Part of the joy of sandwiches is their ability to be used as a metaphor for just about everything. Mathematicians Arthur H. Stone and John Tukey (whose name looks an awful lot like “turkey,” which in itself is kind of fitting) devised a theorem to demonstrate how objects can be evenly bisected to create equal pieces along a certain plane, and they used a ham and cheese sandwich as the key visual example. Teachers use it to demonstrate how to diagram sentences. And if you type in “how love is like a sandwich,” you will be hit with a veritable Golden Corral buffet line of mixed results.
In England, one sandwich-related term has spread to the entire world as a marker for larger struggles of class, demographic and fandom within the Beautiful Game. After a quiet home victory in 2000, Roy Keane, the former oft-outspoken captain of Manchester United, turned the sandwich into an emblem of the worst aspects of casual fandom, declaring the home crowd at United’s Old Trafford ground to be the type to “have a few drinks and probably the prawn sandwiches, and they don’t realize what’s going on out on the pitch.” Since then, the term “prawn sandwich brigade” or “prawn sandwich eaters” has been used to deride the shift towards casual and more family/sterilized soccer fandom that’s less about the game and more about entertainment. This remark was revisited in the 2009 film The Damned United, with manager Brian Clough railing against club directors who sat in the plush corporate seats, again an attack on this perceived football bourgeoisie. The term has since permeated the sport the world over, but what does it actually connote? Let’s break it down.
The prawn sandwich itself is a simple affair: cold shrimp, mayonnaise or Marie-Rose sauce (if you’re fancy, huh) and bread, usually a soft wheat. Maybe lettuce. They’re chewy and go down quickly and, depending on the supermarket where you get it from, sometimes come with far too much mayonnaise, which is never a good time. The tastiest ones have an orange-pink tint from the sauce and a subtle but wonderful sweetness.
The use of “brigade” is semantically of note here—in many English contexts, and particularly British English—“brigade” has come to be a dismissive collective term for a group with which the speaker or writer is at odds or finds ridiculous. The “Green Welly Brigade” comes from similar roots as its shrimp-snarfing counterpart—per the trusty consultation of the good crowd-sourced collective at UrbanDictionary.com, the term refers to members of the middle class who participate in countryside pursuits such as riding, fox hunting, shooting skeet, etc,” while rocking the Downtonesque riding boots and jackets. At any rate, “brigade” implies an “us and them” mentality.
The English relationship with sandwiches is key here as well. They invented the sandwich, or at least the way we know it, and lead the world in its consumption at nearly eleven billion per year. They have as many words for “sandwich” as Carrie Bradshaw has episode-framing questions: barm (cake), bap, butty, sarnie, probably some obscure slang frequently unheard to the average expat. There are regional differences and subtleties to each of these words, as with the grinder/hero/sub/po’boy distinctions across America. The words are musical, almost like scatting, as opposed to the subtle growl of “grinder.” Sandwiches are the fuel on which this country thrives, as Bill Bryson probably wrote some time or another. They’re in the workplace, the shop, at home, at the bar, in their own fluorescent section of every food purveyor, vacuum-packed triangles stood, uniformly, waiting for mouths. Generally speaking, they know no regional biases nor cultural, professional or socioeconomic.
But there is, perhaps, a bit of ingredient bias. Sandwiches are the everyfood, but there must be a specific reason why Keane chose prawn. In a 2006 article about ticket price increases at Old Trafford, Andy Hunter makes a reference to the fans “who prefer prawn to bacon in their sandwiches.” Prawn will run you a bit more at the shop, as seafood tends to be more expensive anyway, so there’s a bit of a socioeconomic charge there, and possibly a gendering of sandwich ingredients as well: real men who are there to watch the match get the bacon butty; poncey out-of-towners get the prawn. This is not a game for the delicate, the casual. I imagine it derives from the same roots as “arugula”1 becoming an insulting buzzword directed at the liberal elite, which is a shame, because although arugula is delicious and great for you and easy to grow at home, it’s also super expensive and indicative of a larger systematic food access problem occurring worldwide. But that’s neither here nor there.2
The ire in Keane’s comments was somewhat understandable. The raucous, impassioned and more populist world of the sport with which he grew up has become the refuge of casual fans looking for a day out and a way to drop way too much disposable income. The prawn-bacon sandwich dichotomy illustrates something the sporting world—not just soccer, and not just in England, and not just in 2000—has served as metaphor for a while: the benefits and drawbacks of gentrification in cities all over. Stadiums have changed the face of neighborhoods (Wrigleyville in Chicago remains the gold standard example); corporate sponsorship and development has changed the face of stadiums. There are matters of class and gender and cultural perception constantly at play. And like geometric theorems, you can investigate them through sandwich ingredients.
1 It’s also worth noting that arugula is known as “rocket” in the UK (from the French “roquette”), and I wonder if people with anti-elitist attitudes about food, and in particular, growing their own food, would be more inclined to eat it if we called it rocket over here, too. Because there’s something kind of awesome about the notion of a “rocket salad.”
2 For what it’s worth, the Red Café, the comfortable-looking match-package stadium club at Old Trafford, doesn’t appear to have prawn sandwiches on the menu, although you can get a club sandwich for £8.50.