Talk of the Quad: Sandwich City
Copenhagen cold, I called it. The kind of cold that, despite the thermometer reading a balmy 40, felt as raw and as blistering as the dead of winter. The jam-packed excursions of my semester abroad program were over, but I still had three weeks to sit in my dismal pre-war suburban dorm room and finish what I came to Denmark (at least partially) to do: study. I grew melancholy from the Nordic chill and craved the warmth of home.
Growing up in a family that plans Thursday dinner during Tuesday lunch, it was no surprise that I immediately turned to the satisfaction of a good meal to cheer myself up. I powered on my laptop, began to research menus for cafés in central Copenhagen and, after incorrectly translating “goat cheese” to “sheep curd” 15 times, found my first destination: Ibsen & Co., a hipster coffee and sandwich shop in a trendy section of the city.
Trust me, this first culinary expedition was nowhere near as smooth as the hummus lining of the sandwich I ultimately enjoyed. Starting the day at the bus stop I thought was the correct one, I proceeded to trudge through the Copenhagen cold for about 40 minutes in the wrong direction before eventually stumbling into some very confused Danish bakers. After approximately two hours of travel, I finally ordered my lunch and collapsed into the oversized pale blue wooden chair. When I finally bit into the much-anticipated crust, I could taste not only the pride from my excursion, but also the reassuring comfort of home.
With momentum from my recent quest, I perused the local neighborhood. I peeked in stores and markets and noted places I wanted to return. I tasted chocolate samples (lots of chocolate samples) and watched children walking home from school. Strangely enough, this stroll gave me, someone who hates roller coasters and scary movies, an adrenaline rush I’d never felt before. It kept me on my toes. It required me to take risks. And yet, it reminded me of my family, six hours behind, likely just beginning the search for a perfect Saturday lunch spot. The balance of risk and comfort was animating, and I loved it.
For the rest of that semester, whenever I had a free afternoon, I would scour the Internet for a new destination. With each excursion, I grew more comfortable with public transit, more familiar with Nordic food and more confident in my somewhat aimless tours of the Danish capital. I learned the joy of discovering a city, and discovering myself, one sandwich at a time.
Ironically, it wasn’t until sitting in Panera upon returning to Boston that I decided to transform my sandwich-trekking hobby into something more. After discussing my semester abroad with an old friend, he suggested I write a blog. Although I stubbornly said I wouldn’t have enough time, in a few days the first posts of Sandwich City were complete. Since then, my spontaneous European pick-me-ups have transported me to nearby yet unfamiliar neighborhoods, have introduced me to businesses that use food as a vehicle for social change and have taught me to be more self-reliant and curious about the world around me.
My culinary interests crossed into my academic life this past fall when I embarked on a year-long honors project studying Portland’s restaurant industry. To me, connecting theories of social movement and urban development seemed like the prototypical sociology study, and I spent the summer excitedly preparing some preliminary research.
However, within the first few days of the semester, my proposal was rejected. Thesis status in the department required that the paper adhere to strict Academy guidelines, and because my topic lacked a specific academic framework, it was considered “not sociological enough” to ride the honors track. I was frustrated by the decision, and over the next few months worked tirelessly to prove that my proposal, if adapted slightly, could be valid and relevant for advanced study. While I was given a second chance in January, I soon came to realize that in order to ensure my honors status, I would likely end up having to change my focus completely.
With the first draft looming in March, I sat conflicted about how to proceed. I loved flipping through the Press Herald and interviewing the owners of Duckfat and The Holy Donut, but felt as if the hamster wheel of restrictions were forcing me away from what the Academy deemed merely an amateur restaurant review. Nevertheless, as someone who religiously adheres to rules and strives for high distinctions, the thought of abandoning the honors track I’d fought so hard to pursue seemed both intimidating and cowardly.
I began to think critically about my project’s original goals. I wanted to use the skills from my Bowdoin education to examine a topic that made me feel a part of the world around me. I wanted to motivate restaurateurs to unleash the power of food to inspire community and personal exploration. Did fulfilling these goals really require a formal stamp of approval?
With a gradual revelation that my work was inherently mine, I came to realize that my personal interests were meaningful even if they weren’t conventional by traditional academic standards. Whatever emerged from the crusty loaf of that first Ibsen & Co. sandwich could be relevant as long as it was important to me. I felt free to continue with my project in a direction that I wanted, and I retook ownership of my work.
Just before spring break, I chose to abandon the honors track and continue my project as an independent study. Since then, I’ve conducted five more interviews, written two chapters and am searching for magazines to publish my piece. I continue to blog, dragging friends and family along when I want to try a new place. And every once in a while, I go alone, experiencing once again the smell of the food and adrenaline of the city that first pulled me in.
(To visit my blog, please visit https://sandwichcity.wordpress.com.)
Emily Snider is a member of the Class of 2016.