The unthinkable has happened: British people have stopped buying sandwiches. Sandwich sales fell by nearly £1.3bn in lockdown, compared with the same period last year, according to analysts Kantar.
Admittedly, the sandwich is not a perfect pandemic food; to satisfactorily eat one you must repeatedly suck on your own fingers. But the sandwich is a national habit so ingrained, and so compulsive, it is a wonder coronavirus could break it. In a normal year we eat about 11.5bn sandwiches. That’s about 200 each per year, per adult. As the food writer Bee Wilson wrote in her 2010 book on the subject, the sandwich is less a meal than a “way of life”.
The death of the sandwich is the death of a particular way of thinking about lunch, and about time. Born in Marks & Spencer in the spring of 1980 – 43p, salmon and cucumber – the invention of the chilled packaged sandwich spoke to a new sort of working culture, one where it was no longer necessary to stop working to eat. As Jim Winship, the president of the British Sandwich Association told this newspaper in 2017, the sandwich produces billions of pounds of added productivity throughout the economy by “allowing people to work through lunch”.
But the way I eat sandwiches – breathlessly, without really chewing – no longer makes any sense to me. Like most office workers in the UK, I don’t work in an office any more. I’m not doing anything very important. I’m now not sure that I ever was. There is no one to perform my busyness to.
If the sandwich is a way of life, it is an interestingly selfish one. You eat a sandwich alone, at your desk, using only one hand. The other hand is free to stroke your phone. Whereas most food is communal, “the sandwich frees you from the social, it is almost designed to allow you to be on your own,” Polly Russell, the food historian, told me.
Despite being done in plain sight, the gobbling of a sandwich is a strangely private thing – one friend describes the experience of being eyed too closely by his boss while arranging his sandwich (egg mayonnaise, with McCoy’s crisps slipped in) as a kind of affront: “It was like being caught with my pants down.”
There’s also a sense – illusory or otherwise – in which the very act of choosing a sandwich is an assertion of personality. In any given supermarket, there are upwards of 50 different flavours. “Choice is bound up with the idea of individual freedom and autonomy,” says Russell. “A sort of ability to be a fully modern person.” Stripped, for months, of the capacity to legally socialise, the idea of eating alone has rather lost its shine. What people want from food, in the context of coronavirus, is not privacy – it’s intimacy.
Another of the sandwich’s great virtues – that it can be eaten, according to industry estimates, in less than 3.5 minutes – is no longer a draw. The sandwich is suited to an economy where time is at a premium. Rather than cook, explains Russell, you would buy a sandwich to “buy time”. But with 9.6 million people still on furlough, and 49% working from home, our whole relationship with time and money has changed. “A lot of people – although not key workers of course – have suddenly found themselves with a lot of time on their hands.” Freed, for the moment, from the confines of the 9-to-5, we are able to reconsider how many hours we allot to leisure. Time is suddenly worth less, so we can afford to spend more of it eating.
Many tradespeople, healthcare and public transport workers have never been able to work remotely – and significantly, they’re still buying sandwiches. “The people with the luxury of being able to work from home are typically higher paid,” says Patrick Coveney, the chief executive of Greencore, who supply two-thirds of all supermarket sandwiches in the UK. Since coronavirus, Greencore’s average customer is poorer, and more likely to live outside of a big city. The company’s response, according to Coveney, has been to stop making anything too niche and to double down on the icons. The sandwich aisle tells the story of who has been permitted to rest and who has had to work through this pandemic. You can read it in the ingredients: more ham and cheese; less gluten-free.
It is one of the curiosities of the business that while there are an almost infinite number of things you can put between two slices of bread, the top sellers remain predictably constant. Greencore’s top five sandwiches – ham and cheese, chicken and bacon, chicken caesar wrap, BLT, chicken salad – haven’t changed in a decade. I have eaten a Tesco tuna and cucumber sandwich four times a week for the past three years. We might think we have choices, that our sandwich selection reflects our power to shape the course of our days, but industry analysis suggests that most people eat the same sandwich, week in week out, for the whole of their lives.
My mother talks about Pret’s cheese and pickle like it’s a reprieve. “I can’t see anything else while I’m eating. It’s like putting on a hood.” The sandwich is a reliable 3.5 minutes of pleasure in the middle of an often pleasureless routine. But we have broken routines now – time is weighted differently – and we are tentatively renegotiating the relationship between working and eating.
Coronavirus has given some of us the opportunity to experience lunch as something other than a consolation. We are thinking again about the value of pleasure. And wondering if we would like to experience it for more than 3.5 minutes.
• Kitty Drake is a writer and editor based in London