I’ve been dreaming about sandwiches. I’m a middle-aged man who’s been denying himself carbohydrates, and this is the consequence. Sadly, wilder, youthful dreams are long extinct; calories, rather than hormones, dominate my sleeping hours.
I dreamt about the modern sandwich, of course, but in those (many) minutes before hauling myself from bed and considering the world’s more serious woes, I thought about how sandwiches have changed over the last fifty years . When I was a child, long before Jamie Oliver and his like inspired us to buy ingredients and prepare dishes our parents had never heard of, and long before Pret a Manger offered us sandwiches of chicken, coriander, lemon juice and avocado (this is the one I dream of more than of any other), or hummus and watercress, or God knows what, the institutional tea – at weddings, speech days, funerals, and confirmations, and held in the brocaded ‘lounges’ of three-star hotels , or on lawns – provided us with only half a dozen miserable varieties of sandwich, most of them of mean and miserly composition. There are places in the world where sandwich fillings must be thicker than the two slices of bread that contain them – the United States and Israel come to mind – but in the bad old days of the English sandwich rarely would the filling be half as thick as a single slice.
There was the salmon sandwich (salmon neatly combining the virtues of daintiness and luxury, even if it came out of a tin). Making the filling involved mashing tinned salmon with malt vinegar. The result was fishy, acid and wet, but at least it glued the slices of white or brown (more sophisticated) bread together.
Note the dainty use of the parsley sprig
Then there was the cheese sandwich, usually containing a single millimetre-thick slice from a pack of Kraft Cheese Slices (remember how you had to peel them carefully from their plastic backing sheets). Those were the days when nature could be improved. Placed between two slices of buttered white bread, the end result had a single soft unresisting consistency that became, when chewed, a ball of glue in the mouth.
Fish paste sandwiches were even worse. What’s become of fish paste? These pastes came in thick glass bottles, as if they might explode, smaller versions of the old Coca Cola bottle. I presume they harked from a time before refrigeration. You pulled a thin metal cap, sealed to the rim with a strip of red rubber, from the top to reveal a grey-surfaced sludge. The smell was from the 19th century. They were made from pilchards, shrimp, bloaters, mackerel, salmon, and other marine substances, but they all tasted the same. Spread thinly on buttered bread they became no more than a dark stain between the two white slices. These grenade-like bottles were stored against a rainy day at the back of the kitchen cupboard, next to the John West salmon, ready for the unexpected visit of a peckish Great Aunt. You don’t see them any more. I think they’ve morphed into cat food.
Immortal but repulsive
Egg sandwiches, at least, offered a kind of challenge. There was, of course, the smell of methane, but the greater difficulty was that they would fall apart if you didn’t handle them correctly. After all, there was nothing to hold them together (unless they were pre-slathered in ‘salad cream’ (another abomination)). I’ve never known eggs boiled so thoroughly, nor since seen eggs sliced so thinly. And if you were careless, greyish yellow crumbs of egg yolk might catch in your throat and set you off coughing. Daintiness lost in an instant.
Cucumber sandwiches, slithery and hard to hold as they were, were always delicious. They have survived the revolution and always will. Even Jamie offers a recipe.
As for sandwiches made with ‘sandwich spread’, these were the most utterly repulsive of them all. Sandwich spread is a kind of sweetened vomit, perhaps the most disgusting substance that has ever been served as food. I can’t remember ever seeing it in its fully exposed form. I hope that I never will. It is too revolting en masse to be exposed to human gaze.
A banned substance
Calorie-starved as I am at this moment, nothing (barring starvation or little else to eat on a delayed Wizzair flight) would induce me to eat any of these horrors, except perhaps the cucumber sandwich. The others are the stuff of nightmares not dreams, and I hope that we’ll never see them at Pret.