25 Things Turning 25 This Year

Getty Images/Wikimedia Commons

If 2015 marks your quarter-century of life, you're in great company. Humans in 1990 saw their place in the cosmos, along with some of the best cultural moments of a decade that would see the dot-com boom, the rise of Generation X, and so much more. Here are 25 things turning 25 in 2015. (And in case you missed it, we also have 30 Things Turning 30 in 2015!)

1. Pale Blue Dot (Photograph)

By Voyager 1 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Voyager 1 was launched in 1977 to take photos of Jupiter, Saturn, and their moons. By 1980, the spacecraft had completed its initial mission and was on its way to interstellar space. Carl Sagan requested one last photo of Earth that year, but the idea was panned by some at NASA for fear that it might damage Voyager 1's cameras to take a photo facing the Sun. It wasn't for another decade that NASA took the 60 frames that compose the Family Portrait, one of which features Earth as a partial-pixel blue dot. The images were collected on Valentine's Day 1990, and transmitted back to Earth between March and May of the same year. In the same way the Blue Marble photograph gave humanity a new way to think about our planet (as seen from the moon), Pale Blue Dot gave us a sense of the vastness of space.

In 1994, Sagan would use the title for his book, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. A passage from his audio narration of the book (read shortly before he died) eventually led to many internet video mashups, like this one from Michael Marantz:


2. Hubble Space Telescope

On April 24, 1990, Space Shuttle Discovery mission STS-31 launched the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit. The telescope had been planned for a much earlier launch, but the Challenger disaster of 1986 had derailed it (along with many other NASA projects). Shortly after the telescope came online, it became clear that there was a tiny (but serious) flaw in the primary mirror used to collect images. In December 1993, a service mission installed COSTAR, which was sort of like a set of corrective lenses to fix the problem.

Named for astronomer Edwin Hubble, the Hubble Space Telescope has taken huge numbers of photographs (currently downlinking over 120 GB of data each week), much of it available via HubbleSite or the rather more technical Hubble Legacy Archive. There were some remarkable new images released for the 25th anniversary.


3. The Biggest Art Theft in History

"The Concert," Johannes Vermeer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A little after midnight on March 18, 1990, two men dressed as police officers removed 13 works of art from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. The theft included major works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Degas, and Manet, as well as an ancient Chinese vessel. In total, the heist was worth more than $500 million (leading some to estimate this as the largest single private property theft in history). The pieces have not been recovered, and the theft appears in lots of TV shows, including an episode of Drunk History. (We also wrote a story about it.)


4. WHO Stops Treating Homosexuality as a Disease

On May 17, 1990, the World Health Organization removed "homosexuality" from its International Classification of Diseases. This was a milestone in the slow change toward public acceptance of homosexuality (and ultimately other variants of LGBTQ identifications). The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex Association (ILGA) later declared May 17 The International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.


5. Twin Peaks

April 8, 1990 is seared into TV viewers' memories as the day Twin Peaks debuted, with its damn fine coffee, brilliant music, and surreal genre-twisting magic. Simply the fact that a David Lynch/Mark Frost-produced show was broadcast on a major network (ABC) was one thing; the reality that is was so weird and good was enough to generate a cult following. The series is so beloved that it's coming back in 2016, inspired by a line uttered by Laura Palmer during the series: "I'll see you again in 25 years."


6. Nickelodeon Studios and Universal Studios Florida

By Mikerajchel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

On the other end of the TV-quality spectrum, Nickelodeon Studios debuted in June 1990 as a combination TV studio-slash-amusement park, all contained within Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida. Oh yeah, that reminds me—Universal Studios Florida opened the same day. Here's a video from the Back to the Future ride (now closed), showing, among other things, a journey to 2015. (The actual ride experience starts around 2:20.)

Two years after opening, Nickelodeon Studios buried a very-'90s time capsule. Due to the closure of the studio, the time capsule has been relocated to Nickelodeon Suites Resort in Orlando, with plans to open it in 2042. We will bring you live coverage when that happens.


7. The First HDTV Broadcast

In Europe, HDTV became a thing years before it reached the U.S. (and for the record, Japan was way ahead of everybody else—but their early broadcasts tended to be more experimental). Italian broadcaster RAI brought HDTV to Europe with the FIFA World Cup in 1990. Matches were shown in movie theaters due to the technology required, and after a few more years of experimentation, HDTV broadcasting in Europe was dropped until 2004.

Incidentally, West Germany won the World Cup on July 8, 1990. Which leads us to....


8. The Reunification of Germany

By Thomas Wolf, (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Although Germans tend to call the event die Wende (translation: "the turn"), most of the rest of us remember 1990's merger of West Germany and East Germany as "the reunification of Germany." After the Berlin Wall began to fall in 1989, the two Germanys found plenty of reasons to merge (not least the collapse of East Germany's economy). Throughout the year, efforts were made to unify the countries, including their currencies, culminating in a treaty signed on August 31, 1990 and fully enacted on October 3, 1990. One bummer resulting from this process: only one German team could compete in the next FIFA World Cup in 1994. The German team in 1994 was knocked out by Bulgaria in the Quarter-finals.


9. Nelson Mandela Released from Prison

South Africa The Good News / [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Nelson Mandela spent 27 years imprisoned by the apartheid government of South Africa; he was released in 1990 and became the first democratically-elected President of South Africa in 1994 after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize (with F.W. de Klerk) in 1993. A lifelong opponent of apartheid, Mandela achieved tremendous success after an incredible period of time as a political prisoner.


10. The First Web Page

Awkwardly modern screenshot by Chris Higgins

Tim Berners-Lee wrote a proposal for what would become the World Wide Web in 1989, but had to build a lot of tools and protocols in order to make it go. By Christmas 1990, all of the initial tools were in place, and he proceeded to write the first Web page, describing the World Wide Web itself.

The original copy is now lost—Web archives weren't really a thing before there was a Web—but in 2013, the earliest known copy of that page (dating to 1992) was discovered on a floppy disk and put back online. You can visit that page, though you should keep in mind that it's not quite the first. But close. Note: it's from a time before the Web had cool stuff like images.


11. Sue, the Best T. rex Fossil

By Connie Ma from Chicago, United States of America [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Sue is now a fossil, but quite a while back she was a living, breathing Tyrannosaurus rex. What makes her remarkable is that she's the largest, most complete T. rex fossil we have, and she was unearthed in 1990.

Sue's discovery was the result of an amazing accident. The fossil was discovered (and named for) Sue Hendrickson, who was working with a team of researchers in the badlands of South Dakota. They were leaving their site one day when a flat tire disabled their vehicle. Hendrickson proceeded to explore the area and noticed some interesting bones—which turned out to be Sue.

It took two and a half years to assemble Sue, who stands 13 feet tall and is 41 feet long. Her teeth are as long as human forearms. You can see her at The Field Museum.


12. The Game Genie

By Evan-Amos (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Nintendo gamers remember 1990 as the year the Game Genie, a system for "enhancing" (also called "cheating") in home video games, was released. It initially shipped only in Canada due to a legal battle, but quickly came to the United States.

The Game Genie was a weird device; users had to cram it into their Nintendos (and later other systems), then place the game cartridge into a slot within the Genie. Upon startup, the user could then input a series of letters (a "code") that would change gameplay—offering extra lives, invulnerability, special weapons, or other changes. These codes modified the game code at runtime, so they were akin to simply changing some counter (like "How many lives remain") to a new number. Often, codes could be discovered at random, through a laborious process of trial and error, and new codes are still being discovered today.

For more on the Game Genie, see my overly-detailed 2012 article How Did the Game Genie Work?


