By Brett Yates
One of the important duties I’ve set for this column has been the task of settling, once and for all, in the inviolable space of print, some of the common internet debates in which pedantic males between the ages of 14 and 45 take part on message boards and in comment threads (cf. my article about whether pineapple should be regarded as a legitimate pizza topping). The stupidest of these topics is perhaps the age-old yet still white-hot question: is a hot dog a sandwich?
This dispute has grown so large and powerful as to find itself carried upward from the dungeons of Reddit into mainstream journalism, from USA Today to The Atlantic. Rest assured, the article you now read is not yet another addressing the false controversy, which exists solely to give pedants an outlet for their pedantry and writers a subject for their think pieces. Despite my own long history of pedantry, I refuse to dignify this debate with yet another work of speculation. On the contrary, this article is a meditation on why so many sandwich-related think pieces exist, and why people continue to consume them.
But first, some background: the hot dog debate inevitably gives way, in these articles, to a larger debate — what is a sandwich, exactly? We all tend to agree that if you stack two pieces of bread and put some additional ingredients between them, the end result constitutes a sandwich. It’s a portable meal whose “container,” so to speak, is itself a carbohydrate. The fundamental doubt revolves around whether the “container” must truly consist of two independent slices of bread with a horizontal orientation, hence the inquiry into the status of hot dogs, wraps, tacos, empanadas, burritos, Oreos, the KFC Double Down, and open-faced sandwiches. A separate debate exists as to whether a hamburger is a sandwich because, even though it’s almost impossible to construct a definition of “sandwich” that would not include it, it seems as though it deserves a category of its own.
Admit it: you can feel yourself getting sucked in. “Hmm,” you’re saying. “If the hot dog is disqualified from sandwich status by virtue of the frankfurter’s placement within a single sliced bun, rather than two disconnected pieces of bread, wouldn’t that also disqualify Subway sandwiches, whose meat and/or veggies are stuffed into a slit within an otherwise contiguous loaf of bread?” Just stop now.
Language is just a system that we use to navigate an ungraspable and unknowable world — not to understand it but to suit the more practical endeavor of subduing and conquering it so that it’ll feed and house us. Whatever terminology we attempt to graft onto the objects around us will only reflect our own history, habits, and wishes; it won’t speak to anything inherent in the object, whose authentic essence, regardless of how hard we look, will remain inaccessible to us, as our view of it will forever be bound and defined by the imaginative constructs of our culture.
Yet some of us beat on, determined to locate the true nature of the sandwich through pseudoscientific inquiry. We live in a Golden Age of both rationality and irrationality. Half of us are devoted to logic; the other half are allergic to it. Facts are facts, and lies are lies, but let’s not get it twisted: most things, like sandwiches, are neither.