What is a Sandwich? Sporcle Tackles this Age Old Question

what is a sandwich

Just what is a sandwich anyway?

Sandwiches are a part of our everyday lives, but do we really know what makes a sandwich a sandwich?

First of all, why are we even asking the question: What is a sandwich? Well, we recently published a post answering the question ‘What is a country?’  When we added Palestine as a country on Sporcle, we really appreciated the engaging discussion that followed. However, there are tons of deep questions Sporcle raises, and the Sporcle Blog is about to embark on a long quest to look for some answers. What better way to start a long quest than with some delicious sandwiches?

Currently, the only Sporcle-verified sandwich quiz is Sandwich Time! Though we’re slightly biased (one of our employees did create it, after all), we think this quiz serves as a pretty good basis for the types of sandwiches out there. The sandwiches on this quiz really are a part of sandwich canon.  For example, in any restaurant you could order the ‘Reuben’ without having to specify the ‘Reuben sandwich.’

The challenge comes when we’re faced with the next generation of sandwiches. In our age of creative chefs and the quest for new culinary experiences, the pressure’s on for standard sandwiches to be spiced up, have new ingredients added, and the limits pushed. But will this next generation of sandwich change the definition of the sandwich we know and love?

According to the Internet’s often-turned to fount of knowledge–Wikipedia— when we ask, what is a sandwich, the answer comes back as a sandwich is defined as a “food item, consisting of two or more slices of bread with one or more fillings between them.” Apart from the literal definition, sandwiches are culturally defined as a lunch food or late-night snack, known for being portable, convenient, and easy to eat (since sandwiches are contained within the relatively sturdy slices of bread.)

Sandwich History

John Montague, 4th Earl of Sandwich

In fact, the historical lore of sandwiches (and most importantly, the etymological history of the name ‘sandwich’) comes from this same contemporary model of eating food on the go. The sandwich is named after the Earl of Sandwich, who is said to have asked his servant to bring him meat stuffed between two slices of bread so that he would be less inconvenienced while out hunting, playing cards, and just generally being a rich gentleman on the go. Apparently, his friends took notice and asked for ‘the same as Sandwich.’ And so, the name stuck.


So the question becomes, is a sandwich defined by its literal makings, or by the role it plays in our cultural eating experience? A taco, for example, is certainly not a sandwich in the literal sense, because it’s not constructed of two slices of bread. However, a taco is similarly easy to eat on the go, is relatively un-messy, and is often eaten in a casual environment, especially lunch.

NY Times published an article which began with a mission to find the best new sandwiches in New York City. Their criteria? No burgers, wraps, samosas, patties, or arepas.

While we understand the grey lady’s position on this matter, we’ve compiled Sporcle’s official position on many prospective sandwiches below:

  1. Hamburgers: A hamburger consists of meat and other ingredients between two buns.  It is most definitely a sandwich.
  2. Open-Face Sandwiches: Though an open-face sandwich differs in appearance and organization than a normal sandwich, all the traditional ingredients are included. Definitely a sandwich
  3. Tacos/Gyros/Wraps: Tacos, Gyros and various similar flatbread sandwiches do not qualify. They use only a single continuous piece of enclosure and not separate pieces of bread.
  4. Samosas/Pirozhkis/Empanadas: Many countries/regions have their own variation of delicious fillings stuffed in fried dough, but being fully enclosed and deep fried disqualifies them as sandwiches.
  5. Ice Cream Sandwiches: Certainly an ice cream sandwich is not a sandwich in the traditional sense, being that it’s made with cookies as the enclosure instead of bread. However, it’s our position that an Ice Cream sandwich in some ways, is a modern reinvention of the genre, and should not be disqualified for its progressive nature. It’s a sandwich.

The Hot Dog Corollary

On the Sporcle Sandwich Time quiz, the most controversial answer by far has been the inclusion of a Hot Dog. Indeed, the halls of Sporcle HQ have long been abuzz with the turmoil its inclusion has caused. After prolonged discussion we’ve decided that the Hot Dog deserves to stay. We’ve boiled down the controversy to the argument that the hot dog enclosure is merely one piece of bread.  However, closer study has revealed that while the two halves of the bread are connected, they are still quite easily discernible as separate halves. On the other hand, a taco or similar item only has one side that is wrapped around all of the ingredients. Additionally, a hot dog meets sandwich requirements on nearly every other count.

What  did we really learn here? Do we know what is a sandwich?

In some ways, the one thing we learn time and time again on Sporcle is that there is quite possibly no topic that you can’t broach without controversy. Sandwiches, just like any other trivia, can’t just be contained in a simple box, and we’re probably all better for it.

So really, ‘What is a sandwich?’ Maybe the answer lies in the eye (er…mouth) of the eater. Can ‘sandwich’ be an open-ended word, free to grant the title upon any dish that seems to share the soul of the sandwich? Or must we protect the name of sandwiches everywhere from the corrupting power of pseudo-sandwiches? We leave that question up to you. While you’re thinking, you may want to grab something to eat.