Eat Your Fancy Sandwich

It’s obvious that David Brooks really struck a nerve with his most recent op-ed regarding […]

It’s obvious that David Brooks really struck a nerve with his most recent op-ed regarding sandwiches. I mean, as a huge fan of sandwiches, I understand. There’s nothing better than a great sandwich—I’m eating a chicken salad sandwich right now. And while I wouldn’t fight for much, there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for a nice chipotle mayo or garlic aioli.

Brooks’ sandwich illustration, if you haven’t read it, is a picture of a wider problem, though. He’s talking about classism, the widening gap in the middle class between those who can afford the best for their progeny and those who get left behind. He references a new book by Richard Reeves about “dream hoarders,” those in the upper-middle who want the best for the kids and, with the benefit of their status, are able to rig the system in their favor. But what Brooks really wants to point out, as he explains in the latter half of the op-ed, is that the rift is deeper than city planning and structural discrimination; it’s written into all the informal ways we relate to one another. Hence, the sandwich shop:

Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.

Twitter was alit with snide jabs about Brooks’ little story of the “illegible” codes of the upper crust. Is Italian salami code for the opportunity class? One tweet spoofed the story, describing a friend who didn’t know what “ham” meant on the menu at Blimpie, so in lieu of a sandwich, he picked up a can of dog food for him. CNBC argued Brooks is embodying the problem he is diagnosing. Smug, paternalistic, and condescending.

Which, at least if I’m reading the same op-ed, is exactly what Brooks is pointing out. That he is a part of the aspirational class. The sandwich shop was a recognition of an invisible code he had previously been blind to. He is made aware of a shield of “rarefied knowledge” that he was unwittingly carrying around. Who hasn’t, to some degree, shared the same experience, on either side of that equation? Where a gift you gave is misconstrued or ill-conceived? Or when you are confronted by a inner-ring you didn’t know existed, because you were never invited? Perhaps because we are so allergic to the rhetoric of condescension, Brooks’ confession instead came across as a brag.

Alan Jacobs makes the point that the jokes about the sandwich story are, in reality, an easy distraction from the unsettling truth of what Brooks is saying: that society is built upon insiders and outsiders, and that we want to be insiders with those most like us. In short, that you are a snob, even about things you cannot quite see.

Brooks writes, “Status rules are partly about collusion, about attracting educated people to your circle, tightening the bonds between you and erecting shields against everybody else.” This is true, and true in very important ways; and the intuition that such rules are always in play can make people uneasy or angry when they think such rules are being enforced against them. If you can’t acknowledge this you’re just being willfully blind.

Both Brooks and Jacobs move the diagnosis from the political-social into the heart of the singular human being. Yes, classism happens when school districting policies are drawn up; but the real payoff is the classist in you. This is what Freud meant by the “narcissism of small differences.” I will always be looking for ways to distinguish myself (or my tribe) from the others. Even with the people I most closely resemble, I want to be “in the know” where they are “out.” This is as true for city planning as it is for close friends. This is Brooks:

To feel at home in opportunity-rich areas, you’ve got to understand the right barre techniques, sport the right baby carrier, have the right podcast, food truck, tea, wine and Pilates tastes, not to mention possess the right attitudes about David Foster Wallace, child-rearing, gender norms and intersectionality.

My only disagreement with Brooks’ article (besides the fact that, if I’m going sandwich, Italian sandwiches are not my choice), would be the contemporary flair he uses to describe it. He argues that these “intricate nets” of insider language and cultural indicators are changing the way the middle class operates. He argues that, of course, in America’s earlier decades, there were elites, there were insider clubs and schools of distinction—but nowadays, elitism is the lingua franca, even for the middle class.

I would say, instead, it’s always been this way. We have always used “status codes.” And if you take a biblical reading of humankind seriously, there never was a middle-class “common man.” They’re all kings or servants, winners or losers, favored or rejected, Pharisee or Publican. The story of human history, as told by the Bible, is one of fancy sandwich shops, of the human propensity for status (read: righteousness) and exclusion.

The Bible proffers the Law, the status code of all status codes, the ultimate rubric of “in” and “out,” and the most invisible, as it pierces the human heart. And yet, while we may find ourselves allergic to the language of condescension today, of insiders initiating the outsiders, it is the essence of Christianity. It’s offensive, but it’s true. Because the Bible’s denouement (and our only hope) is the coming of Christ’s Kingdom, the ultimate condescension, where all distinctions, major and minor, are turned inside-out. Privilege will have no impact on admission rates and hot soppressata will rain down on the just and unjust alike.


4 responses to “Eat Your Fancy Sandwich”

  1. Bryan J. says:

    Big, fat bingo from DB on this one. Take it out of sandwiches and apply it to, say, craft beer? Ooof. One piece that might be worth exploring one day is the same exclusivity from the opposite direction too. The things that happen during an election cycle, where hoidy-toidy politicians eat hodogs and drink miller to be “one of the guys,” trying to buy their way into the working class? Anywho, the well is deep here. Thanks E!

  2. Ken says:

    I’m with Brooks, but the Twitter critics sure were funny.

  3. Ginger says:

    Thank you, I agree. And for what it’s worth. Not all legacies get accepted, even under the most curated of circumstances. I heard that from a friend. 😉 God is still on His throne, and He still turns the head of the kings, and the admissions officers.

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