, and if someone were to insist that it weren’t a sandwich, I wouldn’t necessarily throw rocks at them. Now, if someone were to spread peanut butter on a Ritz cracker and try to pass it off as a sandwich, they would have deviated too far fro our initial meaning and intentions.
Is there any way to more clearly define those parameters, or is it all based on intuition?
It’s not only intuition, but it’s also not a matter of pure legislation either. What happens is that we proceed outwardly from a central case through analogy. We start with a fuzzy area, and that fuzzy area can only get sharpened when we need to really focus on sharpening it. Let me ask you a question: When does the afternoon end?
Yeah, I’ve never had a good answer to that. Screw it, I’ll say 4:30, once you get to 4:31, you’re officially into evening.
Well, see, now I might think that the evening doesn’t start until 6:00. With many cases, unless the term has been artificially introduced for a specific purpose—like we see with the New York tax codes—I think all of our concepts have this character. They’ll have a penumbra, where you wouldn’t know what to say until you have to say it.
Well that time might as well be know. In front of us we have a ham sandwich, a lobster roll, a hot dog, a falafel pita, and an open-faced tartine—which of them are sandwiches?
I’d say all of them. Even the falafel—though I’m the most hesitant on that. It might go along the same lines of the Mexican taco, in that it predates the modern concept of a sandwich so much that it’s inappropriate to define it in those narrow terms. But I, personally, am still fully prepared to call it a sandwich.
Damn, that was way too simple. I wish I would have gotten more abstract and like thrown a Big Mac in a blender and spread it on a cracker or something.
That would certainly be something, but I don’t think that something would be a sandwich. Also, I would be very hesitant to eat it.
Well, lastly, Taco Bell now has an item that they’re calling a biscuit taco, which is just a folded-in-half biscuit with a glorified chicken nugget shoved inside. Is there any conceivable world in which that could be considered a taco?
If it should turn out that somewhere in Central Mexico people have been making biscuit tacos for quite some time—which I can neither confirm nor deny in full confidence—then it would be acceptable as a taco. But I don’t know that we can take Taco Bell’s word for it.
To be fair, Taco Bell is super autentico. Well, that’s all I got, unless you have any closing sandwich remarks that we haven’t covered.
Yeah, can I eat one of these? I haven’t had lunch and I have a class that starts in 20 minutes.