In Praise of the Minimalist Sandwich

Ben Alsop

A sandwich used to be a simple thing.

The sandwiches you carried along on a family picnic, the sandwiches you wolfed down after school in front of the TV—they were never meant to be examples of extravagance or creative disruption. Three or four ingredients did the trick. Bread, ham, cheese, mustard. Bread, turkey, cheese, mayonnaise. Bread, jelly, peanut butter. Overstuffing them ruined them.

Think of a sandwich prized for its thinness, a sandwich made with one slice of meat and one slice of cheese, a sandwich so compact and slim that it can be consumed easily with the use of one hand while the other hand steers a bicycle. We have, in the past decade or so, moved in a different direction from that.

“Reinvent everything” has been the mantra among restaurant chefs, and while their quest to shake up the core tenets of lunch has led to plenty of intriguing and delicious breakthroughs, from Parm in New York City to Palm City in San Francisco, chefs (being chefs) find it difficult to resist the temptations of excess. I have encountered sandwiches that have filled me up after four bites; I have ordered sandwiches that, to put it bluntly, did not fit into my mouth.

Like everyone else on earth, I have spent something like 783 months at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, and during that state of suspended animation I have made a lot of sandwiches. An embarrassment of sandwiches. A pilgrim’s progress of sandwiches, you might say, in the sense that my day-after-day, wax-on-wax-off focus on sandwich building has taught me things. I have gone through phases. At first, duped by the lure of cheffy innovation, I wasted time and calories trying to “re-create” classics in new ways. For instance: What if I make a BLT, but instead of fresh red tomato I’ll use pickled green tomato, and instead of iceberg lettuce I’ll use arugula, and instead of bacon I’ll crisp up some slices of prosciutto . . .?

No. Don’t make the same mistake. There is never a good reason to replace bacon. And there is no improving on a basic BLT.

Eventually, like a mystic whose course of study has moved him toward a deeper level of insight, I accepted the truth, and it was the truth of lunch boxes and grandparents and bodegas. Repeat after me: A simple sandwich is the best sandwich. My moment of enlightenment came on a summer day when I spied some ripe red tomatoes on my kitchen counter. I toasted two pieces of white bread. I smeared Duke’s mayonnaise on the bread. I put one fat slice of tomato on the bread, salted the tomato, and then paired it with one slice of sharp white cheddar. I didn’t go overboard; I didn’t capsize the whole thing on a whim with a spoonful of some rare Neapolitan condiment from my pantry. I just let it be. It was the best meal of my summer.

Think of a sandwich so compact and slim that it can be consumed easily with the use of one hand while the other hand steers a bicycle.

Having let go of any compulsion to be “ambitious” with my sandwiches, I started experiencing one noontime epiphany after another. Tuna fish out of a tin—mixed with two spoonfuls of Duke’s and topped with sweet discs of bread-and-butter pickles on a toasted bun. Bliss. A pan bagnat: a French classic introduced to me by Jacques Pépin that in Chef Pépin’s home would involve salade niçoise but in my house might consist of little more than last night’s Greek salad caught between two pieces of toast. Revelation. (Yes, you’re seeing a theme: I can’t imagine any reason not to toast your bread. And I hate to break it to you, but a thick slab of crusty sourdough from the farmers market leads to a lopsided, hard-to-gnaw lunch. Sliced white bread was engineered for this job.) Ham, Muenster, rye, Dijon mustard. No tinkering required. Plus that Gallic standard known as the jambon-beurre: good butter and good ham on a baguette, with the only acceptable frippery being some cornichons.

These patterns—these systems of sandwich infrastructure—exist for a reason. They have been passed down through the decades because they help our sandwiches become precisely what they are meant to be: delicious, nourishing, and portable. It turns out that sandwiches, like governments, are a lot better when they don’t spiral out of control. Restraint is a gift, especially during a period of chaos. Simplicity is a balm. In 2002, a year before he was confronting death from cancer, the singer-songwriter Warren Zevon urged us to enjoy every sandwich. Paradoxically, it wasn’t until the summer of 2020 that I figured out how to do so.

This article appears in the March 2021 issue of Esquire. Subscribe Here

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