Making 300 sandwiches in exchange for marriage is sinister and degrading, not romantic

Marriage surely cannot be bought for the bargain price of 300 sandwiches, but a New York Post reporter is attempting to do just that. Sarah Ditum shares her recipe for true love (which oddly enough, isn't bread-based).

In this monstrous modern world, so many people have lost their respect for a sacred union. They think that the rites built up over many centuries, bonding disparate elements together in harmony, can be taken in vain. I am talking, of course, about Stephanie Smith, the New York Post reporter behind the blog 300 Sandwiches. What’s the significance of 300 sandwiches? That is the number of bread-with-filling based snacks her boyfriend has claimed as the price of matrimony. Or as Smith tells it in her coming-out article for the Post:

I assembled turkey and Swiss on toasted wheat bread. I spread Dijon mustard generously on both bread slices, and I made sure the lettuce was perfectly in line with the neatly stacked turkey slices… As he finished that last bite, he made an unexpected declaration of how much he loved me and that sandwich: ‘Honey, you’re 300 sandwiches away from an engagement ring!’

Smith tells the story as if it’s a cutesy-ootsy work of romance, but I think we can see it for the sinister act of degradation it is: how depraved, how vicious to reduce the noble sandwich to a bargaining chip for romantic fulfilment. The sandwich is a serious business. Your base must be good and carefully matched to chosen filling, the condiments not overpowering, the contents generous but not so incontinently lavish that they overspill their bready bounds.

Actually, having read Smith’s blog, I wonder if she even knows the meaning of “sandwich”, because a lot of what she’s produced just looks like “dinner on bread”, and that does not count. Look, I was as dazzled as anyone by the Scandinavian glamour of the Open Prawn Sandwich the first time my parents took my to Ikea, but I’ve grown up since then: if you can’t pick it up with both hands and bury your face up to the nose, then that is not a sandwich.

Sandwiches have rules. Compared to sandwiches, relationships are a piece of pastrami. Here is the recipe for true love: find someone you enjoy hanging out with and fancy, who enjoys hanging out with and fancies you; hang out, fancy each other; persist in this for as long as it is amiable or until one of you dies. (Serve with a coleslaw garnish.)

But in the same way a sandwich is not a quiche or a pizza or baked beans on toast, there are some things that marriage is not. It’s not a prize or a trophy. It’s not something you earn by submitting to the demands of your peckish partner, even if you are submitting whimsically through the medium of sandwiches and documenting the progress of your yeasty dowry with a nice DSLR.

A marriage isn’t a tender trap for cunning women to constrain idiot men in, either. “You women read all these magazines to get advice on how to keep a man, and it’s so easy,” Smith’s boyfriend advises. “We’re not complex. Just do something nice for us. Like make a sandwich.” What is he saying about his gender here? He makes men sound about as complex as worms, absorbing carbs and excreting affection. I don’t know, maybe men are like people or something. Maybe women are too! Maybe we’re all people! This is excitingly radical!

And not is marriage a compulsory waypost in the journey of womanhood. The author mentions that she upped her sandwich-making rate when she realised that, on her original schedule, “I wouldn’t be done till I was deep into my 30s. How would I finish 300 sandwiches in time for us to get engaged, married and have babies before I exited my childbearing years?” To which I’d say firstly, marriage isn’t even a compulsory prelude to children, never mind the engagement and the sandwiches. Secondly, your ovaries probably aren’t going stale as quickly as you think. And thirdly, come on, you call sandwiches “sammies”: I don’t think an excess of maturity is your biggest problem. Get married, don’t get married, but for the love of cobs, leave sandwiches out of it.

A Sandwich of Interest. Photo: Getty

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era