Over a lifetime, sandwiches, like people, grow in complexity. At first they are plain, white, sugary things, smeared on one interior side with, say, vegemite, and on the other a layer of butter or, more likely, less flavoursome margarine. (When I was in primary school, my mother always rebuffed my occasional request for a jam sandwich, thinking it too sweet than was good for me – and yet how much sugar must that fluffy, whiter-than-white, eerily long-lasting bread must have contained!) As often as not, these vegemite sandwiches were filled out with a piece of cheese, and I can remember vividly the effect of a hot day on them. The cheese would sweat and wilt (much like us on our recess and lunch breaks, when we were allowed to go outside) and grow faintly translucent. Sometimes these sandwiches became inedible and sometimes, catastrophically, were forgotten about, and left to ferment at the bottom of schoolbags, only to give themselves away days later by their stench.
A friend’s mother gave me the first ‘proper’ sandwich I encountered – the first with any real pretensions to complexity – at around this time. The bread was – gasp! – brown, and – gasp! – inserted between was what seemed to me then an entire supermarket shelf’s worth of salad. I was horrified. Was I supposed to eat this? My friend’s parents were preternaturally thin as I recall, almost gaunt, and now at least I knew why. They were poisoning themselves. I did not finish more than a mouthful or two of the sandwich and, when nobody was looking, tossed the remnants into a kitchen bowl under the sink. This was never mentioned by my friend or his parents – I can only imagine what they thought when they found my half-eaten sandwich, and hope it was found quickly, sparing them the same fate that awaited me (or my mother, or one of my brothers) upon discovering one of those disremembered sandwiches in my schoolbag. Nobody should have to experience that (or, come to think of it, be subjected to such a rude rejection of hospitality).
I don’t know when all this changed, when a sandwich that contained something green was rendered edible by my shifting tastes. Oftentimes, I think these things are a matter of will rather than physiological maturation. I came round to wine at about the age of 16 or 17, for example, because I had acquired a taste for spirits by then, and figured that, while at home, I may as well avail myself of some of my parents’ supply of red wine. I may not have liked the taste at first, but it was the sensation – near enough to the buzz brought on by, usually then, vodka – that got me there. Maybe I managed to convince myself that brown bread was worth eating for its health benefits, or maybe I simply felt more grown up doing it. Equally plausibly, mum just started buying it – there must have been some kind of shift in the zeitgeist to end up where we are now, with nobody batting an eyelid at mixed seed sourdough, chia omega-3 wholemeal and all the rest – and I had to adjust. We’re having to adjust again, in a way. Books and articles scream at us to stop eating bread altogether, tell us it’s bloating us and giving us cramps and mood problems, that all those carbohydrates are weighing us down (and making us weigh more).
A loaf of white bread – and I mean white, Napisan white – made its way into our house recently. It was bought so that my partner could make a sandwich her mother – who was running a stall at a local market – could happily eat for her lunch. Next to the dark ryes we favour these days, the white bread looked alien, almost luminescent. I made toast from it, and one or two sandwiches, trying to will myself back twenty years so that I might enjoy it. The loaf lasted for weeks.