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America Isn't a Melting Pot: It's a Sandwich America Isn't a Melting Pot: It's a Sandwich

America Isn't a Melting Pot: It's a Sandwich

by Tim Fernholz, Dylan C. Lathrop
September 30, 2011


Here at GOOD, we live every week like it's sandwich week. This week, we're celebrating the real thing with extreme condimentswrap screeds, the most appetizing sandwiches ever scanned, and a new paradigm for the American experience:

The go-to metaphor for the American experience is the melting pot, as if we lived in a fondue country where global cheeses coalesced into a republic of unvariegated goo. That doesn’t much match the reality of living in the United States. At its best, people of different flavors, textures and origins come to this country to make it greater than the sum of its parts, all without subsuming individuals completely within the whole.

Screw fondue. America is a sandwich.

Like the United States, the sandwich also has its origins in England. Depending on the historical interpretation, the Earl of Sandwich was too busy gambling, working, or investing in missions of discovery—all highly American activities—to sit for a proper meal and instead requested his meat delivered between two pieces of bread. Everybody else wanted to eat like Sandwich, and the protean fast food earned its name.

This was 1762. The ensuing decade brought rising tensions between the United Kingdom and its American colonies that would eventually culminate in revolution. I’m not saying that sandwiches incited the founding of the United States, but you can’t deny the correlation.

Beyond its historical influence, the sandwich handily fulfills the duties of a national food metaphor. Among them: inspiring youth to virtue, legitimizing the national character, and being delicious. Just as Yorkshire Pudding encapsulates the stolid Brit or Canada’s poutine epitomizes its own uniquely gravy-soaked heritage, so the sandwich is quintessentially American.

Americans even think like sandwiches. They represent a culinary style of pragmatism, the only original philosophical school founded in the United States. Like 19th-century philosopher William James, sandwiches cast aside romantic notions and demand to be considered empirically: Foods, like truths, are only as valuable as they are useful. And sandwiches are very useful to the hungry and the hurried.

By dint of their efficiency, sandwiches emphasize and enable the productivity and enterprise that characterize the American spirit. Abandoning the long lunches of louche continentals, our forefathers collapsed a meal into something that could be eaten without cutting into valuable work time, at a desk or on a girder. You think the guys who built New York’s skyline were bringing anything but sandwiches to the top of the world?

And like the United States, sandwiches are a willing stage for any kind of culinary dream. Food and flavors across the world have reached their full potential in America's sandwiches, and foreign creations from the Vietnamese bahn mi to the Spanish torta are welcomed on our shores. There exists no discrimination between slices of bread, just a willingness to embrace the ethos of the remix—throw some sriracha on that chicken sandwich, and celebrate the result.

What other food has fills many iconic spaces in American culture? Where would Philadelphia, the cradle of liberty, be without the cheesesteak? Could we imagine the 1950s and '60s, much less today, without the humble PB&J? The po’ boy of New Orleans, the Fenway Frank, the pastrami on rye, the hamburger: They are all woven deep into the menus of this country.

With all the bread-based product and filling options available for its construction, it can be difficult to strictly define a sandwich. It's not all that easy to draw a line around what it is to be an American, either. The infinite variety of the sandwich is well-fitted to the land of the free: Choice, in paralyzing quantity, is a particularly American virtue and vice.

Sandwiches, like the United States, are a simple concept with complex implications: Whether it goes between bread or into the market, in a sub roll or civil society, each new ingredient improves the final product while remaining fundamentally American. Or a sandwich. Democracy has never been so delicious.

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