When is a sandwich not a sandwich? Sometimes, when it’s a croque monsieur.

I was surprised to see a croque monsieur on the menu at an Aldergrove bistro. We were there after Sunday Mass, and while others chose from the breakfast menu, I was looking for something unusual off the lunch menu, to celebrate the sixth day of Christmas.

So I ordered the croque monsieur, which is French for “Mister Crunch” or “Mr. Bite.” It’s France’s famous version of a ham and cheese sandwich. The ham is boiled, but the sandwich itself can be fried in a pan or baked in an oven. Of course, the bread is covered in butter, and the cheese is usually Gruyère (which is good for melting).

Just as every restaurant in Italy has its own variation on that delectable dessert tiramisu, so too there are infinite variations on the comfort food croque monsieur. Usually it comes with Béchamel sauce, but you can imagine how many different ways this sandwich could be realized.

The menu said the version I had ordered was to come with a Mornay sauce, which is simply a Béchamel sauce with the Gruyère cheese added. As I waited for it, I imagined myself holding the sandwich in my hands and biting into it: “Mr. Bite.”

But when it arrived, I saw that the bread and meat was completely submerged in the Mornay sauce. Even the plate was too hot to the touch, so there was no option but to use a knife and fork to extract pieces from the massive pool of cheese.

When is a sandwich no longer a sandwich? 

So this got me thinking, when is a sandwich no longer a sandwich? When you cannot hold it in your hands and bite into it?

The handheld aspect seems to be essential to a sandwich, though of course there are other handheld foods (like ice cream cones) that are not sandwiches.

But if you have something handheld that encloses ingredients within bread or bread-like handles, then that seems to me to be the essence of sandwich. (Thus, ice cream sandwiches do exist.)

A funny Internet cartoon shows famous 20th-century philosophers arguing about the essence of a sandwich. The punch line arrives when Wittgenstein declares that, because he is not handed a hot dog when he asks for a sandwich, a hot dog is not a sandwich.

There are no essences, implies Wittgenstein, but only successful or unsuccessful social acts. We play language games, in which only certain words succeed in obtaining certain foods.

This is a popular and influential view. Namely, things do not have essences or natures in themselves. Rather, all meaning is socially constructed and stipulated by the generation of a successful performance. (“Will you hand me that sandwich?”)

Things don’t have meaning simply because meaning is stipulated. 

But this view is an illogical, circular argument. Things don’t have meaning simply because meaning is stipulated. Essences are not merely socially constructed.

Rather, we act precisely in order to discover essences, or to confirm our existing understanding of them. What philosophy should do is to try and bring an explicit, non-contradictory knowledge of essences into our consciousness.

Just because we have puzzling examples of things that don’t fit the usual definitions does not mean there is no such thing as an essence. It only means that acquiring clearly organized knowledge of essences is very difficult.

So, when is a sandwich not a sandwich? Whenever enough social contexts accumulate to allow us to stipulate, by repeated communal action, whether or not something is a sandwich?

The essence of sandwich is knowable. It was still a sandwich.

Not at all. The essence of sandwich is knowable. The croque monsieur I ate on the sixth day of Christmas may have been a particularly hot and cheesy variation, but it was still a sandwich.

Because it was topped with so much cheese, it may have been on the verge of turning from a sandwich into a soup. But there was still a recognizable bread enclosure for the ham.

And it was still potentially a handheld food, at least if I waited for the cheese to cool down enough, and didn’t mind wielding the bread through all that goo.

But any good sandwich makes it easy for you to hold its main ingredients by the bread handles in your hands. Burgers and hot dogs are thus famous variations on the idea of a sandwich.

So why then do we not usually think of them in a social context as sandwiches? Maybe we haven’t considered the true definition of sandwich.

Moreover, any successful comfort food is eventually considered to be sui generis: socially, it becomes treated in a class all its own, since it becomes popular through infinite variations on one delicious theme — like the croque monsieur.