The Hill I Will Die On: Salt And Pepper Should Be On Top Of Sandwiches, Not In Them

As Salt-N-Pepa put it so succinctly in 'Push It', "Get up on this" not 'in' this.


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The Hill I Will Die On is a regular Junkee series in which we air our pettiest gripes. It should, of course, not be taken very seriously.

Ever since my editor started this column with his baffling, illogical view that glad wrap should be stored in the fridge, I’ve been struggling to consider which hill I would die on.

The hills that came to mind were simply too small. For example, my beliefs that Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again! is better than its prequel, or that Paddington 1 is superior to Paddington 2, while held close to my heart, don’t seem incendiary enough to cause murder. Maybe a knife fight, at best. A few surface wounds.

But then, as a tweet by ABC journalist Jennine Khalik slid onto my timeline, something cracked within my core — and the tectonic shift created no mere hill, but a mountain.

Here it is: I believe that salt and pepper should be sprinkled on top of a sandwich, rather than inside it. As Salt-N-Pepa put it so succinctly in ‘Push It’, “Get up on this” not ‘in’ this.

‘This Dance Ain’t For Everybody’

Last week, Khalik posted on her Twitter a photo of a disappointing toasted avocado and chicken sandwich she grabbed from a café. And while you might think the sandwich might have been ruined by the presence of heated avocado, she took umbrage at the sprinkle of salt and pepper on top of her lunch.

Now, I respect Khalik’s right to her own experience — and I’m not here to argue that this sandwich wasn’t disappointing. Food, like all things, must meet expectations, and they were not met in this case.

But I had a feeling Khalik’s idea of a ‘good sandwich’ — or even what a sandwich means, and what it offers — was fundamentally opposed from my own beliefs, so I asked her to provide a bit more context. After rinsing me for my “very wrong” opinion, she broke down why exactly it sucked so much.

First Things First

A logical debater, Khalik pointed out that we need a definition of what a sandwich is — a question which, like language and human experience, is an ongoing taxonomy. We agreed upon the old OED definition: “an item of food consisting of two pieces of bread with a filling between them”.

Notably, this throws out tartines and other open-faced sandwiches, which, of course, by nature have to have salt and pepper applied onto them. There is no in. But my argument doesn’t rely on pedantry. Anyway, let’s continue.

Based off that definition, Khalik argues it’s “reasonable to expect a sandwich to have all its fillings between two pieces of bread because, after all, it’s a sandwich. Salt and pepper are no exception to this. If I wanted to eat bread with toppings, I would have bought a slice of pizza, or an open-faced sandwich.”

Yep, exactly as I thought: we have completely different approaches to what salt and pepper offer. I would never classify either as a “filling” — they are seasonings. Additions.

And while you could argue sandwiches are simply a meal of additions (ham + cheese + bread), I’d point towards any number of sandwich recipes online.

Take Good Food‘s recipe for an Egg Mayo toastie: both seasonings feature in the photo (on top of the sandwich, no less), but do not feature as an ingredient. And the folks at Good Food‘s job is literally to consider the role of seasonings.

Admittedly, this is semantics. What really matters is taste and feel — the experience of the sandwich, not its ontology.

Easy Eating?

Khalik’s second point was one of practicality. Busy bringing us the news of the day, she bought the toastie in question to eat at her desk — but things went terribly wrong.

“With these rogue granules of salt and pepper colonising the top of my sandwich, I had to factor in gravity and hold the sandwich like a slice of pizza,” she said.

“I got salt on my fingers and it was gross and it inhibited productivity, and I needed napkin reinforcement and spent longer than usual washing my hands, so the environment suffered for this stupidity.”

Now, I can’t argue against environmental waste. That’s a real trump card. But I can argue about eating at your desk, an experience I’m well-versed in. And one with a long, rich history: in an interview with The New York Times, Bee Wilson, the author of Sandwich: A Global History, calls sandwiches “the food of workaholics: something you can eat, with a single hand, without ever quitting your desk.”

But just because something’s got a history doesn’t mean we shouldn’t question it. My argument? Eating at your desk sucks. Suuuuuucks. You concentrate on neither your food or your work, so you do a half-arsed job of both things. Everything’s disappointing in this light: nothing tastes good while you’re typing out breaking news.

Of course, that doesn’t address the mess factor. I get that sandwiches are supposed to be a utilitarian food, a meal that’s easy to eat as a snack.

But the best sandwiches aren’t easy to eat by nature. Cast your mind to a Club, the hunky, towering mess of a meal. Or, my favourite of all time, the 212 Toastie at Newtown’s 212 Blu: a spicy mixture of Sobrassada, tomato relish, Swiss and Béchamel cheeses, which, when toasted, turns into a chaotic, oozing delight.

Even if your sandwich isn’t quite as dramatic, a little sprinkle of S&P elevates it to an experience, a small theatrical flourish that invites the palate to salivate. Which is a line I’ve stolen from a particularly passionate manager of a café I worked at in my uni days.

The manager said it was so flavour pops from the first bite — and, if toasted, so the ground pepper and salt wouldn’t lose their texture from being crushed within the sandwich press — which admittedly only makes a little bit of sense. And maybe it’s just a little garnish to let it visually pop, justifying the $12-$16 price tags. But still, it stands!

In 2016, The Paris Review writer Louisa Thomas wrote about how much she loves making sandwiches, years after she did it for cash during her college days. She describes how she found a deep satisfaction from layering ingredients, doing so with an “unusual tenderness”, describing each sandwich as “a little present” from her to the eater.

Salt and pepper, then, is the bow on top.

The Price Of Salt

I might have to concede Khalik’s final point.

“Thirdly, I wanted the chicken and avocado salted. Not the bread. If you were to have smashed avocado on one piece of bread, for example – do you salt the bread first and then add the avocado? Of course not.”

“If you’re scooping up babaganoush with pita bread, and realise the eggplant dip needs a sodium kick, do you salt the pita first before scooping up that eggplant-y goodness? No way. If you do, you’re broken.”

Given that I just wrote near 1,200 words on salt and pepper, I’m okay with being a little broken.

Jared Richards is a staff writer at Junkee, and hopes you won’t yell at him.