Is a Burrito a Sandwich?

GOOD debates the culinary question of our time.

Here at GOOD, we live every week like it's sandwich week. This week, we're celebrating the real thing with 50-state sandwich maps, wrap screeds, and the great philosophical question:

Is a burrito a sandwich? In 2006, Pennsylvania Judge Jeffrey A. Locke was tasked with establishing legal precedent on the question. The dispute: A local Panera Bread franchise had sued to block a Qdoba Mexican Grill from opening in its shopping complex, citing its contract to be the sole sandwich shop on the block. Qdoba makes the bulk of its income selling burritos. In Panera's view, that put Qdoba in the sandwich business.

Locke decided the issue [PDF] using a dictionary and what he called "common sense." He cited Webster's definition of "sandwich"—"two thin pieces of bread, usually buttered, with a thin layer (as of meat, cheese, or savory mixture) spread between them"—then provided his own understanding of a burrito, a food item "typically made with a single tortilla and stuffed with a choice filling of meat, rice, and beans." Victory: Qdoba.

Yet Locke's determination raises more questions than it answers. Placing the disconcerting condiment issue aside (usually buttered?), Locke pitted two slices of bread against one tortilla. How, then, would one legally classify an open-faced construction built atop a single piece of bread? How about a quesadilla that employs two tortillas, sandwiched together? Panera Bread declined to appeal over these outstanding questions, and the legal definition remains troublingly vague.

Here at sandwich week, we've spent the last five days celebrating the staple of the American lunch hour. But what are we really celebrating when we celebrate the sandwich? Is it filling spread between two slices of bread, as Locke claims? "Sandwich," after all, is a verb as well as a noun. Must the filling be sandwiched between bread? Is an Oreo a sandwich? A quesadilla? Is a KFC Double Down a sandwich?

Can a food become a sandwich simply by calling itself a sandwich? Does an open-faced sandwich constitute a sandwich, despite the lack of sandwiching employed in its construction? If so, is bruschetta a sandwich? Buttered toast? Pizza?

What if you fold the pizza in half? Must the unifying exterior item be split in two in order to constitute a sandwich? Is a hot dog a sandwich? A submarine roll split in the middle, but with a hinge still hanging on? Is an omelete a sandwich?

A note on methodology: Is it necessary to consume the sandwich with one's own two hands? If one were to douse a sandwich in gravy, would it neutralize the sandwich, converting it into nothing more than a bread-based entree?

If we'll accept a hinge in a sandwich, what about a filling that's encased on two sides? On all sides? Is a kolache a sandwich? A pasty? A corn dog? A calzone? An egg roll? A dumpling? A pop tart? Is a wrap a sandwich?

Is a burrito a sandwich?

The courts are not the only arm of the U.S. government to weigh in on this question. The United States Department of Agriculture's inspection guidelines provide an even more confounding definition of the food [PDF]. A "sandwich "must contain at least 35 percent cooked meat and no more than 50 percent bread," the USDA decided. A burrito, on the other hand, is a "Mexican style sandwich-like product consisting of a flour tortilla." Sandwich-like. But in what way is it like a sandwich? The USDA doesn't say. Complicating matters, a sandwich built with two slices of bread is controlled by the FDA; only an open-faced sandwich lies within the USDA's purview.

Merriam-Webster's current definition is perhaps the most useless. A sandwich is "two or more slices of bread or a split roll having a filling in between," the dictionary has decided. Otherwise, it's "one slice of bread covered with food." Or else it's "something resembling a sandwich." What is a sandwich? Who is Spartacus?

I may not know what a sandwich is, exactly, but I do know that it's made for everyone. It cannot be defined by courts of law, government directives, or books alone. Its definition must be decided by the people.

For insight into the popular view, I turned to Ian Chillag, a journalist who routinely documents his sandwich consumption for NPR's Sandwich Mondays. Unsurprisingly, NPR takes a liberal view of the sandwich. "We define sandwich as a 'protein encased in bread product,'" Chillag says. "That way it can include things like the Dunkin’ Donuts Pancake Sausage Bites, which is barely even a food, let alone a sandwich. We just figure the more open our definition, the wider the variety of things we can eat and still refer to it as work." To Sandwich Mondays, a burrito is a sandwich.

To settle on his own definition of the sandwich, Dan Pashman of blog and podcast The Sporkful returned to the source. "In matters of definition like these, I am an originalist," Pashman says. Citing the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, Pashman defines a sandwich as a "food sandwiched between two other foods" made of "two discrete exterior components" that can "readily be handled" without soiling one's hands. To Pashman, "The basic concept of [Sandwich's] original oeuvre was a piece of meat between two pieces of bread. Taken literally, this would seem to indicate that bread is a necessity for sandwich classification. However, I choose to look at the Earl’s intent. His intention was to be able to eat his meat with his hands, by enclosing the meat in something that he could pick up without getting himself especially messy." A burrito, then, is not a sandwich.

Jon Chonko of sandwich documentary blog Scanwiches proposes a bipartisan solution. "I’m conservative, but also alternatively very liberal in terms of the sandwich definition," Chonko says. "Liberal, in the sense that anything between two slices of bread is a sandwich, like a hamburger is technically a sandwich because of the buns. Anything that is handheld should be considered a sandwich, so again a hamburger qualifies." However: "wraps, for example, are kind of their own thing; a wrap and a burrito are definitely not sandwiches," he says. Chonko's girlfriend disagrees on the wraps issue: "She thinks that they belong with sandwiches as much as a hot dog," says Chonko. But a wrap is not a sandwich. And neither is a burrito.

And what of the architects of the burrito? Do they consider themselves sandwich artists? After ordering a burrito at a local Mexican joint recently, I asked the cashier whether he felt the product constituted a sandwich. He considered the question. "No," he decided ultimately. Why? "A sandwich requires a cut," he explained.

The explanation is absurd—I could cut a burrito.
Sandwich, burrito, lasagna: There is no why. In the end, I must approach the question practically. No unifying theory exists to classify your meal by appearance, ingredient, or construction method. The sandwich is a social compact between lunchers: We have come to a consensus on a group of foods that we will call "sandwiches," one that defies even the most obvious attempts at classification. Consider the open-faced sandwich: Nothing is being sandwiched here. But somehow, the open-face has muscled its way into our collective understanding of "sandwich" by strength of will alone.
Would a Chinese restaurant list "sandwiches" on its menu, containing one item, "egg roll"? When asked what kind of sandwich one desires for lunch, could one reasonably reply, "a dumpling?" One day, perhaps. "The gut check for me is if I look at it and immediately say ‘oh yeah, that’s a sandwich,'" Chonko says. That degree of universal cultural acceptance doesn't happen overnight. The burrito has a long time to wait.
Photo (cc) via Flickr user Critical Moss\n
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