Sunday, March 29, 2009

You Want Ketchup on That?

The Yanks, the Brits and their Sandwiches

This week's guest blogger is Dylan A Brit Out of Water "One Man's Struggle in a Foreign Land." During his 580 (and counting) days in exile, he has found much to comment on, today he gives us his views on The Sandwich.


When people ask me what is different about Britain and I tell them, “everything,” they think I’m exaggerating. But when something as simple and ubiquitous as a sandwich can cause confusion, you know you are dealing with decidedly disparate cultures.

First of all, the British have no concept of the Peanut butter and Jelly Sandwich. That’s right, PB&J does not exist here, and when you explain what it is, the idea leaves them slightly horrified. And when you get to my next point, you’ll see why.

To a Brit, making a sandwich involves these three steps, from which they rarely waver: 1) take two slices of bread, 2) butter both of them, 3) put something between them. The culture is so steeped in this “bread and butter” routine that they appear unable to break it. I once ordered a chicken sandwich at a deli and asked the lady if I could have mayonnaise on it. “Of course,” she said, then proceeded to butter my bread and then put mayonnaise on it. So you can appreciate how the idea of peanut butter and jelly might be a bit disturbing; frankly, it disturbs me in that context.

The upside is, what they put between the slices, is good, imaginative and tasty. And, if like me, you are partial to butter, the odd fixation they have with this dairy-based spread, while jarring at first, does not detract from the overall effect. Branson Pickle, a sort of heavy relish, is commonly used as a compliment to the filling in sandwiches, or as the filling itself. Cucumber sandwiches are tasty, as are bacon butties and fish finger sandwiches (these are fish sticks, for you easily-startled Americans).

But my all time favourite (for bizarreness, not tastiness) is the chip buttie. This is, quite simply, a French fry sandwich, with buttered bread, naturally. They’re quite popular with the pub crowd, though not as popular at the kebab. This is only Sandwiches 101, however, so we’re not going to mention them

If it wasn’t for the presence of Marmite coupled with the total absence of the Reuben Sandwich on this island, I would have declared Britain the clear winner in this round. As it is, I’ll call it just slightly in favour of the UK.


As Mike so rightly says, the biggest difference between sandwiches in the US and the UK is the use of mayonnaise or butter. However, given that the UK is the original home of the sandwich, I’ll just say that the British are right and let the matter rest.

The problem with buying a sandwich in the US is that, with very rare exceptions, sandwiches don’t come pre-packaged. Having spent twenty years buying boxes of sarnies freshly made that morning, I’d got used to lunch being a minimal human contact event in which you made your selection, paid your money and waltzed out of the shop free to chomp on your cheese and pickle sandwich to your heart’s content.

In New York, however, buying a sandwich involves the kind of rapid fire questioning that you would expect if you were, say, in the final round of a gameshow attempting to win the grand prize. Ask for something simple like a chicken sandwich, and you’ll have at least thirteen queries thrown at you in the space of three seconds, including (but not limited to) ‘what kind of bread?’, ‘do you want mustard?’, ‘lettuce and onion?’ and ‘what is the capital of Ecuador?’ You’re only allowed to pass on one question, else they send you to the back of the line to desperately swot up your answers in an attempt to get served.

Of course, being a Brit in America doesn’t exactly help when it comes to getting your hands on everyone’s favourite bread-based snack product. Ask for a tuna sandwich and you’ll get chicken unless you deliberately pronounce it ‘toona’. An appeal for tom-ah-toes will automatically result in death stares.

Still, you can’t argue with the value offered by American sandwiches. My Little Sis has been to the States just once, and when I texted her to ask what she thought, her only response was “Huge sandwiches!”. And she’s right. As everyone knows, size matters in America – and never more so than with the sandwich. I can only assume that some arcane law decrees that there must be precisely seventeen times as much filling as bread in all American sandwiches, such is the amount of stuff that’s piled into them.

Don’t get too excited though – the only two things allowed in American sandwiches are turkey and cheese. You may think you occasionally see other ingredients, such as lettuce or onion, but be aware that every single one has been industrially manufactured from either turkey or cheese. Sometimes from both.

Is it any wonder that so many people eat bagels with cream cheese instead?

Got something you want us to address? E-mail your suggestion to us or just pop it into the comment box


  1. When I lived in England the PB & J was so unheard of that I honestly thought peanut butter didn't exist there. On the other hand, Americans are mad about it. My father puts peanut butter on pancakes, ice cream and my all time favourite is his tomato, mayo and peanut butter sandwich. He might as well strap a jar to each side of his neck because that's where it's going, straight to the carotid arteries.

    The reason the chip buttie is popular with the pub crowd is because you have to be drunk to enjoy it. LOL! No doubt it's creation was the result of a good night out. The kebab on the other hand is delicious but one of the unhealthiest things you can eat. have to be out of your mind to eat it.(Obviously, I've had my fair share.) But I wouldn't go near Marmite with a ten foot pole no matter how pissed I was.


    I miss the packaged sandwiches from M & S. Such a simple idea and much healthier than our behemoth sandwiches. Any wonder we are the fattest country in the world?

  2. When we first got to the USA my husband walked out of a cafe because the waitress stressed him out to much when he asked for a turkey sandwich. Sometimes the choice thing gets obnoxious.
    I do like the choices now though. My favourite is a chicken salad croissant with swiss, tomato and salad. If I asked for that in England they'd say "eh?"
    The ultimate winner for me though has to be England. Bacon butties rule all.

  3. The funniest thing with visiting Brits is that they'll say "Oh, I'm not that hungry, I'll just have a sandwich", which then comes with a side of fruit, chips/crisps and often a cup of soup. Not a light lunch at all!

  4. When we first moved here, I'd freak out because the sandwiches were so vast that i couldn't get my mouth around them. Not only that, they didn't contain butter unless I asked for it, and usually either I forgot to ask or they'd forget to add it. I still can't finish a whole one.

    But yes, I do feel slightly embarrassed at the memory of an English sandwich. Were I to have to serve it to anyone, I'd be scampering around desperately looking for something to pad it out with.

    Great post- thank you both! I'm so pleased to tried out the link!

    Bella (from England, now in NY)

  5. I'm with Dylan on the NYC sandwich buying ordeal. One time in The City, I was in a line ordering a sandwich and a guy at a counter about 15 feet way was shouting to each of us about what we wanted. It was a rapid-fire exchange and when he finished the sandwich and wrapped it he then threw it, NFL style, to the person who ordered it. I'm still not sure how I managed to catch mine--I'm rubbish at football (NFL variety).

  6. You should have been round here about 30 years ago and had a British Rail Sandwich. totally revolting thin white bread, with butter (!) and the most foul innards you can think of. Euurrgghhhh. Evolution is good!

  7. Since I don't like butter or mayonnise on my sandwiches, I have a really hard time eating sandwiches in Britian. Thank God for Where the Monkey Sleeps in Glasgow - proof that people here have an appetite for something beyong the basic boxed sandwich.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.