A couple of years ago, I saw a video featuring a British sandwich artist named Max Halley who refused to put cheese on any of his sandwiches. “No,” I mumbled, as I closed the tab and moved on with my life. “I am not engaging with this.”
But, two years later, I am ready to engage with this. Though I question — no, reject — Chef Halley’s practice of building his sandwiches on focaccia (the worst sandwich bread), he has a point about cheese. Cheese is too often a default sandwich ingredient, and it doesn’t always need to be there.
Cheese provides two things: fat and flavour, and a waxy piece of grocery store brand mild cheddar is not the best source of either, especially if you already have fatty, flavorful ingredients involved. Cheese can bring salt, umami, and — in the case of pepper-flecked cheeses — heat, but there are a lot of bland cheeses out there, and their presence can make your sandwich worse. Too much fat will mute your other flavours and textures, resulting in a dull, unbalanced sandwich.
A BBQ pork sandwich, for example, does not need cheese; cheese would only distract from and dull those smoky, rich flavours that took hours to develop in a smoker. A vegetarian sandwich, with avocado or hummus, does not need a slice of creamy cheese; a funky feta might create a nice contrast, but something like havarti will saturate your palate with fat. Putting cheese on a tomato sandwich — or a BLT for that matter — would be a big crime. (Summer tomatoes should not be forced to hide their light under the bushel of cheese.)
I am not asking you to eschew cheese entirely. Many great sandwiches have cheese — the cheesesteak, a tuna melt, bologna and American, the club, things of this nature. What I’m asking is for you to think about your cheese usage intentionally, not for any “health” related reason — I do not count calories — but for flavour.
Still not convinced? Let me tell you a little tale.
I will never forget the Christmas I broke my pinky finger on a Razor scooter. Santa had brought two of them — one for each of my twin sisters — and my dad and I decided to race in the church parking lot. I ate shit, broke my finger and banged up my head, and spent the rest of Christmas in the Amory, Miss. emergency room. The next day, as I was convalescing in the canopied bed in my grandmother’s guest room, my dad brought me a ham sandwich, made with the Christmas ham I missed out on the day before.
It was a simple sandwich made of lightly toasted white bread, chopped ham, mayo, and finely diced homemade pickles. “No cheese?” I thought, as I looked at the sandwich, but then I took a bite. It was one of the best ham sandwiches I had ever had. The ham was salty, the mayo creamy, the pickles sweet and sour — it was a perfectly balanced bite, and cheese would have wrecked it.
I’ll never adopt Chef Halley’s “no cheese on any sandwich ever” way of thinking, but I do think a lot of people could stand to be a little more thoughtful with their sandwich cheese. A good sandwich is all about balance, and cheese can tip the scale if you’re not careful.