Let us pause to consider the sandwich, that magnificent unit of consumption, a construction so minimal that its form may be expressed as: Bread. Not-bread. Bread again. A sandwich can be pretty basic: the stale bologna on white you are offered for lunch when a forgotten speeding ticket lands you in jail for an afternoon; the PB&J you tuck in a lunch box for your kid; or the slice of ham on a buttered baguette you pick up in a train station in Lyons.
The existence of the sandwich can be seen as a marker of civilization—this is why ham-on-rye is not on the Paleo diet. There can be no sandwich without mono-crop agriculture, mechanisms to grind flour, fuel for ovens, and tools to slice the bread. The rise of the sandwich is inseparable from its convenience, from its ability to be consumed quickly and neatly while doing something else. Without the sandwich, there is no drive-through window. But a sandwich can also be seen as something close to a universal good. Out of the hopeless French colonization of Indochina came the glorious bánh mì, a sandwich of well-made charcuterie and Vietnamese pickles on a freshly baked baguette; out of U.S. bumbling in Colombia came a unique perro caliente, a hot dog dressed with pineapple, crushed potato chips, and, occasionally, raspberry jam.
A life written in sandwiches might reasonably include the steaming porchetta sandwiches sold from trucks parked at Umbrian crossroads, Iranian lamb’s-tongue sandwiches on lightly toasted bread, a dripping beef on weck in a fragrant Buffalo tavern, omelette-stuffed roti john in a Singapore hawker center, spicy vada pav from a Mumbai street cart, and the garlicky stun-ray of a sliced knoblewurst on rye on New York’s Lower East Side.
Because a sandwich is a blank slate, it can be perfectly evocative of its time and place—the tiny truffled sandwiches eaten at a marble table on an elegant shopping street in Florence after your first visit to the Uffizi; a chip butty in Brighton; or a post-Phillies roast-pork sandwich at Tony Luke’s, with sharp provolone and broccoli rabe cooked down almost into jam. The sandwich and the occasion intertwine, the crimson-stained torta ahogada in Guadalajara’s Mercado Libertad becomes indistinguishable from the fine, white teeth of the woman who bites into it. In the dance-off between sandwiches and lived experience, it is often the sandwich we remember best.