What Exactly Is a Sandwich?

It seems like a simple enough question, right? One even a very small child could answer. Unfortunately, there were no children on staff at Panera Bread in 2006, when the company sued Qdoba Mexican Grill for building a restaurant near one of theirs--a restaurant which happened to be protected by a "sandwich shop" location exclusivity contract. In other words, Panera sued Qdoba, makers of fine burritos since 1995, for selling "sandwiches" too near their sandwiches. The judge presiding over the case used "common sense" and "a dictionary" to determine that, no, a burrito is not a sandwich. (The "Is Panera trying to look ridiculous?" case was resolved out of court.)

The burrito question may well be determined, but the definition of a sandwich leaves plenty of wiggle room for interpretation. According to Merriam-Webster's Dictionary, a sandwich comprises "two or more slices of bread or a split roll having a filling in between," but then continues to include "one slice of bread covered with food." This would indicate that hotdogs, bruscetta, and even biscuits and gravy are sandwiches.

Let's take a look at the difference in sandwich conservatives' and liberals' opinions on the matter. In the right corner, we have the "two pieces of bread with filling, no variation" group. This excludes commonly accepted sandwich derivatives like stuffed pitas. On a technicality, they also must include the quesadilla unless the decision is made to restrict the sandwich definition to include only leavened bread. A self-described Sandwich Orthodox friend explained to me that any food which requires cooking before sandwiching is not a sandwich, even a hamburger--"If it can't be made in the woods, it isn't a sandwich." What about grilled cheese, dude?

On the other side, there are those who, like Ian Chillag of NPR's Sandwich Monday, will accept any "protein wrapped in carb." A close inspection tells us this would be sweeping enough to qualify sushi, fried cheese and those bizarre egg-and-cheese toaster strudel as sandwiches, in addition to any burrito, taco, this thing or Hot Pocket, while excluding traditional sandwiches (like jelly or veggie). How is a hotdog a sandwich if a veggie sub isn't?

If your definition relies on portability or hand-to-mouth eatability, then out go the Dagwood, Merriam-Webster's second definition and anything messy enough to require a fork. Likewise, any number of clearly non-sandwich foods could be included here.

Consider also the breadless sandwich: lettuce wraps, vegetable substitutes and *shudder* the KFC Double Down. They're sandwiched, yes, but are they sandwiches?

Neatoramanauts, settle this debate: What is your definition of a sandwich, and what is definitely not a sandwich?



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The essence of a sandwich lies in stacking of its materials, open display of its contents, and edibility without utensils.

Stacking: Generally, sandwiches have a clearly identifiable top and bottom made of similar material and contain an item (or multiple items) that are different - this is a key differentiation between a "sandwich" and a "wrap". Whereas a "wrap" or "burrito" will contain one or more items with a carbohydrate-based layer, a sandwich relies on the flat spread and vertical distribution of its ingredients.

Open Display of Contents: Along with the "stackability" argument, burritos and other similar items will fail this test since they use their wrapping to obfuscate their contents. While some people enjoy surprises, a sandwich is just not the proper place for secrecy. Quesadillas, for the most part, fail this test, since the tortilla is routinely folded over and the cheese will obscure any additional ingredients (steak, chicken, peppers, etc.). A pita, on the other hand, passes this test, since the contents (while obscured on all but one side) are still viewable and auditable.

Utensil-free Edibility: The traditional sandwich is an item that can be eaten with one's hands. Lasagna and several other baked goods fail this test because they are difficult to consume without utensils.
Note: open-faced sandwiches are dead to me.

This interpretation leaves open the possibility of breadless sandwiches (and leaves out the concept of open-faced sandwiches, which are dead to me), but this is to be expected. Traditional sandwiches include bread (or a similar carbohydrate), and that is the generally accepted definition. For non-traditional sandwiches, the nature of their novelty is routinely included in the name of that item, giving credence to the notion that they are not "traditional" sandwiches and reinforcing the generally accepted definition.

The open interpretation of the word "sandwich" can be fuzzy (as this article illustrates), but it is nowhere near as confusing as the ever-evasive "salad", which is near-impossible to define. After attempts to do so in the past, several of my friends have resolved themselves to failure and begun to refer to hamburgers as "meat-and-bread salads".
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I am most disturbed by the fact that Panera was granted some sort of "sandwich" monopoly over an area than any ambiguity over terms, which exist practically everywhere. That said...
Cake is not bread (though that distinction can be fuzzy, ie banana bread), so that would rule out pop-tarts and ice cream "sandwiches".
My intuition leans towards Adriennes "sandwiching" requirement, which could include wraps because of a "sandwiching" action. Hard tacos may be excluded because of lack of "bread" and the "sandwiching" is usually unsatisfactory. Soft tacos may still be ok. If you don't like hot dogs being referred to "sandwiches" don't "sandwich" them. Corn dogs would not be "sandwiches" for example. Half "sandwiches" are fine as long as there is "sandwiching" applied.
Open faced "sandwiches" are like one hand clapping.
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This is fun. We're figuring out what Plato told us a long time ago - we can't define these things, but we can understand the essence therein. The same issue comes up when a group of people are asked to define "chair" or "door."

We all know the standard of "sandwich" even though we can't put it into words.
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