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James Beard said that “too few people understand a really good sandwich.” Since 2009, Jon Chonko—founder, creator, and perhaps most importantly, eater of the website Scanwiches—has made it his mission to further global understanding of what makes a good sandwich, using nothing more than a flatbed scanner, an internet connection, and a weekly parade of sammies. His new book (titled, naturally, Scanwiches) features 68 mouth-watering portraits of sandwiches, scanned.
Scanwiches shows all that is good, toasty, saucy, and stacked about our current obsession, making it required reading here at sandwich week headquarters. Click through the photo gallery above to see Chonko’s top ten all-time favorite scans, and read our between-the-bread interview with Mr. Scanwich himself.
Photos courtesy of Jon Chonko and powerHouse Books.
Homemade Tuna Fish: canned tuna fish, onions, mayo, fresh-ground pepper on toasted multigrain.
GOOD: How do you define a sandwich?
Jon Chonko: I’m conservative, but also alternatively very liberal in terms of the sandwich definition. 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. But wraps, for example, are kind of their own thing; a wrap and a burrito are definitely not sandwiches. Anything that uses a different type of construction method, like something that uses layers isn’t a sandwich. What defines a sandwich is definitely a question of the form of construction and philosophy.
My girlfriend gets in fights with me about wraps, because I don’t scan wraps and didn’t include them in the book. She thinks that they belong with sandwiches as much as a hotdog. But the gut check for me is if I look at it and immediately say ‘oh yea, that’s a sandwich.’ If you have a wrap and a sandwich next to each other, would you say that that’s two sandwiches? No, you say that’s a sandwich and a wrap.
Hanco's Banh Mi Classic: roasted ground pork, Vietnamese ham, pâté, mayo, butter, cucumber, carrots, daikon, cilantro on a toasted French baguette
GOOD: How did Scanwiches come about? What inspired that very first, historic scan?
Chonko: In February of 2009, I was working at a design advertising shop in SoHo, New York. SoHo is a really good neighborhood for getting lunch, and the office was in the perfect spot between Little Italy, Chinatown, and the East Village. There were all these different cuisines and all the food/lunch opportunities that come with that.
It turned out that every day my coworkers and I were going out to lunch, trying new things, but mostly eating a lot of sandwiches. Eventually it came to the point that instead of asking if we wanted to go to lunch, we’d ask "hey want to go get a sandwich?" And we’d start messing around with the word sandwich and one day, the word "scanwich" came out in the process and I thought, "hey, that could be a cool idea."
I brought my girlfriend’s old scanner into work and scanned a sandwich. At first I was a little hesitant to put messy food on her scanner. But then I did it. And it looked really cool.
Homemade Pork Sandwich: homemade roasted pork loin, maple-apple sauce, apples, sprouts on a toasted roll
GOOD: Like every good sandwich, has Scanwiches changed your life?
Chonko: The blog was and is a new way for me to try a bunch of food I wouldn’t have tried on my own. I was the guy who was getting a BLT every day. It’s not that I was a picky eater, it’s just that I was kind of lazy. So when the blog started, it came with the rule that I was never going to post the same sandwich from the same place twice. Because of that I started trying new sandwiches and going to new sandwich shops and getting to know the neighborhood I was working in. It kind of turned me into a foodie … and totally got me hunting for different sandwiches. It transformed me into a guy that doesn’t eat the same thing twice.
Homemade Turkey Sandwich: fresh turkey, sprouts, Swiss cheese, purple onions on a baguette
GOOD: You eat all the sandwiches you post. Do you have a monthly sandwich budget? A Scanwich fund?
Chonko: It’s my lunch, so I’ve never really allotted a budget. Right now, I’m only scanning about once a week, and that’s partly because I don’t want to burn out on sandwiches. When I was just beginning to scan, it became kind of an obsession, to the point where it became part of work. So I took a break, like a month, and now it’s back to something I enjoy doing. Lately I’ve been trying to do corner store-sandwiches, like a chicken salad, something like that.
Parisi Bakery Turkey Hero: turkey, Swiss, lettuce, tomato, mayo on a hero
GOOD: These images are essentially beautiful sandwich portraits. Do you ever scan a sandwich for looks over taste?
Chonko: Visual appeal over taste actually becomes kind of a problem, and early on there was a point in time when I stopped thinking about taste and was only thinking about color and texture. I put together some sandwiches that just weren’t worth eating. I’d use shredded carrots, things that looked cool together but didn’t really taste that great when mixed in a sandwich. Thankfully I got out and got back to making things that taste good.
The Stalwart Goatherd: Montchevre goat cheese, honey, roasted beets, roasted red pepper, roasted garlic spread, arugula on a raisin and nut whole wheat bread
GOOD: What are the correct aesthetic proportions to a sandwich? Height vs. width?
Chonko: Vertical height of a sandwich is something I think about a lot when I scan. There is an artistic ratio, called the Golden Ratio, that ties into a height to width relationship. The idea behind the Golden Ratio is that there is a rectangle with the ideal proportions. In some way that plays into scanwiches that scan very well—successful ones are essentially flat bread rectangles. But more often than not a sandwich comes together on it’s own, regardless of aesthetic intention. As much as we make them, as much control as we have, there’s a point when you look back at the sandwich and you’re like, "Wow." There’s more than sauce, the meat, the filling, etc. There’s a point when the sandwich kind of makes itself.
