My grandmother had a phrase for the sandwiches she ate during her childhood in Holland. She called them “contentment sandwiches”: a slice of bread with a thin layer of cheap margarine. She grew up in a large family, and this was the meal they had for breakfast and supper from Monday to Saturday. On Sundays, they sprinkled coarse white sugar on top as a special treat. Only when someone had earned some extra money or had accomplished something at school would they splurge and buy 50 grams of cheese to share.
My mother told me about the “sliding cheese sandwiches” that she ate growing up. The children received a slice of cheese to go on their first slice of bread, but after that it would only be margarine. Her sisters and she liked having cheese so much that they found a way to savour it. They put it on their sandwich to look at it, then they slid the cheese off and ate the bread plain. Their next slice of bread they did the same thing. When they knew it was their last piece of bread for that meal, then they ate the cheese and bread together.
When I was a child, a variety of toppings filled the table. My parents were not stingy, but there was a limit to how thickly we spread our peanut butter or how many pieces of cheese belonged to one slice of bread.
More recently, I was at a submarine shop and the employee was piling on all the layers of cheese, lettuce, tomato and meat. I was overwhelmed by the amount of toppings as I saw him grab another pile of meat slices to load on, and I asked him to stop. “That’s enough meat,” I said.
Sandwiches are just one way to track the abundance that has come over a few generations, but what has happened to contentedness?