The sandwich (or, sandvich, as I will refer to it) is a varied beast. You could say that a sandvich is only a sandvich because of its ingredients, and that separating the parts from its whole is highly impossible. But, that’s more a question for Sandvich Theory than anything else, so we’ll take it as read that we’re looking at the whole.
Now, there are many things I enjoy about England, many things that the English do well. Beer, for example, is one of those things. A good and filling sandvich, however, is not.
If you’ve never thought about an English sandwich (for the nation has not, in my mind, produced a product worthy of being called a sandvich), consider this: You have two options for bread: brown or white. The English sandwich doesn’t even tell you whether “brown” bread is whole-wheat, whole-grain, 100% whole-wheat or –grain, or some other sort of bread that is, actually, called “brown.” When we’re talking about sandwiches bought from a shop, then the bread is usually soggy – from being in contact with wet lettuce for so long – or frigid. As for white bread… well, white bread? White bread never changes.
Once you get past the bread, then you have to look at the meat (or whatever takes the place of the meat). Servings are more on par with a snack than a meal. If the sandwich-maker was feeling generous, you’ll get a couple ultra-thin slices of bland-tasting beef or turkey or chicken. If they’re not, then, well, you’re lucky to even spot the meat.
The produce, as I’ve often seen, is lacking in quality. Lettuce has a put-upon appearance. It calls to you, “Please, human, end my misery.” If there are tomatoes on the sandwich, then, like the meat, the slices are very thin. Other ingredients, like brie cheese, may be more prevalent, but that is more due to the fact that England produces three hundred pounds of brie cheese per person per annum. (No need to look that up; it’s a fact.)
In addition to this, and possibly most telling of the English attitude towards the sandwich, is that the sandwich is never really the focus of the meal. The English culinary mindset is, from my experience, always focused on chips – French fries, for American readers. And, you know, that’s fine. Everyone likes fries. Nothing wrong with that.
You, my English friends, are missing out. You are missing out on the sandvich.
Let’s, first, take a look at bread.
Depending on what kind of sandvich you’re making – and for the purposes of this guide, we’ll assume you’re making a cold-cut lunch sandvich; nothing grilled – then you’re going to want your chosen sort of bread to be soft. Some people like their bread chilled. (When I’m making a lunch sandvich, I prefer it to be chilled, myself.) Others like it room temp. Personal preference on your end, but I suggest that the whole attitude towards lunch should be refreshment. And what’s more refreshing than a nice, cool, everything to eat?
Now, it should be said that just as you have food-and-wine pairings, there are orthodox meat-and-bread pairings. The theory is that certain meats taste better on certain breads. Personally, I don’t care for orthodoxy. I’ve got my favorite breads, and I’ll use them for whatever I want, damn it. You want orthodoxy, you go find a different sandvich guide.
Moving past the temperature and philosophy of your bread, you should never eat white bread. Never. White bread is a crime against humanity. It is the blandest of all blands. The normalest of all norms. It has no taste aside from “existing” and anyone who suggests that white bread is their favorite is either an alien or a Communist.
As hinted at above, there are several types of wheat bread. It all boils down, essentially, to what you want out of your bread. The health nuts will insist upon 100% whole grain, under the assumption that if they eat it, they’ll be so loaded up with good carbs that they’ll be able to run three marathons immediately after eating a slice.
Personally, if I have to eat wheat bread, I just go with your normal kind. All comes from the same plant, in my opinion, and if the baker’s not using their creativity enough to branch out, then you probably can’t trust their opinion anyway.
As I mentioned above, your bread shouldn’t be chosen based on what some New Yorker-reader type says about pairings, but upon your personal taste. (Unless you like white bread. In which case, change your goddamn taste buds out.) For me, the best type of bread is seeded rye. There’s a certain, delicious bitterness to the bread that you don’t get elsewhere. It’s enough to punch your taste buds awake and prepare them for the onslaught of other tastes in the sandvich. Enough to remind you that you’re alive.
Other sorts of bread, arranged in no particular order, are as follows:
- Marble Rye
- Mountain Bread (NOTE: This may just be a Southern thing)
- Italian loaf
- French loaf
- Various incarnations of wheat
- German black bread
- Many others, depending on region
They all have their strengths and weaknesses, unique tastes, and even shapes. But for me, the king of all breads is rye. (Marble rye, admittedly, I’ve never tried. I don’t trust something about marble rye. Maybe it’s that episode of Seinfeld where Jerry steals a loaf from an old woman. Marble rye drives people to crime.)
You’re already familiar, probably, with French and Italian breads, so no worries there.
My best advice to you is to try out breads. Treat it like a wine tasting. Find the one that’s most compatible with your taste buds and roll with it.
Now, one of the most important things about bread is the whole slicing thing. A sandvich should not have very thick bread. Not thin, either, but I’d say about .4” – .5” in thickness. Me? I never slice my own bread. I don’t do well with it. The slices never come out even, and it’s a travesty. My advice: Let the bakers do it. They know best.
Beef is the king of meats.
This is a scientific fact, and anyone who says otherwise is either an alien or a Communist.
That said, people have different preferences, and I acknowledge that. I look down upon them, but I acknowledge it.
I say, once you’ve had a good slice of juicy, medium-rare, thin-sliced roast beef, you’re not going to look back. Unless it’s to pastrami or corned beef, which are also acceptable as substitutes or additional meats on a sandvich. But I digress.
If you can help it, never ever, ever buy pre-packaged deli meat. Especially the kind that comes in plastic wrap and is branded with ______ Farms. The only thing that comes from eating those meats is sadness on the highest caliber. You may mask the sadness with other items on your sandvich, but deep down inside, you will know that you have created a sub-par sandvich. And you will be sad.
