The Ham Sandwich Theory

Let me start by telling two stories about ham sandwiches.

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Story #1

When I was 15 or 16, we took a family vacation to an all-inclusive resort in Cuba. The weather was warm, the water was turquoise blue and the beach was sandy white. But, as many of you can probably relate, the food was sub-par. When you first arrive, the buffet-style spread looks very promising. Different meats, different salads, dudes in chef hats ready to carve you up some meat or whip you up an omelette, etc.

But looks can be deceiving. At one point, I remember thinking, “If I had to bet $5 on what type of meat I’m eating right now, I’m not even sure I’d do it.” This is not a good sign. Anyway, the disappointing food inevitably led to some upset stomachs. But it also encouraged me to find a safe, reliable food that I knew wouldn’t cause any digestion problems. So I started making ham and cheese sandwiches. Fancy? No. Satisfying? Yes. Safe? Extremely.

Story #2

I have a friend and we’ll often bring our own food when we go somewhere, whether it be a day of snowboarding, a hike, or something else. My friend is the type who really seems to savor the simpler things in life, like snowshoeing or taking his dog for a walk.

As for food, he’s the same way. He also happens to be from France. One common misconception about French food is that’s it’s overly complicated but, as far as I can tell, the opposite is true. It uses a minimal number of ingredients but it always uses the right ingredients prepared in the right ways.

And the past couple of times, guess what food we brought along? Yup, ham sandwiches. I’ve become used to hitting up Subway and loading up sandwiches with everything under the sun. May as well get my quota of vegetable in one fell swoop, am I right? But my friends’ ham sandwiches always consist of four ingredients: baguette, butter, ham, and tomatoes. That’s it! And if the ingredients are fresh, it’s one of the most satisfying things one could eat.

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So if I were to boil down my theory to one single sentence, it would go something like this: Despite all of the choices we’re faced with in life (whether it be what foods we eat, what TV shows or movies we watch, what books or websites we read), sometimes, all you want is a ham sandwich. You can’t eat a sophisticated prix-fixe meal three times a day. You just can’t. Even with loads of exciting options for food in Toronto (e.g. Japanese Izakaya, fresh and exciting tacos, ramen noodles, Korean BBQ, charcuterie, etc.), sometimes, all you want to do is shut off your brain and eat a ham sandwich.

The Carbonara Udon at Guu Sakabar is delicious but you probably wouldn’t want to eat it every day.

For example, I really enjoy Homeland. It’s exciting, fast-paced, keeps you on the edge of your seat. It has great acting, solid writing, and no shortage of twists, turns, and cliffhangers. The plot is easy to follow and overall, it’s a wholly satisfying way to spend your time.

That being said, it doesn’t have the same aesthetic qualities and complex levels of character development as Breaking Bad. It hasn’t created a rich tapestry of worlds, families, friends and foes, sex and violence like Game of Thrones. It doesn’t delve into the psychology of its characters quite like The Sopranos. And it doesn’t present an uber-realistic ecosystem of drug dealers and those who chase them like The Wire.

In a word, it feels less smart. You sort of realize this as you’re watching but you just don’t care. It’s undoubtedly great and, as soon I finish an episode, I can’t wait to watch the next one. Isn’t that the ultimate sign of a great TV show? Those other shows are sashimi and oysters. Homeland is a ham sandwich, totally satisfying in its relative simplicity.

Such a great show. As for my favourite character, it's a toss up between Brody (R) and Saul (L).

Such a great show. As for my favourite character, it’s a toss up between Brody (R) and Saul (L).

In much the same way, I’m currently finishing the third and final installment of the Millennium series, written by Stieg Larsson. Perhaps you may better know this trilogy as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest. Let me tell you, slowly chipping away at these books for the past few years has been a treat. I’m within about a hundred pages from the end of the last one and I can’t wait to see what happens. To me, Lisbeth Salander is one of the most interesting, complex, and divisive characters ever created. One second, she annoys the hell out of you and you want her to fail. The next, you’re fiercely rooting for her. I mean, who wouldn’t pull for an incredibly gifted computer hacker who’s been a victim her whole life who can throw down with the best of them?

In short, these are some great reads. Much like The Da Vinci Code or the Harry Potter series (other strong ham sandwich contenders), they draw you in and make it very hard for you to put the book down.

Now, when I’m reading these books, I realize that I’m not reading Hemingway or Steinbeck, Dickens or Tolstoy. These authors are the literature equivalents of The Wire and Breaking Bad. They are the caviars and the escargots of the world of literature. But again, sometimes, all you want is an easy-to-digest piece of entertainment that will be a gratifying experience for you in the end. Sometimes, all you want is a ham sandwich.

Lisbeth Salander: One of the greatest fictional characters ever created.

Lisbeth Salander: One of the greatest fictional characters ever created.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously. Much like a professor of Philosophy might unwind with the latest issue of People Magazine, sometimes it’s nice to digest something that will satisfy you yet not make you work so hard, think so hard. I spend enough time thinking at my job.

The important thing, as with life in general, is to seek a good balance, and to not forget about the simpler things. Don’t only watch Homeland. Don’t only read books that have sold millions and millions of copies. But don’t ignore them either. Because sometimes, the best things in life are simple, much like a baguette filled with ham, butter and sliced tomatoes.

Coming up next: my all-time favourite ham sandwich TV shows and movies. Spoiler alert: Entourage is currently the clear-cut favourite and may not be threatened.

I think I miss these guys.

I think I miss these guys.

If you have any of your own examples, feel free to leave them in the comments.

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1 Comment

Filed under Entertainment

One response to “The Ham Sandwich Theory

  1. Corentin

    Nice theory, could be apply on anything of everyday life. Mat sandwiches…

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