That's a Wrap: The Truth Behind the Great Sandwich Debate

I have become something of an encyclopedia of sandwich knowledge. I can tell the difference between a standard French Dip and a double-dipped. I can order a Philly Cheesesteak the right way: “wit” or “wit-out” (onions). I know where the po-boy was invented (New Orleans 1929), and the most popular sandwich in America (the hamburger). The bad news is that classes have started again, so I don’t have time to watch a whole PBS documentary about sandwiches. The good news is that if I did, it’d be my third time. I don’t even particularly like sandwiches. I just wanted to settle, once and for all, the debate raging over the Adams House email list: Is a wrap a sandwich?

The question, credited to Chinh Vo ’09, set off a heated, house-wide argument when Kathleen Chen ’09 unleashed it on the Schmooze at the beginning of exam period. Omar Abdelsamad ’09, the former House Committee Co-Chair, was the first to weigh in: “I’m going to open this up by saying absolutely not. A sandwich has strict criteria and a wrap meets neither the bread nor the positioning requirements (bread, filling, bread, top to bottom) that make up a sandwich.”

As exam period delirium intensified, the list exploded and the house divided into sandwich radicals, liberals and purists. The purists accepted only the traditional two-slice model; they held the ‘wich up to the triangle test—if it could be cut into a triangle, it was good enough to be called a sandwich. The moderate liberals rejected the wrap and its cylindrical cousins (the burrito and the spring roll), but accepted the open-faced sandwich and the decidedly non-triangular bagel/rollwich. The radicals, on the other hand, accepted anything stuffed in carbs as a sandwich; in addition to wraps, burritos, quesadillas and hot dogs were welcomed into the fold.

In the height of the battle, Adams awoke one morning to find itself plastered in Magritte-inspired signs—a picture of a wrap sliced in two, arranged like a pipe, with “Ceci n’est pas un sandwich,” scrawled below. Thank you, anonymous artist, for giving me the perfect response to, “So, what’s Harvard really like?”

“O RLY” was the liberals’ appropriate, if snarky, reply.

Over the next two weeks, the emails that flew over the list included a reference to the Supreme Court case Panera Bread Co. v. Qdoba Mexican Grill (2006); input from a house chef; a rick-roll’d link; repeated reminders to please don’t forget to study for your tests; talk of “genus” and “species” and “would a wrap and a sandwich have fertile offspring?”; a mock Bible passage; and a voting platform designed by a computer science concentrator. The results? 41 said no, a wrap is not a sandwich, 22 said yes.

I had stayed uncharacteristically silent on the “Epic Argument” forum. Honestly, I found the whole argument entirely absurd. The lowly sandwich hardly seemed to merit this fervor. But as resident food columnist, I figured it was my duty to uncover the definition of “sandwich” and restore order to the residences on Plympton Street. The task seemed simple enough when I set out to Schlesinger Library, but I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Determining whether a wrap qualified as a sandwich was only the beginning.

That mystery was solved in the first hour of scrolling through a mountain of Food Encyclopedias and American Food History books. I’m sorry purist friends, the wrap is in fact a sandwich. According to the definitive Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, “During the 1990s, wraps became a popular new form of sandwich in the United States.” Sandwich was cross-referenced to “Wraps,” as wrap was cross-referenced to “Sandwiches.”

Mystery solved.

But the quest seemed incomplete; the answer seemed too easy to procure. If the definition was so easy to find, why did the original wrap v. sandwich question become so epic in the first place? Sure we Adamsians were bored because it was exam period and we neewwded an excuse to procrastinate, and sure there is an interesting semantic issue to be explored, but the explosion on the list spoke to a debate that was more than just a time-killer or an argument about definitions. Wrap v. sandwich called into question an entire culinary history as well as our own personal histories. We all have a favorite sandwich or a childhood memory at stake in the outcome. If a quesadilla can be considered a sandwich, what would that mean for our memories?

My lack of closure stemmed from the fact that knowing the definition didn’t compare to the satisfaction of biting into a juicy pastrami on rye. I spoke to everyone I knew to recover the charm missing from Oxford’s “sandwich (n.)”. Suddenly, I was in a world where everyone else was a secret sandwich expert and I would never possibly know enough. My friend from Long Island, a connoisseur of Boston’s roast beef sandwiches, gave me alarmingly detailed accounts of various sandwich shops. Another friend described the “Fat Bitch,” which far and away takes the prize for—I don’t know, something. Originating in a grease truck on Rutgers’ campus, it contains a hearty portion of Cheesesteak, chicken fingers, two sticks of string cheese, mayonnaise, ketchup, lettuce and tomato heaped onto Italian bread. Oh and French Fries too. The Fat Bitch fanboy later confessed that he was the one who had asked Widener to purchase the PBS sandwich documentary.

Five sandwich-filled dreams later, I realized I had crossed over to the other side. My inability to control my research was like the Schmooze’s inability to contain itself on the forum. It was a testament to how integral the sandwich is to all our lives—whether or not we stop to think about it. What had started as a simple definitional question had sprawled into an epic exploration of our collective obsession with the sandwich.

So, yes Adams, the wrap is a sandwich. And yes, an analysis so complicated for a dish so simple may seem ridiculous. But I dare you not to care about it.

—Columnist Rebecca A. Cooper can be reached at cooper3@fas.harvard.edu.