Two slices of bread, a variety of fillings, the sandwich is now much more than just a humble snack

What is it about the sandwich that makes Indians look askance at it? It is seldom considered a meal – as I found out to my dismay. Quite oblivious to the fact that the credentials of the sandwich as a full fledged meal stand on wafer thin ground, I have been giving my husband a packed lunch of sandwiches for ages while waving him fond goodbyes.

Believe me, the choice is his, not mine. Dry lunch for me, he requests, citing practical reasons for this preference. ‘I don’t have to waste time over lunch, time being of the essence; there’s often no water at my work place, and sandwiches are ideal in such a hydro-challenged scenario. I just rub the crumbs off my hands or wipe my hands dry on my hanky or in its absence, my hair and hey presto! I’m ready for my next lecture. Sandwiches aren’t messy and look decent if someone comes unexpectedly at lunchtime.’ Then comes the clincher. ‘Besides, I love bread. Bread is tasty, bread is yummy, and brown bread is very good for my tummy,’ he says, looking ecstatic. Bread makes him break into rhapsodies.

So I make sandwiches for him every day, taking care to bring variety into the filling. If one day it is chicken, another it is egg, I forget which came first. Then comes the turn of chutney, cucumber, jam, and finally my very own ‘sham’ burger. Ordinary buns from a bakery or sweet buns from a convenient store nearby are cut horizontally into halves. Next they are spread as thin as you please with butter and a filling of vegetable, meat or chicken cutlet, and onion, cucumber, carrot, cabbage, capsicum and any other vegetable that can be eaten raw is slipped in. I stop short at beans, lady’s fingers, beetroot and brinjal. The bitter gourd, brimming with health benefits though it might be, is definitely a no no. So what’s the problem? Not for him, not for me, but for his colleagues, his friends, his students and all others who have been fed the story of his sandwich lunch or been critical witnesses to it.

When any one of them meets me and if the topic of his ‘dry’ and ‘meagre’ lunch crops up, she/he looks at me half accusingly, half pityingly. So this is the sloppy cook, the shirker, the lazybones who doesn’t know the first thing about keeping a husband happy – hasn’t she heard of the saying, ‘the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach?’ And those who happen to hear that I take rice, bristle with indignation. The only exception has been a staunch women’s libber. ‘Way to go!’ she said approvingly.

In the eighteenth century when John Montagu, the Earl of Sandwich, lent his name to the impromptu meal of a slice of meat between two slices of bread, the sandwich was just a snack. Wishing to sustain himself without leaving the table while engaged in long hours of gambling, he asked his servants to bring him slices of bread with meat between them. His friends ordered ‘the same as Sandwich’ and thus the sandwich was born. Montagu’s biographer offers a more dignified version for the origin of the sandwich and claims it was eaten while the Earl was busy at his work desk.

In Europe and the United States the sandwich has come a long way since then, and is very much part of the main meal. Not so in India in spite of the inroads made by burgers, pizzas and rolls. Maybe its foreign origin makes it suspect. But as long as there is one staunch admirer of bread, there is hope. Let me go now and rinse the admirer’s lunch box – an easy task for it had contained only sandwiches.

Our daily bread

I firmly believe the sandwich is more sinned against than sinning. You break bread with people, don’t you? You don’t break rice. Try convincing rice obsessed people, though, that bread can make a meal and is as nutritious as rice, maybe even better. Lunch for them is no lunch without rice. But with diabetes on the rise (pardon the pun) the victims or the more health conscious ones have been forced to give a second glance to wheat based food. So the chappati has found favour but the poor bread is at best relegated to guest appearances in the form of sandwiches at tea time.