Every few months, someone on social media proclaims a rule about how an ingredient or dish should be cooked or eaten, as if it were gospel. The only way to cook X is … You should never eat X … X is a cursed dish … The only acceptable time to eat X is when … In response other users erupt in anger, upset and excitement, and declare a plethora of ways in which they reject the rule. The rule is stupid! Out with the rule! The rule misunderstands everything about cooking!
Personally, I eat up culinary beef – as a spectator, at least. The latest row revolved around a question: is a tomato sandwich a real sandwich? A few weeks ago, the American writer Geraldine DeRuiter inflamed opinion with a single tweet (since deleted). “I’m sorry, food Twitter but a ‘tomato sandwich’ is not a sandwich, you just don’t have the ingredients to make a BLT.”
Rebuttals came thick and fast for days. There were two distinct ways I took pleasure in this furore: first, in the period during which the tomato sandwich debate was “live”, I read about hundreds of methods for putting tomatoes with bread and saw dozens of photographs of delicious-looking sandwiches. Cultural histories of tomato served with bread, and regional traditions of “tomato sandwich season” were shared and defended. I was given an opportunity to learn about the varied contexts in which people eat two ingredients of which I am very fond. Recipes abounded; it was though I was eating as I read.
Second, the affront of this rule provoked me into thinking about my own understanding of a tomato sandwich, and then of sandwiches at large. And I wasn’t the only one. Food writer Jonathan Nunn countered DeRuiter with a different rule, saying that “a tomato sandwich is not only a thing of beauty, it’s literally the only time tomatoes are allowed in sandwiches”, and proceeded to give his recipe: “toasted, possibly buttered bread. one, plump, sliced tomato, olive oil, salt, pepper. half a jar of mayo. maybe a single anchovy, as a treat”.
I thought about Nunn’s rule. I disagreed that a tomato sandwich was the only viable occasion on which to include the red fruit. A sandwich with tomato that I often make involves bread, thick butter, salami and tomato. Recently, too, I have taken nostalgic joy in “salad sandwiches”: crisp lettuce, cucumber, tomato, cheese or ham, butter or margarine, maybe some cress. But also, I realised that I had not previously considered mayonnaise an important component in a tomato-based sandwich. I planned to try Nunn’s recipe with a tomato from my allotment.
As wildly varying photos of “tomato sandwiches” flooded my timeline, I asked myself: what is a sandwich? Of course, the fun is in the fact that any new rule I might make about the definition of a sandwich will provoke the creation of other rules by other people. Arguably, a sandwich is a site for the pure play of rules, where the only basis for rule-making anyone need observe is: do I like it? Even if there is a long embedded rule about how to make a sandwich, it is inevitable that each person who enacts this tradition will intervene with their own revised understanding, their own palate, shaped by their own situation in life.
However, here I go with, at the very least, an opinion about sandwiches that I might even call sandwich theory. What I like about sandwiches is how the bread operates as a structure that “holds” us and gives space to our needs at different times. When I am feeling in need of comfort: cheddar, butter and my mother’s lemon and pear chutney. If I want to teleport the feeling of being at a greasy spoon: fried egg and ketchup, with a cup of strong tea as an extension of the sandwich, sipped in between bites. To relive the memory of being in Barcelona with my friend Zoë: boiled egg and sliced raw tomato with salt and pepper.
The reassuring boundaries of a sandwich embolden those who otherwise lack confidence or experience in the kitchen. My father, who usually defers to my mother in culinary matters, loves to experiment with manifold condiments and pickles, and takes great pleasure in making a fish finger sandwich.
In my first book I wrote about making the same recipe a thousand times over a 10-year period. I followed and then broke the rules of a recipe over and over again, like a prolonged version of the Twitter sandwich arguments. Documenting this process became a way of writing about how I had lived in that decade, and the people I had met.
More than anything, I’ve learned that the making and breaking of rules about how we eat is a way of advocating for ourselves – of insisting on our own difficult and delicious ways of living.