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Just How Hard Is It To Make A Competent Sandwich?

Sam Holden
Fig. 1

By Henry Hong | Posted 9/12/2007

Not this again. I order the sandwich, make a quick assay, and am forced to conclude that the person who assembled it doesn't much care about sandwiches or sandwich eaters. I resign myself to rebuilding it. You see, as an irredeemably obsessed food freak, I take sandwiches quite seriously, and I demand uniform meat distribution.

The supposed origin of the term "sandwich" is well-known--an 18th-century English earl wanted a wieldy snack so he could keep playing cards with the boys. Of course, people all over the world had been surrounding meat with a bread case in some form or other far earlier, but that discussion is beyond the scope of this space. By "sandwich" I refer specifically to sliced meat between two slices of square bread. In this basic configuration, assembly is the only step over which end users have any control. And really what's involved is merely stacking (possibly with a subprocedure of condiment application)--exceedingly simple. So, assuming a modicum of quality for the ingredients, is it not reasonable to expect most sandwiches to be good most of the time?

And yet I find myself having to rearrange the corned beef on my Reuben to cover the entire slice of bread in a layer of even depth. The professional to whom I paid $9 apparently felt that arranging meat into a spheroid mound was a superior strategy. Clearly, mounded sandwiches result in some bites having too much meat and others too little. Halved diagonally, egregious offenders can leave an eater with as many as six meatless bites. This is unacceptable. Still, as I suck the Thousand Island dressing from my fingers, I ponder whether a sane person would think about such things. Later that day at happy hour, when buzzed enough to rant on the topic, I fully expected to be dismissed as nerdily deranged.

But an amazing thing happened: Not only did people not mock me, but they commiserated. Realizing this hitherto hidden, shared frustration, I knew what Milhouse must have felt when he met his Shelbyville doppelgänger. Even the obscure subject of cheese tessellation, which has been making the rounds on online foodie spots lately, elicited lively debate. Cheese tessellation refers to tiling the triangular cheese slices found at Subway in an alternating orientation manner, which yields better coverage than Subway's default overlapping end-to-end method. Subway customer service assured me that its cheese-arrangement policy is arbitrary and that tessellation requests would be accommodated. Indeed, all three area shops I visited obliged.

I subsequently conducted a casual survey, and a significant majority of respondents were aware and disapproved of mounding. It appears anti-mounding sentiment was not so marginal after all. Ah, sweet vindication.

The other aspect of sandwich construction is the thickness of filling. The bread, though essentially just a barrier to protect your hands from meat juice, contributes flavor and texture. Thus the amount of bread is relevant, and a ratio of meat to bread thickness is more useful than discrete amounts. I set about conducting a quick and dirty poll to quantify popular preference.

Carrying actual sandwiches around in triple-digit heat was not an attractive prospect, so I drew up a set of crude diagrams representing cross-sections of varying meat/bread proportions. I then approached 20 random people and asked each to pick the diagram that represented the ideal sandwich (see Fig. 1, below). Predictably, no one picked C, which had the lowest meat/bread ratio (least amount of meat compared to bread). Surprisingly, there were also no votes for B, which had the highest meat/bread ratio. Instead, 19 of the 20 subjects chose diagram A. Diagram A is special because, on a lark, I used the golden ratio (1.62/1) to determine its measurements. Weird, no?

Next, my incredibly patient girlfriend and I set aside an afternoon to traverse Baltimore in search of a properly constructed sandwich. Again, for the sake of simplicity I considered only bread and meat--turkey specifically. Vegetable ingredients, such as lettuce or sprouts, and even tomato slices, can be of inconsistent volume and could skew results. Random fact: While on a side mission investigating vegetable sandwich components, I discovered that the powerhouse sandwich was invented right here in Maryland, at David's Natural Market in Columbia some time in the 1980s. In any case, we measured bread thickness at the thickest point to offset any compression that may have occurred during handling, and meat thickness was averaged to account for mounding. The second criterion was even coverage, which was judged subjectively from both overhead and cross-section perspectives.

Most sandwiches came within 10 percent of the golden ratio, with Harry's Deli in the Northeast Market on the bottom with a 1.25/1 ratio, and Beach Bums of Federal Hill topping out with a staggering 2.67/1. Its sandwich also had the best coverage score, with even thickness right up to all edges. The Charles Village Eddie's Market had the most severe mounding, with highly exposed corners, though to be fair, the sandwich preparer did confess to being hungover.

My mom had a carry-out when I was growing up, and I assume it was her sandwich-making style that serves as my archetype. A recent conversation confirmed that her disdain for "everything in the middle" sandwiches runs deep. She recalled her habit of fastidiously leveling the tuna salad in her sandwiches those many years ago, while I noted how inexplicably pervasive the practice of mounding is even today (friends and relatives elsewhere confirm it is a national issue). Eventually we both agreed that the effort it takes to properly make a sandwich is minimal, and thus our angst is justified. By this time we were whipped into a froth, yelling and gesticulating over the remains of several brutally dissected turkey-on-whites. Must be genetic.

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The Meat Generation (2/17/2010)
Reclaiming meatloaf before it becomes extinct

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