On the blog, there are ones that are a little bit fuller, more ingredient-heavy than one I would normally make myself to eat. It’s almost like the aesthetic of a body-builder: For the blog I want to show the strength of the sandwich, the visual power, regardless of how much will squish out the sides during eating.
GOOD: Do you have an artistic background? Scanwiches is a site based on visuals.
Chonko: I’m actually a designer by trade … and I designed the Scanwiches book. I laid the book out in InDesign. Everything, the photo, design, is all me. And it’s an awesome experience to work on such a personal project. Obviously the publisher was a phenomenal collaborator, and they had some great additions. [My design background] really influences Scanwiches because it’s such a visual project. If I didn’t have a photo and imaging background, some of the texture, the color that you see would probably be lost.
M&O Market Fresh Turkey BLT: fresh turkey, bacon, lettuce, tomato, mozzarella, BLT sauce on a wheat loaf
GOOD: You have both homemade and store-bought sandwiches on the site. What’s the appeal of a homemade sandwich?
Chonko: I really like making my own sandwiches; the percentages on the site are about 50-50 homemade to not. I like making my own sandwiches for two reasons: sandwiches are made more or less for one person anyway and they’re the perfect kind of individual homemade meal. It’s really easy to make the sandwich that suits your personal preference. It becomes a reflection of what you really like. It doesn’t have to cater to anyone else, it’s your own personal sandwich, your own meal.
That said, I like seeing new sandwich shops and seeing what other people are doing. I moved about a year ago to a neighborhood in Brooklyn, and I’m looking to scan more stuff around our offices. Getting out of the homemade world and becoming as adventurous as possible was what was really exciting in the beginning of the blog.
Homemade BLP: bacon, fresh spring lettuce, softened pears on multigrain
GOOD: The scanning process is a mystery to us. How do you do it?
Chonko: It’s really simple, just cut, scan, process and post. Take the sandwich and either cut it in half or some other segment and lay the cross-section directly onto the glass of the scanner. At first I experimented with a piece of plastic or plastic wrap as a sandwich-scanner barrier, but that didn’t work because it refracts the light and messes up the image. Maybe after 100 sandwiches that have mayo there’s some permanent grime on the glass, so I take out the dust and scratches from that in Photoshop. Some sandwiches do need a bit of a physical crutch to get scanned, but basically it’s get the sandwich on the scanner and scan.
Chonko: I started on an HP Deskjet from like 2000, 2001, 2002, about 10 years old. Now I’ve gotten my hands on a much nicer scanner, an Epson scanner. I have one at home and one at the office.
Homemade Chicken Sandwich: grilled chicken breast, black beans, crushed roasted garlic, melted white cheddar, black pepper, purple onions on a small round loaf
GOOD: Does a sandwich that scans well taste good?
Chonko: There are a lot of sandwiches that scan well and taste good. There are a lot of sandwiches that scan terribly and taste amazing. Sandwiches that are sauce-rich, soaked through the bread and dripping all over the place are normally really monochromatic, but not in an appealing way, and they don’t scan very well. Saucy sandwiches are a real challenge to scan. They’re just a pool of sauce. A sloppy joe, a classic summer sandwich, the meal of an amazing childhood, is a sandwich that’s too saucy to scan successfully. It’s one of those things that, like people, sandwiches have a bunch of different personalities and facets. They might have some downsides, but Scanwiches is a good example that the best looking sandwich in the world may not be the tastiest.
Homemade "The Dagwood": Pastrami, roast beef, peppered turkey, honey ham, bologna, Cotto salami, provolone, American cheese, Cheese Whiz, Swiss, pepper jack, munster, cheddar, alfalfa sprouts, tarragon, pickles, red cabbage, horseradish with beets, mayo, mustard, sun-dried tomato, fresh tomato, lettuce, baby lettuce, shredded carrots, purple onions, bacon bits on an onion roll, white bread, dark German wheat bread, and potato bread
GOOD: Is there a voyeuristic aspect to sandwich-eating? The images are a bit like playing sandwich peek-a-boo.
Chonko: The term food porn gets thrown along a lot … There is definitely something kind of scandalous about Scanwiches. You don’t really ever see a sandwich like Scanwiches shows it to you. It’s put on an alien dark background and the sandwich is kind of exposed. It is a scandalous to see a sandwich spread out like that. One of the phrases we used when the book was set up was ‘a full-frontal’ sandwich spread.
How people react to Scanwiches I think has to do with [their] own relationship to food, how they perceive it in their life. Scanwiches may just amplify those feelings, show them what they really think by producing an immediate reaction.
GOOD: From sandwich week, we’ve discovered that people have surprisingly strong feelings about their sandwiches. Have you encountered any overzealous or odd sandwich fans?
Chonko: [Laughs.] They are out there, but they’re not that vocal. Rarely do I find people that are really critical. Though there are readers that may be borderline obsessive, I will say that sandwiches are the type of thing that people have very strong opinions about. There are times when I’ll post a sandwich, and somebody will have a very strong opinion about whether or not I used mayo, or that I used onions or I forgot something.
People love a sandwich, but it’s a very personal thing. All these sandwiches are made with pretty common ingredients, so if someone sees a sandwich, they have the ability to get inspired about it and make it their own type of sandwich. I like to think that I inspire people to make my sandwiches, or even make them better.
GOOD: Most recent sandwich consumed?
Chonko: It’s still in my stomach. Simple egg salad on multigrain. Just mayo, onion, egg, salt and pepper on some bread.