In Defense of the Sandwich

The New York Times columnist Mark Bittman called sandwiches staid and unimaginative. Where's he eating?

Muffuletta from Central Grocery in New Orleans.

It might seem like making a mountain out of a molehill, or in this case, a Dagwood out of a panini, but when you stop and think about it, the opening line of The New York Times' food Op-Ed columnist Mark Bittman's recent piece "Every 'Wich Way: How to Create an Artful Sandwich" was a bit shocking: "For something that has almost unlimited potential, the sandwich has become staid and unimaginative."

Huh? What's he talking about? To what does Mr. Bittman attribute this supposed sandwich malaise, this lack of imagination and excitement he seems to think people have when it comes to building a better meal between two slices of bread?

"In part this is because we don’t have as many leftovers as we once did (we don’t cook as much), so a meatloaf sandwich is nowhere near as common as it once was," explains Bittman. "But it’s mostly because we’ve allowed sandwich-making to become something that is either done by someone else or a task to be squeezed in between breakfast and taking the kids to the bus."

What's he really saying? Who is the "we" here? Americans? The Bittmans? The New York Times' Sunday Magazine, Dining, or Op-Ed sections? And where's it happening? At home? In restaurants? It seems like he's saying we as Americans looking to our refrigerators have lost our love of making interesting sandwiches. Seems like a pretty unsubstantiated claim. And with all the amazing and inspiring sandwiches currently being made, featured, highlighted, and glorified, you really can't say that Americans are lacking when it comes to ideas for sandwich inspiration.

Perhaps this most recent piece means that Bittman's just burnt out on cooking. If that's the case, he should speak for himself. There's plenty of sandwich making going on in my house. Visit on any given weekend and you might find yourself settling into a shrimp po'boy; a fried soft-shell crab sandwich with spicy aioli; a leftover barbeque sandwich made from the turkey, sausage, and brisket from some Texas Hill Country adventure; or our most recent attempt to seal all possible Thanksgiving ingredients into those crispy-edged pressed triangles molded by one of those sandwich-makers you had when you were in college.

Melting the cheese first, dampening bread before warming in the oven, using different philosophies of buttering for various effects (browned nooks and crannies and completely butter-yellowed surfaces), and stacking strategies — these are frequent topics of conversation and methods experimented with. And as much as I'd like to believe I'm unique and special, I just can't believe I'm the only one out there with strong feelings about sandwiches and the best ways to make them, whether they're as different as a pambazo, as involved as a Monte Cristo, or as simple as a grilled cheese.

Speaking of which, there are both grilled cheese sandwich restaurants and food trucks out there. And those are easy examples of how sandwiches have recently been fetishized and experimented with. If Mr. Bittman really believes that sandwiches are staid and unimaginative at restaurants, he needs to get out more.

Fast-food joints are constantly trying to come up with innovative and daring (if kitschy and unhealthy) new sandwich combinations, names, and toppings. There's creamy Sriracha mayonnaise at Subway, Burger King has the Angry Whopper, there are ghost pepper burgers at Red Robin, Potbelly sandwich locations seem to be popping up everywhere, and Kentucky Fried Chicken tried to flip the switch on the whole game a few years ago by eliminating bread from the KFC Double Down sandwich (two chicken patties with cheese between them) altogether.

The Daily Meal publishes a Sandwich of the Week feature that highlights interesting and iconic sandwiches across the country and around the world, and the food blog Serious Eats does its own A Sandwich a Day piece. New York media darling and Little Italy success Torrisi (and its offshoot Parm) practically launched its reputation on a reinvented turkey sandwich for crying out loud! New sandwich combinations and creative shops like No. 7 Subs in New York City's Ace Hotel, and Austin's Noble Pig seem to keep popping up and putting things like Brussels sprouts, peanuts, and Marshmallow Fluff on their various breads.

The open-faced Danish sandwich thing is starting to take off in America (see Aamanns-Copenhagen), and you're finding more restaurants that are opening sandwich takeout counters (like Rocket Pig — great name, right?). A few years ago, when chef Thomas Keller consulted on Adam Sandler's movie Spanglish, he gave tips on how a chef would make a sandwich at home, and for the past two years, the Food Network New York City Wine & Food Festival has featured a new event called the "Sandwich Showdown" hosted by none other than the cable channel's own Sandwich King Jeff Mauro.

And while we're talking about celebrities bringing attention to sandwiches, it should be noted that with television shows like Guy Fieri's Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, Adam Richman's Man v. Food, and Mauro's own Sandwich King highlighting iconic and interesting sandwiches, there is perhaps no better time in this nation's history when Americans have been more aware of their iconic, historic, and trendy sandwich spots across the country. The White House in Atlantic City, the Primanti Bros. in Pittsburgh, Chicago's Mr. Beef, these are just a few of the established sandwich meccas that have long been and will continue to do iconic and fun quintessentialy American sandwiches that haven't lost a step on anyone or anything. These are sandwich pilgrimage places, places with lines, exciting, imaginative, and iconic sandwiches that Americans actively seek out and try to replicate and find in their restaurants back home.

And those making sandwiches at home have never had it so good. The different kinds of breads available in supermarkets across the country, the accessibility of great cured meats and cheeses, the awareness of different cultures' sandwiches, the development of sandwich-making staples like sandwich pickles (cut across the bias or along their length) that make creating and organizing all these ingredients in a way that's inventive and easy to eat — the sandwich has become staid and unimaginative?

You could argue that sandwich lovers have never had things this good. This is the Golden Age of Sandwiches.

So the real question is about what's going on in the Bittman household and on his dining circuit that led the columnist to write these sad sandwich sentences. Seems like the man just couldn't think about what to write, or he's just plain lost his sandwich mojo and this magazine piece was a way for him work out his sandwich issues. Even if that's not the best use of print real estate, at least it is good news that he's working it all out. Welcome back to the sandwich, Mark. It's the best thing since sliced...


Arthur Bovino is The Daily Meal's executive editor. Follow Arthur on Twitter.