If you’ve ever traveled to parts of Western Europe on a tight budget, then chances are you’ve been introduced to those plastic-wrapped, unassuming sandwiches at grocery stores like Carrefour and Tesco. They usually boast just a few ingredients sandwiched between two thin slices of sandwich bread or a pita-like square, if you’re lucky. Some come with only cheese, others feature meat and many options even offer a smattering of veggies that offer little crisp or crunch but do introduce a much-appreciated addition of freshness.
The first time I tried one of these sandwiches, I purchased it not from a grocery store but from a vending machine at a sweltering hot train station where I sweated with ten of my college classmates as we began our journey from Rome to Sorrento. I was 19, I was “studying” abroad and I was trying to save my limited euros for cheap beer, limoncello and Powerade (don’t ask) to swig on the beach as I crisped under the hot sun and flirted with local Italian boys.
Because I have an adventurous spirit and crave danger, against my better instincts, I opted for the tuna salad, figuring there was a 50/50 chance that I would spend my first night in Sorrento with my head stuck in a toilet. To my surprise, the sandwich was actually decent—certainly not what I would describe as gourmet but definitely better than what I’d ever found in a vending machine in the U.S. I ate it hurriedly as we awaited the approach of the train, which we’d soon find out was standing room only. That little sandwich sustained me as I precariously balanced on my suitcase and fought a relentless hangover as the train zipped toward the coast.
Did I have better food than that little packaged sandwich during that trip? Of course. But there’s something about them—their tidiness, cut diagonally just like mom used to do, ready to grab and eat at any time—that has earned them a special place in my heart. They’re not perfect, but compared to the ready-to-eat sandwiches you’ll find in U.S. grocery stores, they’re fantastic, and they’re usually a lot cheaper too. This summer, I paid €1.39 for a tuna sandwich (yes, I still have my preferences) in Paris, a city famed for its expensiveness.
On the other hand, a ready-to-eat sandwich at my local grocery store in Boston is around $4. And those are sandwiches with far too much bread, barely any meat and usually no sauce of any sort to be found. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a shriveled, wilted piece of lettuce clinging to your slice of American cheese, but that’s usually a stretch. Worst of all, these American sandwiches remind me of cheap Subway knockoffs, not of the ham and cheese sandwiches my mom used to lovingly prepare and pack in my lunch box in elementary school as do Europe’s packaged sandwiches.
It’s such a quick and convenient lunch option, and so enjoyable when you consider the price, that I can’t fathom why the U.S. hasn’t yet picked up on this trend. The United States, famous for its obsession with convenience and cheap, mass-produced food, has missed out on the ultimate cheap, mass-produced meal option. We instead cling to our microwavable meals, precarious, unwieldy and unwilling to be transported as they are, and balk in the face of better, more sensible and more accessible options.
Europe obviously isn’t perfect, but if there’s one thing we should learn from them, it’s how to properly stock a grocery store’s ready-to-eat section. In the face of a new era of stagflation, it’s time we rise up and demand our $2 tuna salad sandwich once and for all.