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.

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle