The toast sandwich is so British and so austere that it seems like something straight out of a Monty Python sketch. The humble dish consists of a piece of buttered toast seasoned with salt and pepper, between two slices of bread. That’s it.
When I first learned of the toast sandwich’s existence during a late-night Wikipedia binge, I found it so perplexing that I simply had to learn more. It provoked more questions than it answered. Why would anyone subject themselves to this exercise in culinary surrealism? And, ontologically speaking, what makes a sandwich a sandwich?
The first question is relatively easy to answer. The toast sandwich made its print debut in Britain in 1861, in Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management, a lengthy tome on home economics published by Isabella Beeton, a sort of mid-Victorian Martha Stewart. Isabella and her wealthy publisher husband, Sam, worked as a team. Isabella wrote articles on household management—covering topics as disparate as hiring servants, caring for sick children, and cooking—for her husband’s publications. In 1861, her articles were collected and published in book form. The Book of Household Management was a commercial success, selling nearly two million copies by 1868.
In the book, the toast sandwich is actually listed as a food for sick people. This makes sense, as its contents are in keeping with the BRAT diet (bananas, rice, toast and applesauce) prescribed for people recovering from digestive ailments.
“Place a very thin piece of cold toast between 2 slices of thin bread-and-butter in the form of a sandwich, adding a seasoning of pepper and salt,” the recipe reads. “This sandwich may be varied by adding a little pulled meat, or very fine slices of cold meat, to the toast, and in any of these forms will be found very tempting to the appetite of an invalid.”
The toast sandwich experienced something of a renaissance in 2011, when the Royal Society of Chemistry in Britain promoted it as the cheapest meal in existence. Many British people were still pinching pennies in the wake of the Great Recession.
“The RSC decided to promote Mrs. Beeton's toast sandwich because it might just be what we need to get us through the harsh economic times that are forecast,” the Royal Society of Chemistry said. “Of course, when we finally emerge from these dark days we will seek something more celebratory from Mrs. Beeton's pantheon of rich recipes to welcome back the good times.”
According to the Royal Society of Chemistry, the average toast sandwich contains 330 calories. Most of these calories come from carbohydrates. There is a bit of fat from the butter. But the sandwich lacks the vitamins and fiber found in fruits and vegetables, and the protein found in meat, tofu, peanut butter or other standard sandwich fillings. It’s a food one eats to survive, not a food to be savored.
Like collards, offal, and other so-called poverty foods, the toast sandwich has—at least in one documented instance—been repackaged as a luxury experience. Celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal created a version featuring black truffles, gastrique, and bone-marrow salad.
I decided to try the toast sandwich for myself—minus the bone marrow and black truffles of Blumenthal’s creation. I toasted a piece of sourdough bread, seasoning it with butter, salt, and red-pepper flakes. I then put it between two untoasted pieces of sourdough. While the sandwich was better than I expected, it was still punishingly dull—even given the texture variation between the toasted and untoasted bread. I ended up taking out the toast and eating it separately.
So, the question remains: What is a sandwich? Merriam-Webster defines it as “two pieces of bread with something (such as meat, peanut butter, etc.) between them.” The toast sandwich fulfills the first criterion: two pieces of bread with something between them. But can that something be another piece of bread? There’s nothing in the denotation that says it can’t be.
But connotatively, when I think of a sandwich, I think first of the filling: a mix of flavors and textures. I think of a Reuben from Katz’s Deli, piled high with corned beef and sauerkraut, smothered in melted Swiss cheese and creamy Russian dressing. I think of the peanut butter and strawberry jam sandwiches I used to make myself after school, and how the tart, viscous jam mixed with the salty, creamy peanut butter. I think of the dense sausage, egg, and cheese biscuit that revived me during an exhausting long-haul drive through West Virginia.
A sandwich, to me, is something pleasurable and nourishing hidden between two humble slices of bread. It is something to look forward to, not something to consign yourself to when there is no other choice.
The toast sandwich may be a sandwich according strictly to the dictionary definition. But when it comes to everything that a sandwich should be, it doesn’t make the club.