13. Super Mario Bros. 3

Released in the U.S. on February 12, 1990 (though Japanese fans got it way back in 1988!), Super Mario Bros. 3 was the culmination of what was technically possible on the Nintendo Entertainment System. After the smash hit Super Mario Bros. (bundled with the NES) and the slightly confusing Super Mario Bros. 2, SMB 3 was universally praised as a terrific game, and it sold phenomenally well—about $1.7 billion in today's dollars.

SMB 3 was featured in the movie The Wizard, and it is technically possible to complete the game in three minutes (using serious trickery).


14. The (Amended) Clean Air Act

In 1989, President Bush proposed major changes to the Clean Air Act, which had first been passed way back in 1970. The changes, enacted in 1990, had to do with acid rain, ozone depletion, air quality (smog) in cities, and regulations on gasoline formulations. Some of these changes were spurred by the recent discovery of a hole in the ozone layer and international plans to deal with it.


15. Todd McFarlane's Spider-Man

Spider-Man #1 (cropped cover).

In 1990, after working on Amazing Spider-Man for dozens of issues, Todd McFarlane was sick of drawing stories written by other people. He told his boss he wanted to quit illustrating Amazing Spider-Man, so he could pursue other projects. In a surprise move, McFarlane's boss offered him a brand new comic book, entitled simply Spider-Man, which McFarlane proceeded to write and illustrate (at least its first 14 issues). The "Torment" story arc was a smash hit, and was part of a revitalization of the comics industry in the '90s.

McFarlane's experience with Spider-Man would lead to the creation of Image Comics, publishing excellent titles like Spawn.


16. Home Alone, and a ton of other awesome movies

Tons of instant classics came out in 1990, including:


Dances with Wolves

Dick Tracy

Edward Scissorhands



Home Alone

The Hunt for Red October



Pretty Woman


17. The First McDonald's in Moscow

On the morning of January 31, 1990, the first McDonald's in Moscow opened its doors. The line to get in was insane (see video above), with more than 5000 people waiting for Big Macs. That day, the restaurant served over 30,000 patrons, setting a sales record (this was made possible by virtue of the restaurant being positively huge—there were 700 seats available opening day). Throughout 1990, more locations opened in Eastern Europe. The following year, the Soviet Union was dissolved. Coincidence?


18. Jurassic Park

Jurassic Park novel (cropped cover).

Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park was a standout book of 1990, at least for me. But the same year, James Ellroy's L.A. Confidential came out, along with Elmore Leonard's Get Shorty, and Robert Ludlum's The Bourne Ultimatum. Notice a theme? They were all adapted into movies.

On the nonfiction side, Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine published Last Chance to See. Eleven years after its publication, Adams gave a beautiful lecture about the book, just days before he died.


19. In Living Color

In Living Color was a sketch comedy show on Fox featuring the Wayans family, plus a bunch of comedians who would go on to become famous: Jim Carrey, Jamie Foxx, Tommy Davidson, and David Alan Grier, among others. It also featured "The Fly Girls," a dance troupe choreographed by Rosie Perez and including Jennifer Lopez (!). The show was a huge deal for a few years, then fizzled out in 1994. Here's an example of Jim Carrey in an early role as Fire Marshall Bill:

Bonus: Some other shows debuting in 1990 (aside from the previously mentioned Twin Peaks) included TaleSpin, Wings and Northern Exposure. Some lists include The Simpsons as starting in 1990, but its first episode (a Christmas special) aired in 1989.


20. Jennifer Lawrence, and a bunch of other awesome people

By Kurt Kulac (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Jennifer Lawrence was just one awesome person who was born in 1990. Here's a list of notables:

Liam Hemsworth, January 13

Kristen Stewart, April 9

Emma Watson, April 15

Dev Patel, April 23

Princess Eugenie of York, March 23

Chris Colfer, May 27

Iggy Azalea, June 7

Margot Robbie, July 2

Rafael and Fabio da Silva, July 9

Damian Lillard, July 15

Soulja Boy, July 28

Jonathan Lipnicki, October 22

Rita Ora, November 26

Chanel Iman, December 1


21. Jamba Juice

Jamba Juice launched in San Luis Obispo, California in April of 1990. From humble beginnings, the franchise now has over 800 locations, which eventually led to my favorite David Letterman gag of all time: "How Many Guys in Spider-Man Suits Can Fit Into Jamba Juice?"

Bonus: Other brands launched in 1990 include The California Wine Club, Lucky Brand Jeans, and Roxy.


22. Martha Stewart Living Magazine

Martha Stewart Living started its print run in 1990 with a winter preview/test issue. The next year it was picked up as a quarterly magazine, which was, followed in 1993 by the TV show of the same name. Focused on Martha Stewart's skill in the "domestic arts," MSL became a hit, and started publishing monthly. The Martha Stewart Omnimedia empire today is a bit more diverse, with various TV shows, home products, books, and more.

Bonus: Entertainment Weekly and Nickelodeon Magazine (the latter initially distributed at Pizza Hut locations) also launched in 1990.


23. Pearl Jam

By "Lugnuts" (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Pearl Jam officially formed in 1990, after the death of Andrew Wood, singer in the band Mother Love Bone. In Pearl Jam's first gigs, the band was known as Mookie Blaylock (yes, after the basketball player), but renamed themselves late in the year when they signed a record contract. The next year they would record Ten, which just happened to be Mookie Blaylock's jersey number.

Bonus: Other bands formed in 1990: Ace of Base, Blessid Union of Souls, Blind Melon, Brooks & Dunn, Kris Kross, The Prodigy, Tool, and The Brian Setzer Orchestra.

Extra Bonus: 1990 is when news broke that Milli Vanilli didn't actually sing their hit songs, and lip-synched them when performed live. Their Best New Artist Grammy was taken back when the scandal broke.


24. Sid Meier's Railroad Tycoon

The video game Sid Meier's Railroad Tycoon was released for DOS in 1990 (you can now download it for free), ushering in an empire of Sid Meier simulation games. In the game, the player acts as (surprise!) a railroad owner who manages railroads and trains, acting as a sort of SimCity for railroads. The game was a huge hit, and led to a series of similar simulation games, the most famous probably being Sid Meier's Civilization.

Bonus: Other notable games released in 1990 include Dr. Mario, Mega Man 3, Super Mario World, King's Quest V, Commander Keen: Invasion of the Vorticons Episode 1, and the first Final Fantasy game for the NES in America.


25. The Chunnel Breakthrough

By Mortadelo2005 (Image:Course Channeltunnel en.png, by Weyoune) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

The Channel Tunnel (or "Chunnel") was a project two centuries in the making. From its first proposal in 1802, the idea was to tunnel under the English Channel, connecting England and France. Work didn't begin until 1987, when the UK began boring of the tunnel (the French started early the next year).

On December 1, 1990, the two ends met as workers broke through a final piece of rock, and British and French tunnelers shook hands through the opening (video, sadly, not embeddable). Although the tunnel wouldn't open formally until 1994, this breakthrough marked the first time the Chunnel was a reality, 188 years after the idea was first floated.

Kerry Hayes, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures
10 Monster Facts About Pacific Rim
Kerry Hayes, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures
Kerry Hayes, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures

Legendary Pictures took a gamble on Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro’s 2013 monster/robot slugfest. Since it wasn’t based on a preexisting franchise, it lacked a built-in fanbase. That can be a serious drawback in our current age of blockbuster remakes and reboots. The movie underperformed domestically; in America, it grossed just over $100 million against its $180 million budget. Yet Pacific Rim was a huge hit overseas and acquired enough fans to earn itself a sequel, Pacific Rim Uprising, which arrives in theaters this week. Here are 10 things you might not have known about the movie that started it all.


Idris Elba in 'Pacific Rim' (2013)
Warner Bros.

One foggy day in 2007, Beacham—who’d recently moved to California—was walking along Santa Monica Beach. As he looked out at the Ferris wheel on the city’s eponymous pier, he pictured a looming sea monster. Then he imagined an equally large robot gearing up to fight the beast. “They just sort of materialized out of the fog, these vast godlike things,” Beacham said. He decided to pursue the concept further after coming up with the idea of human co-pilots who’d need to operate their robot as a team, which added a new thematic dimension.

“I didn’t know I had something I wanted to write until I realized these robots are driven by two pilots, and what happens when one of those people dies? What happens to the leftovers? Then it became a story about loss, moving on after loss, and dealing with survivor’s guilt," Beacham said. "That made the monsters scarier because now you care about the people who are in these robots.”


Pacific Rim was picked up by Legendary Pictures and handed over to director Guillermo del Toro. A huge fan of monster cinema, del Toro enthusiastically co-wrote the final screenplay with Beacham. Sixteen concept artists were hired to sketch original robot and creature designs for the film. “We would get together every day like kids and draw all day,” del Toro told the New York Daily News. “We designed about a hundred Kaijus and about a hundred Jaegers and every week we would do an American Idol and we would vote [some of] them out.”


In “Charlie Kelly: King of the Rats,” the tenth episode of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia's sixth season, Charlie Day’s character gives us a darkly comedic monologue about rodent extermination. Little did the actor know that the performance would open a big opportunity for him. Impressed by the rat speech, del Toro offered Day the part of Dr. Newton Geizler, Pacific Rim’s socially-inept kaiju expert. “He said to himself, ‘That’s my guy. That guy should be in my next movie because if he killed rats, he can kill the monster,’” Day recalled during an appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. On the movie set, del Toro often joked about how much he enjoys It’s Always Sunny. As a way of repaying his director, Day helped get del Toro a minor role in the series.


Most of the film’s special effects were computer-generated, but not everything was digital. For the robot cockpit scenes, del Toro had his team build the interior of a full-scale Jaeger head. The finished product stood four stories tall and weighed 20 tons. And like a Tilt-A-Whirl from hell, it was designed to rock around violently on its platform via a network of hydraulics. Once inside, the actors were forced to don 40-pound suits of armor. Then the crew strapped their feet into an apparatus that Charlie Hunnam has compared to a high-resistance elliptical machine.

Certain shots also required del Toro to dump gallons of water all over his exhausted, physically-strained stars. So yeah, the experience wasn’t much fun. “We saw every one of the actors break down on that set except for the female lead actress Rinko Kikuchi," del Toro said. "She’s the only actor that didn’t snap."


Del Toro wanted Gipsy Danger, his ‘bot, to have the self-confident air of a wild west gunslinger. To that end, he and concept artist Oscar Chichoni developed a swaggering gait that was based on John Wayne’s signature hip movements. The Jaeger’s Art Deco-like design was influenced by the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings.


Hailed as the “fortieth greatest guitarist of all time” by Rolling Stone, Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello rocked the MTV generation with hits like “Bulls on Parade” and “Killing in the Name.” Pacific Rim bears his mark as well. The film’s lead composer was Ramin Djawadi, whose other works include the Game of Thrones theme. Wanting to add a “rock element” to the Pacific Rim soundtrack, he and del Toro reached out to Morello. The guitarist didn’t need much persuading.

“When they asked me to put some giant robot riffs and screaming underwater monster licks on the film score, I was all in,” Morello said. Djwadi was pleased with the rocker's contributions to the project. As he told the press: “Tom’s unique style and sounds really defined our robots.”


A definite highlight of this movie is Gipsy Danger’s duel with the winged kaiju Otachi in downtown Hong Kong. Both characters were computer-generated, as were the majority of the streets, cars, and towers in this epic sequence. However, there is one moment which was at least partly realized with practical effects. Gipsy punches through the wall of an office building early in the fight. We see her fist rip through a series of cubicles and gradually decelerate until it lightly taps a chair with just enough force to set off a Newton’s Cradle desktop toy. For that shot, effects artists at 32Ten Studios constructed a miniature office building interior featuring 1/4-scale desks, cubicles, and padded chairs. The level of detail here was amazing: 32Ten’s staff adorned each individual workspace with lamps, computers, wastebaskets, and teeny, tiny Post-it notes.


Rinko Kikuchi in 'Pacific Rim' (2013)
Kerry Hayes, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures

Audiences reacted strongly to Kikuchi’s character Mako Mori, who inspired an alternative to the famous Bechdel test. Some critics praised the culmination of her relationship with Raleigh Beckett (Hunnam). Although it’s common practice for the male and female leads in an action flick to end their movie with a smooch, Mori and Beckett share a platonic hug as Pacific Rim draws to a close. Del Toro revealed that he shot three different versions of that final scene. “We did one version where they kiss and it almost felt weird. They’re good friends, they’re pals, good colleagues,” del Toro said.


At the end of the credits, there’s a tribute that reads: “This film is dedicated to the memories of monster masters Ray Harryhausen and Ishiro Honda.” Harryhausen passed away on May 7, 2013—two months before Pacific Rim’s release. A great stop-motion animator, he breathed life into such creatures as the towering Rhedosaurus in 1953’s The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms.

Ishiro Honda was another giant of the kaiju genre, having directed Rodan, War of the Gargantuas, and numerous Godzilla films. Del Toro has great respect for both men. When Harryhausen died, the director said, “I lost a member of my family today, a man who was as present in my childhood as any of my relatives.” He also adores the Japanese monster classics and says he’d love to see a Pacific Rim-Godzilla crossover someday. Maybe it’ll happen.


If you’re not familiar with the practice of “Sweding,” let us fill you in: The 2008 comedy Be Kind, Rewind is about two co-workers at a VHS rental store who accidentally erase every tape in stock. Hoping to save their skins, they create ultra low-budget remakes of all the films they’ve destroyed using cardboard sets and cheap costumes. It’s a process these guys call “Sweding” as a ploy to convince everyone that their (unintentionally hilarious) knockoffs were produced in Sweden. Since Be Kind, Rewind was released, Sweding has become a legitimate art form.

When Pacific Rim’s first trailer debuted in 2013, YouTubers Brian Harley and Brodie Mash created a shot-for-shot, Sweded duplicate of the preview. Instead of state-of-the-art CG effects, their version used toy helicopters, duct-tape monster masks, and an ocean of packing peanuts—and del Toro loved it. At WonderCon 2013, he praised the video, saying that it inspired the editing used in Pacific Rim’s third trailer. Harley and Mash happened to be at the same gathering. When del Toro met the comedic duo, he exclaimed “I loved it! My daughters loved it, we watched it a bunch of times!” Then he invited the Sweding duo to attend Pacific Rim’s premiere in Hollywood.

5 Ways to Define a Sandwich, According to the Law

It’s easy to say what a sandwich is. Grilled cheese? Definitely a sandwich. Bacon, lettuce, and tomato? There’s no question. Things start to get messy when you specify what a sandwich isn’t. Is a hot dog a sandwich? What about a burrito, or an open-faced turkey melt?

The question of sandwich-hood sounds like something a monk might ponder on a mountaintop. But the answer has real-world implications. On several occasions, governments have ruled on the food industry’s right to use the delectable label. Now, Ruth Bader Ginsburg—pop culture icon, scrunchie connoisseur, and Supreme Court Justice—has weighed in on the matter.

When pressed on the hot-button issue as to whether a hot dog is a sandwich while appearing on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Ginsburg proved her extreme judiciousness by throwing the question back at Colbert and asking for his definition of sandwich before making a ruling. Her summation? A hot dog fits Colbert's definition of a sandwich, and therefore can be considered one.

While RBG's ruling may not be an official one, it matches Merriam-Webster's bold declaration that a hot dog is a sandwich (even if the Hot Dog Council disagrees). Officially, here’s where the law stands on the great sandwich debate.


Hot dogs are often snagged in the center of the sandwich semantics drama. Despite fitting the description of a food product served on a bread-like product, many sandwich purists insist that hot dogs deserve their own category. California joins Merriam-Webster in declaring that a hot dog is a sandwich nonetheless. The bold word choice appears in the state’s tax law, which mentions “hot dog and hamburger sandwiches” served from “sandwich stands or booths.” Applying the sandwich label to burgers is less controversial, but it’s still worth debating.


When Qdoba threatened to encroach on the territory of a Panera Bread in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, the owners of the bakery franchise fought back. They claimed the Mexican chain’s arrival would violate their lease agreement with the White City Shopping Center—specifically the clause that prohibits the strip mall from renting to other sandwich restaurants. “We were surprised at the suit because we think it’s common sense that a burrito is not a sandwich,” Jeff Ackerman, owner of the Qdoba franchise group, told The Boston Globe.

The Worcester County Superior Court agreed. When the issue went before the court in 2006, Cambridge chef and food writer Christopher Schlesinger testified against Panera [PDF], saying, “I know of no chef or culinary historian who would call a burrito a sandwich. Indeed, the notion would be absurd to any credible chef or culinary historian.”

Justice Jeffrey A. Locke ruled that Qdoba would be allowed to move into the shopping center citing an entry in Merriam-Webster as the most damning evidence against Panera’s case. “The New Webster Third International Dictionary describes a ‘sandwich’ as ‘two thin pieces of bread, usually buttered, with a thin layer (as of meat, cheese, or savory mixture) spread between them,’” he said. “Under this definition and as dictated by common sense, this court finds that the term ‘sandwich’ is not commonly understood to include burritos, tacos, and quesadillas.”


If you want to know the definition of a certain dish, the officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture are good people to ask. It’s their job to make sure that the nation’s supply of meat is correctly labeled. When it comes to sandwiches, the agency follows strict criteria. “A sandwich is a meat or poultry filling between two slices of bread, a bun, or a biscuit,” Mark Wheeler, who works in food and safety at the USDA, told NPR. His definition comes from the Food Standards and Labeling Policy Book used by the department (the USDA only covers the “labeling of meat, poultry, and egg products,” while the FDA handles everything else, which is why the USDA's definition excludes things like grilled cheese). Not included under their umbrella of foodstuff served between bread are burritos, wraps, and hot dogs.


The USDA’s definition may not be as simple and elegant as it seems. A sandwich is one thing, but a “sandwich-like product” is different territory. The same labeling policy book Mark Wheeler referred to when describing a sandwich lumps burritos into this vague category. Fajitas “may also be” a sandwich-like product, as long as the strips of meat in question come bundled in a tortilla. Another section of the book lists hot dogs and hamburgers as examples of sandwich-type products when laying out inspection policies for pre-packaged dinners. So is there an example of a meat-wrapped-in-carb dish that doesn’t belong to the sandwich family? Apparently strombolis are where the USDA draws the line. The Food Standards and Labeling Policy Book clearly states the product “is not considered a traditional sandwich” [PDF].


When it comes to sandwiches, New York doesn’t discriminate. In a bulletin outlining the state’s tax policy, a description of what constitutes a sandwich warrants its own subhead. The article reads:

“Sandwiches include cold and hot sandwiches of every kind that are prepared and ready to be eaten, whether made on bread, on bagels, on rolls, in pitas, in wraps, or otherwise, and regardless of the filling or number of layers. A sandwich can be as simple as a buttered bagel or roll, or as elaborate as a six-foot, toasted submarine sandwich.”

It then moves on to examples of taxable sandwiches. The list includes items widely-believed to bear the label, like Reubens, paninis, club sandwiches, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Other entries, like burritos, gyros, open-faced sandwiches, and hot dogs, may cause confusion among diners.


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