Microwaves, sandwich presses and kettles—along with the occasional fan and foot spa—are among the most commonly discarded electrical items that turn up in my random but regular observations of kerbside waste in Randwick, a suburb in Eastern Sydney. During a workshop with our Repair and Design research group, I had the occasion to choose one of these products—the sandwich press—and ponder why it existed and speculate about what might be done to reduce the number that are going to landfill.
Sandwich presses exist in kitchens largely for the purpose of melting cheese between bread. They are one in a host of single-purpose electronics that clutter the cupboards and bench tops of kitchens in wealthy western democracies. Breville are the design icons of this product typology, their 1974 Snack’n’Sandwich Toaster became synonymous with the toasted sandwich. According to the Australian Food History Timeline, it was “snapped up by 10 per cent of Australian households in its first year on the market”. (In a classic story of getting the timing right [or wrong], apparently Thomas Edison invented a sandwich press in the 1920s, but it was discontinued in 1930.)
If we want to reduce the number of sandwich presses going to landfill, then it is essential to understand the sensory experience of melted cheese.
Notions such as the ‘fetish’ are often lazily and unhelpfully used to understand human investment in sensory and hedonic experiences. British literary scholar Steven Connor offers a welcome alternative with his concept of ‘senstance’, which I’ve written about in a number of academic articles that examine the relationship between food and the senses. According to Connor, a senstance is “a sensation made substantial, a substance so closely twinned with a sensation as to have become cosubstantial with it”. Like sexual perversions or fetishes—think latex, leather, honey, etc. and their relationship with the sensory medium of skin—senstances are intensely specific. Connor uses the example of ‘sliminess’ or visqueux, a repulsive senstance made famous by Jean Paul Sartre, who suggested embodied, human experience was to some extent exemplified by recoiling from sliminess or stickiness. Connor also lists “the brittle, the tenuous, the cool, the granular, the smooth, the matted” as ready-to-hand examples of senstances, a list to which I would like to presently add ‘the melty’.
Cooking allows us to experience substances as material transformations. Through the application of heat, hard cheese becomes soft, hot and melty. Spreading pre-melted cheese on bread wouldn’t be the same—though I suspect, based on the continuing nostalgic appeal of Cotties Ice Magic, if there was a way for spreadable melty cheese to immediately become hot on application, then it might be a winner.
Making a sandwich in a sandwich press is among the most rudimentary ways to enjoy the sensory delight that comes from quasi-choate substances such as melted cheese. Fluffy bread becomes crisp and crusty, hard cheese becomes hot and gooey. We perhaps taste the difference all the more readily when we are the agents helping trigger the material transformations through cooking.
Designing out the sandwich press
In our workshop, I started speculating about an alternative future where there were no sandwich presses going to landfill. One of the ways to reach such a future might be through designing sandwich presses that are easier to repair. Most sandwich presses don’t give the impression they can be opened up and pulled apart. The impression they give is of a complete, inviolable object, not a composite of modular parts that can be replaced or repaired. Perhaps if the screws were larger, or if the inside was visible, then people would be more likely to see if a part can be replaced, rather than throwing out the whole sandwich press? Maybe if repair shops were easier to access people would be more inclined to get their broken sandwich presses repaired rather than throwing them out?
These are all valid speculative propositions that warrant further exploration. However, I decided to focus on what it would take to prevent people thinking they needed to buy a sandwich press in the first place. My idea: a cooking show (which might include a youtube channel, a blog and a cookbook) and line of cooking products that encourage adaptive kitchen practices—in particular, I was thinking of a sandwich weight, similar to a fish weight, made from a sculpted limestone rock, although people could just use a stone mortar (I’m not sure how serious I am with sandwich weight idea, but it might be a good media piece).
A cursory internet search unearthed plenty of toasted sandwich connoisseurship. Many of the recipes suggest using a frying pan. The key disadvantage of the frying pan: unlike the sandwich press, there isn’t simultaneous heat from the top and the bottom (but just flip the sandwich over you lazy bugger). If you got a few celebrity chefs with decent profiles spruikng the advantages of the frying pan method and the sandwich weight product, then surely that would go some way to reducing the amount of resources that are wasted for the purpose of eating melted cheese?
(Hypothetical next steps: 1. an experiment with a cohort of sandwich press users to explore what happens when they change toastie making practices and adopt the frying pan method; 2. An analysis of operational energy to see whether the frying pan method actually saves energy in comparison to the sandwich press)