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The Cold War Over Hot Sandwiches

Should your sandwich be hot or cold? Fighting over sandwiches is the last remaining great American pastime — and this time, the battleground is meat temperature

If Twitter is a hot take factory, hot food takes are… whatever piece of factory equipment is most indispensable (I don’t know, I’m a soft-handed little writer bitch). Now, I mostly treat Twitter like it’s a party I have to attend whose other attendees will mostly be people I dislike. I keep my head down, shoot the shit with a handful of trusted friends and ignore the catastrophically annoying ding-dongs I encounter. It’s not foolproof, and I’m as discourse-prone as anyone else, but I make an honest effort to keep my tweets light.

Other people, however, genuinely want to watch the world burn:

Inflammatory stuff, no?

My heart goes out to all my friends who cherish their midnight tuna salad sandwiches and their turkey-wrap dinner parties. Still, I must admit I agree with my friend Clint on this one. Sandwiches — like takes — should be served hot.

Cowardly souls might venture to say that a man’s opinion about food is his own business, and it’s up to all of us to use our judgment and go with God. After all, people have squabbled amongst themselves about food since long before the laws of kashrut were written into existence. At no point in history have all human beings everywhere agreed on the correct way to eat. Religious diets duke it out with weight-loss diets, and strength-training diets battle against ideological diets, and some of us with chronic illnesses still can’t touch certain foods because our doctors made us participate in highly restrictive elimination diets that stunted our palates. Then you have food allergies and eating disorders and vitamin deficiencies and food deserts, and basically, who cares?

If you’re lucky enough to have enough to eat, maybe you should shut the fuck up and finish your fucking sandwich, whatever temperature it may be. But we are no cowardly souls and shutting the fuck up is not for us. Instead, let’s test this opinion right here in the good old marketplace of ideas, like Plato and Diogenes before us. Ladies and gentlemen: Is a cold sandwich suitable only for lunch?


Small, cold lunches and big, hot dinners have been the American way for a long time, though that wasn’t always the case. According to historian Harvey Levenstein’s book Revolution at the Table, American workers once worked close enough to their homes that they could come back during the day to savor a hot lunch before returning to work — at least, those blessed with wives who didn’t have to work outside the home. A sharecropper’s lunch was usually leftovers from breakfast, since his wife barely had time to clean up the morning meal before she had to get to the fields. But for the country’s less abused laborers, a hot lunch at home was the norm.

When the commute became a part of workers’ lives, so did the lunch pail. Why bother with a hot lunch when it’s just going to get cold while you’re schlepping off to your job in the city? Even now, a dinnertime feast with the family is still an exhausted worker’s reward (or “reward,” depending on how he feels about his family) for the quotidian misery of his working day, exemplified by the crappy room-temperature sandwich he had to eat during it.

The conditions that led to this division may be obsolete, but old habits die hard. We associate a hot meal with people busting their asses over a hot stove because they love us; a cold meal is something those same people might toss together in a hurry. When a meal is hot, we linger and luxuriate. When it’s cold, we’re eating it at our desk or in a gloomy break room.

Plus, with some exceptions, hot food is safer. While we’ve long associated salmonella with chicken, raw vegetables are the most common culprits of food-borne illnesses — the same raw vegetables that give your cold sandwich sweetness and crunch. A preference for hot food may be mostly aesthetic, but it stems from our shared memory of a time when “hot” meant “safe.” Even some foods and drinks that are mostly enjoyed cold, like milk, are heated during the pasteurization process first to ensure that they’re safe to consume.

Again, I’m a hot food gal myself. Investigate Clint’s tweet, and you may spot a reply from a certain MEL columnist clarifying that cold sandwiches shouldn’t be eaten during any hours, day or night. I associate cold sandwiches with hurried visits to the bodega for a turkey-and-swiss during my 30-minute lunch breaks. I have no memories of a relaxed, pleasurable meal that featured cold sandwiches.

My attachment to hot food is hard won: When I was in college, I had many symptoms of Crohn’s disease but hadn’t yet been diagnosed with it. One doctor suggested that I jerry-rig myself a functional G.I. tract by means of a weird-ass diet that was impossible to follow at my college’s dining hall. The only food I could reliably eat was a salad from the raggedy salad bar, where the lettuce was changed out maybe once a week and the carrots didn’t crunch. After four years of eerily squishy salads, I think I’ve earned my right to the opinion that food should be hot at all costs.


Who cares about the history of the hot dinner? Why should we allow ourselves to remain beholden to the now-arbitrary procedures that were once forced into being by the advance of capitalism? In 2020, with the incredible array of foodstuffs available to us all and the obliteration of the standardized working day’s hours, why shouldn’t we just eat a fucking pint of Cherry Garcia for dinner if that’s what we want to do?

Plus, one of the signature privileges of this modern age is the wide availability of safe food to most Americans — uninfected by illness, washed in relatively clean water, pasteurized. Whether our proud nation’s major food processors abide by health and safety regulations is an issue for another time, but the regulations exist, and the penalties for violating them are ostensibly severe. Most of us no longer need to plan our menus based on which meats or vegetables are least likely to give us three days of diarrhea. We are free to follow our whims. We can enjoy tomatoes in March, pineapple in New York. Is it so inconceivable, then, to enjoy an Italian sub in the evening?

Then there’s the idea that food should follow the seasons as closely as possible. Looking at it that way, perhaps we can come to a compromise that cold sandwiches are the perfect food for spring and summer. Who wants to turn on their oven in August? Historically, pigs were slaughtered in winter so that their meat could be cured through the cold seasons and eaten all summer; if you kill a pig in June in your village that has no refrigerators, then brother, you’re gonna waste a lot of precious pig. Modern food preservation techniques have all but obliterated the practice, but they couldn’t obliterate the misery of trying to cook meat in your oven in the summer just because you feel like eating a roast that night. There’s a reason picnics are all about cold sandwiches, and it’s not just because of the relative ease of transportation.

The most convincing argument in favor of cold sandwiches, though, is the subtlety of flavor that’s harder to find in hot sandwiches. Consider a turkey club, wrapped up and permitted to sit in its binding for no fewer than 20 minutes. Consider the way the bread leeches away some of the savor of the meat, the water in the tomatoes; consider the way the crispness of the lettuce texturizes all that moisture, the way the moisture leans against that load-bearing lettuce. Every bite of a great cold sandwich is utterly harmonious. It’s no mere pile of ingredients sitting on bread. It’s an entity unto itself, closer to a cake than to an eggplant parm sandwich.

Or consider instead the other convincing argument I’ve heard in favor of cold sandwiches: You’re at Subway. You’re looking directly into the tin of old meatballs that they use for the meatball subs. What kind of sandwich do you order?

The Final Verdict

Is it possible that neither type of sandwich is categorically better — that a person’s food preferences really are just preferences? Listen, pal, I haven’t meaningfully left my house since March, and it’s turned me into the damn Joker. I’m one tinfoil hat away from being the adult whose house the neighborhood kids aren’t encouraged to trick-or-treat at. You can pretty much tell me anything is possible at this point and I’d believe you, even if the supposedly “possible” thing is a notion as crazy as this one.

What I would argue, though, is that this sort of low-stakes food quibbling is a balm against issues of a less manageable scale. Once in a while, all of Twitter comes together to share in collective, irony-inflected rage about a food — about the objects that turned out to be cakes, say, or about the meat hand. We aren’t genuinely angry at these foods. How could we be? Their creators are less motivated by the task of nourishing us than by that of distracting and entertaining us, and at this latter task they excel.

When we’re lightheartedly sniping at each other about the latest abominable Instagram food, what we’re not doing is taking stock of the impenetrable horrors that now characterize much of our daily existence. We’re fighting the bogeyman we think we can beat to avoid making eye contact with the one we know we can’t. On an individual basis, every one of us is powerless to eliminate the coronavirus pandemic or to make health care free. What we can do is hate a cake together, or Senator John Cornyn’s brisket, or Abby Shapiro’s ramen. Or, in my case, a cold sandwich.

So it is with a heart full of courage that I say to you all today: Cold sandwiches are gross, and hot sandwiches are better. Cold sandwiches aren’t even suitable for lunch. Or the opposite! Whatever! You can quote tweet me and yell at me, fill my inbox with gleeful hate mail telling me I don’t know dick about shit. Generate more food takes, and let those takes lead you to other food takes, and bury your head in the sand of food takes for a spell while you recharge your psyche for the horrors still to come.

Because wherever you land on the Great Cold Sandwich Debate, one thing’s for certain: You’re powerless to just log off.

Also: Hot dogs are a sandwich.