Find a good butcher. I’m lucky. The Kroger by my house has a great deli counter, and, time after time, I have not been disappointed by their stuff. Some of you, however, are not so lucky. You’ll have to go elsewhere, searching, for that slice of meat. The meat that got away.
So, once you find a good butcher, you ask for a quantity of meat (I’ll leave that to you), and ask for it thin sliced. I know, that seems like an odd piece of advice, but trust me. You’re going to want that meat to be malleable so you can position it just so when it’s on the bread.
So, you’ve got your meat and your bread. You’re getting there, but you’re not done. Not yet. Not by a long shot.
The question of meat is a tricky one. The English believe in “normal” or “healthy” portions. That’s bullshit. I’m gonna tell you that right now. Health is for people who don’t want to die in a hedonistic haze. You stack as much meat as possible on that sandvich, I aim for at least five slices of meat, arranged so that each slice doubles onto itself, per sandvich. Think about it:
You want to taste the meat, right? That’s why you bought it. Why are you going to put one or two namby-pamby slices on already powerful bread? You’re not going to taste that meat as anything else than an aftertaste, a ghost of what should have been.
Now, this is where the orthodoxy would tell you how to determine the proper meat-bread pairing. I’m not going to do that. You want to put tuna on rye? You go ahead. You want to put chicken on pumpernickel? You’re a freak, but do what you want.
I will, however, say this: Beef + Rye = Paradise.
FACT: When you die, your welcome to the afterlife is a roast beef on rye.
Cheese is a weird thing.
It’s been objectively proven in university labs that cheese has properties that are best accented by meats, but many cheeses are so damn bizarre that an individual can walk into a deli that has cheese and stand there for a good few hours.
Personally, when it comes to cheese, I keep it simple with Swiss. I look for Amish-style or Lacey, but if they’re not available, it’s not a big deal.
The reason I like Swiss is that it’s a utility choice. In my experience, everything goes well with Swiss. Cheddar, not so much. Brie, definitely not so much. Feta – what the hell are you doing, putting feta cheese on a sandvich?
So, you want my advice? Go with Swiss. You won’t be disappointed.
The important thing is that the cheese should be the layer on top of the meat. I don’t know why, but it tastes best like this.
Much like meat and bread, this is fairly subjective. But, you will never go wrong with lettuce and tomato. Everything else is trimmings, and optional. Some people like to put onions on their sandvich, or avocado if they’re feeling a bit like putting some South-of-the-border feel on their meal.
If you want advice on how to choose specific produce, let me know. I’ve worked as a produce clerk, and I feel confident in being able to give you tips on how to choose the ripest stuff out there. However, if I were to go about listing everything I could think of in terms of produce ingredients for a sandvich, we’d never be done with this thing.
- Lettuce should be crisp. Aim for Romaine. Always Romaine. Iceberg is for salads and troglodytes. You want the green stuff. If you see any part of the lettuce that looks abnormally darker than the rest, then that ain’t your head/heart of Romaine. Lettuce – and for that matter, cucumber – can best be thought of as solid, non-ice water. As such, you should be able to look at lettuce and feel like your thirst has been quenched.
- Always shoot for beefsteak tomatoes. They go by many names, but they’re the big, hardy looking ones. Fun fact: You could eat one of these like an apple and not be disappointed. When you’re looking at tomatoes, you may be concerned about aesthetics. You shouldn’t be. Tomatoes will occasionally look weird. Like they’ve had some plastic surgery that went wrong. That stuff doesn’t matter. Not really. What does matter is that the tomato should be firm, but not rock-like. If you press in on a tomato and it yields to pressure like the side of a Nerf ball, that tomato’s too far gone to eat.
When placing lettuce on a sandvich, aim for a couple of leaves if dealing with hearts, 1 – 1.5 if you’re dealing with heads. Feel free to contort the leaves as you see fit, but you’re going to want to make sure that the lettuce covers the cheese.
Next, you’re going to want to slice the tomatoes. Aim for .1” thick slices. That’s enough to get the taste, and add substance to the sandvich. Anything more than that is overkill, anything less than that, you might as well not put tomato on your sandvich.
After you’ve sliced the tomatoes, place the slices on top of the lettuce. Feel free to overlap the slices.
Condiments are subjective as well, but there are two solid pieces of advice I can give you:
- Mayonnaise should only be used for turkey, chicken, and tuna-based sandviches.
- If you’re going to use mustard (as you should), then never, ever, get plain yellow mustard. Get New York-style deli mustard. (Also known as “spicy brown.”) Much like white bread, plain yellow is for Communists and aliens.
If you don’t like deli mustard, then you have some growing up to do. It’s an adult condiment for people who are serious about their food.
Other condiments that can be used for a good sandvich are:
- Horseradish (which is not popular, but wildly underrated)
- Ketchup (look, I know, but it’s popular with some people)
Whatever you choose, the condiment should be applied to the top slice of the bread; never to the bottom. This is for practical reasons. If you apply the condiment to, say, the tomato, then that shit’ll slide right off, and you’ll be missing an important part of your sandvich.
Once you have constructed your sandvich, you’re going to want to press down on the top. Hard. Make sure that sandvich knows its place. Also, y’know, this’ll help everything stay together.
All told, once you’re done, you’ll have a sandvich of impressive size. One that’s filling. If it’s your first proper sandvich, then eating it will be a challenge. But, like all life challenges, you’ll be a better person for completing it.
Remember, this is not an exhaustive guide. There are many other variations and ingredients I didn’t even acknowledge. Grilled sandviches like the Reuben, for example. However, that’s a guide for another time.