“Do You Want Fries With That…?” We Are More Than What We Eat

Sandwiches are beautiful, sandwiches are fine, I like sandwiches, I eat them all the time. I eat them for my supper, and I eat them for my lunch. If I had a hundred sandwiches, I’d eat them all at once.
– Peter Alsop, “Sandwiches”                    

Recently, I got a phone call from an old friend. We chatted for only a few minutes before I had to return to the immediate tasks at hand. “Let’s get together soon,” I insisted. “We’ll grab a sandwich and some coffee and really catch up.”

How many times and in how many places have the words, “we’ll grab a sandwich…” preceded an invitation for an opportunity to establish, reestablish, or strengthen the bonds we have with those we care about? Sandwiches provide an easy and comforting way to “grease the skids” of human interaction.

History awards the honor of creating the sandwich to John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich. He happened upon his creation as a matter of necessity. In order to be better able to eat while playing cards, he requested roast beef between two slices of bread. And, like that, at least in the popular mind, the “sandwich” was created. Following his example, men of the upper class began to order their “sandwiches” while gambling, the better to keep their cards clean and their bellies full. Is it any wonder that sandwiches, certainly in their earliest appearance, came to be associated with games and gluttony.

Games and gluttony. The pairing seems to capture perfectly the basest aspects of our nature. However, over time, the sandwich outgrew the gaming rooms of the aristocracy and became more acceptable, spreading to more “refined” venues among aristocrats in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Then, with the explosion of industry in Western Europe in the 19th Century – along with the introduction of pre-sliced bread – the popularity of sandwiches grew. Simple and portable, not to mention infinitely adaptable, sandwiches became a staple in middle- and working-class households.

It was not long before lands far beyond Europe caught the “sandwich bug.”   While most associated with European and American culture, the sandwich soon became a worldwide phenomenon, taking on many shapes and sizes. Almost every culture embraced its own version, using its own type of bread and filling. In Mexico and Central America, the sandwich is called the burrito – with the tortilla grilled or steamed and wrapped around fillings such as beans, rice, and meat. In Southeast Asia, flatbreads called roti or chapati are wrapped around each morsel of a dish. A variation to be sure but a sandwich nonetheless. Likewise the falafel, served in pita bread, a pouch-like bread, is a pervasive variation in the Middle East.

Sandwiches in their myriad forms have become foundational to defining regional cultures – and even world culture. Thanks to its Big Mac sandwich, McDonald’s became the most successful restaurant chain in history.

* * *

There is a saying in Jewish life, “Feed them and they will come…” That is, when food is provided, you are sure to get a crowd to your event. We are, at base, simple creatures. We crave what we need and we need food. Along with air and water, it is essential to our very survival. However, unlike air and water, which we too often take for granted, our thoughts are almost continually drawn to food; we look forward to meals; we talk about food even when we’re eating.

We eat to live but, because we are created in God’s image, even those things necessary for existence can – must – be given greater meaning. For us food must be more than just the stuff we eat.   Food has to have meaning to us. Our intimate relationships are intertwined with food and, as a consequence, we love food. From the finest meals prepared at four-star restaurants by the finest chefs to the most modest meal that we find in every culture – the sandwich – food is central to our sense of who we are.

Yes, at base, we are simple creatures very much like every other beast of the field. And, like other beasts, we must consume food to live. However, though we are, at base, very simple, we are very, very much more. Created by God to be something more, even our most base experiences can and should be imbued with significance, meaning and holiness.

The Bible is clear; man does not live by bread alone.

Which, curiously, brings us back to our “simple” little sandwich. Although popular understanding assigns its “creation” to a convenience to better negotiate gambling and gluttony, even Wikipedia notes that the sandwich’s real origin goes back many centuries before the Earl of Sandwich.

Wikipedia is right to mention Hillel’s sandwich when discussing the history and importance of the sandwich.

Sandwiches are best enjoyed when they are truly more than the “sum of their parts.” It is with the wisdom of this insight we return to the significance and importance of that first “sandwich” – Hillel’s. Perhaps not as well known or universally enjoyed as the Big Mac, with its “billions and billions” served, the Hillel sandwich is so much more than its parts and much more than mere taste and calories. Unlike John Montagu’s creation to satisfy his gluttony and gaming, the Hillel sandwich must feed more than the belly. It must also feed the soul.

The context during which we eat the Hillel sandwich is the Passover Seder and, as with every aspect of the Passover Seder and meal, the point of the eating of the Hillel sandwich is not simply to act but to think and to feel as well. At no point does the Seder ever deny the pleasures of eating. Just like Judaism itself, the Seder celebrates physical enjoyment, just not physical enjoyment for its own sake. To reduce any action to mere physical satisfaction is to rob it of meaning and to diminish our understanding of God’s role in our lives and in the world.

So, when we celebrate the blessings of our freedom, it would be disrespectful if we did not also make sure to honor our ancestors’ hardships in Egypt. Noting how the Jewish people won their independence from slavery is as important as, if not more important than, taking pleasure in that independence. This complexity, this intricate idea of honoring the past and living in the present, of embracing two divergent feelings to create a single whole, is realized in the simplicity of the Hillel sandwich.

Since the Pesach meat cannot be eaten, only maror is necessary to stand for the bitterness of enslavement and only matzah to both recall the austerity of slavery and also to symbolize God’s miracles. The Jews did not have time to allow their bread to leaven because God decreed that the time to be saved was immediate. With the minimal combination of maror and matzah, we are reminded that God is always with the Jewish people. Full faith is in God, that He is watching in prosperous times and in miserable times as well, is necessary. He certainly challenges us but will always be there to strengthen us and to help us overcome those challenges.

By eating matzah and maror together we are reminded of this. Without both of these ingredients, freedom could not possibly taste as sweet. Without the bitter, there could not be the sweet. How could we truly appreciate geulah without galut? And how could we possibly survive galut without the promise and hope of geulah?

The Hillel sandwich teaches us that food is nourishment and symbol, that we are both beast and saint, dust and soul. Recognizing the powerful symbolism of the food we eat helps us to keep our lives – the physical and the spiritual – in balance. By eating matzah and maror together we are reminded that God’s gift of salvation is always there, but we must remain aware of it for it to touch our lives.

Without all of the proper ingredients, without awareness of slavery freedom could not possibly taste as sweet. One could not exist without the other.

Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran has been serving as Editor in Chief of Behind the Union Symbol since its inception in 1997.

Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran