For as long as I can remember — or as long as I’ve had untrammelled access to a fridge and cutlery — I have used lunchtime sandwiches as both a yardstick and a corrective for my own mental state.
I will concede that, in the earliest days of this measurement system, the malady I was looking to correct was just ‘hunger’, in that petulantly direct and short-sighted way that a child goes about such things. As soon as my still-forming seven-year-old brain grasped the structural dynamics of a chopped pork barm, you could find me smearing pillowy pre-sliced rolls with hot pink mystery meat and unnervingly generous swipes of Anchor Spreadable. Dinners ruined, sure; arguments caused, every now and again, but I’d fixed the issue I came into the kitchen to solve.
'I bought a cheap white loaf and an even cheaper tray of assorted deli meats to stack into an absurd twenty-decker Tower of Babel'
Later down the line, in my teens and on a school trip to Germany, I learned that you could deploy the skills of sandwich artistry to elicit shock and revulsion. Making use of a short allotted window to go bother and shoplift from the Aldi next to our hostel, I bought a cheap white loaf and an even cheaper tray of assorted deli meats, to stack into an absurd twenty-decker Tower of Babel.
Next – the coup de grace – I triple-wrapped it in plastic, placed my backpack atop the stack, and then sat on top of it for a four hour coach ride, until it had flattened and congealed into some kind of greasy meat millefeuille. It turned out essentially inedible, but it looked hideous and people recoiled. I got a buzz from offering it around, a buzz I would later come to define as attention-seeking.
It would be nice, at this point in the story, to say that I grew older and came to understand sandwiches as an act of love or something, but no: the ageing, thickening and job-hunting process only made me weirder about them.
The lunchtime sandwich became an act of self-flagellation in my early days of unemployment. If it was bundled in with some doomed health kick, it would manifest through comically austere sandwiches zhuzhed up in all manner of sad ways. There was the new year where I roasted two bags of halved Brussels sprouts everyday, suffused with a belief that the foundational maxim of ‘vegetables = healthy’ could be taken to its absolute extreme and you’d turn out ok.
To bring some zest into my skint yet somewhat aspirant life, I’d apply wildly different flavour palates to the sprout trays, before wrapping the whole lot in those limp, gummy wholewheat tortillas you find in health food shops. Some would be nice, most would be dreadful, but lunch by lunch, I was dragging myself toward a lighter, brighter feature, one sprout wrap at a time – or so I told myself.
When I decided to stop kidding myself, and indulge in the kind of way you’d feel guilty admitting to a priest, I’d spend my lunchtimes building subs of self-destruction. Baguettes would be split open on the countertop and filled with baffling volumes of pre-cooked chicken, fried halloumi, dressed rocket, chips, pickled onions, cornichons, almonds, more chips, and a splash of some obnoxious sauce. You know the ones, those little green vials of indigestion with a silly name that celebrities now eat for a dare when they’ve got a film coming out.
Then, aping all the cool food guys in their funny Carhartt caps I’d see sandwich-stuffing on Instagram, I’d seal the whole thing tight in a sturdy layer of tinfoil, for a professional touch that made the whole experience seem a little less vulgar. Behold! A totem to enduring joblessness, a sandwich the size of a literal baby, its sheer girth the mark of a man with too much time and too little self-control. They’d take an hour to eat and a day to recover from – I look upon this period of my life like John Lennon did with the mid-seventies, my ‘lost weekend’ in a stupor of cheese and chicken.
I am somewhat calmer now. I have a rice cooker; I make strange rice cooker things, the results of which feel more chic and grown-up than my litany of carbohydrate monstrosities. But there comes a time – always – where the hangover won’t lift, or the morning’s been a killer, or the afternoon looks suspiciously placid; placid enough to surrender my productivity for the day. And I get to thinking: what do I feel like today?