TikTok, better known for brief videos featuring users dancing along to pop songs or lip-syncing scenes from movies, has in the past year or two become a popular platform for “foodfluencers,” people making what are essentially brief food prep videos with their own signature stylistic quirks. Thousands, even millions of people are endlessly watching these videos. It’s not hard to see why: the videos are appealing yet brief, with just enough description to hook a viewer but not enough content to bog down the short attention span of the average scroller (myself included).
There’s @foodiechina888 (639,000 followers) and his recognizable catch phrases (“Done and dusted. Out of this world!”) adding flair to his concise recipe descriptions. @The_PastaQueen (2.3 million followers) posts videos festooned with bright colors and elegant platings, narrated in her charming Italian accent. @flakysalt (6.3 million followers) combines delicious-looking food with a lighthearted sense of humor and plenty of culinary knowhow.
Why call out their follower counts? Spend a little time on TikTok and you’ll start to think of the creators there in terms of their mastery of the algorithm. Followers and view counts are the indicators of success.
There are just so many of these food influencers on TikTok. The app is literally teeming with them. And still, there are uncountable hordes of lesser-known accounts out there, grinding out cooking videos that get a few hundred or thousand views but never quite capture that elusive spark of sustained attention that TikTok creators are looking for. There is some singular combination of timing and zeitgeist and the eldritch mathematical workings of TikTok’s inscrutable algorithm wherein the unknowable whims of the masses are modeled, analyzed, given computational form—and perhaps actively steered. It happens every day, seemingly at random, and yet unlike lightning, sometimes it does strike the same place, or person, twice.
It happened to Gray Fultz of Richmond, Virginia… sort of.
“It’s sandwich time, bitches!”: The rise of the grinder salad
She didn’t know it at the time, but with those words, Gray, who goes by @ohheyimgray on TikTok (21,800 followers), launched a sandwich sensation on TikTok that, two months and millions of views later, would result in my sister insisting that I eat her version of the “grinder salad sandwich” during a recent visit to my hometown.
The affectionate use of “bitches” is a familiarity that Gray allows herself frequently when addressing her audience, both on her TikTok (where she posts mostly cooking videos she makes with her boyfriend, Josh, former owner of Richmond, Virginia restaurant Pops) and on her podcast, where the subjects are more wide-ranging.
In late March, she posted a sandwich video (801,000 views) that kicked off with “It’s sandwich time, bitches!” and what followed was two minutes and 17 seconds of culinary chaos. The video features the voice of Gray, the hand of Josh, and a kind of Sandwich Madness.
What she and Josh build in the above video is not necessarily surprising, at least not to anyone who has experienced a grinder-style sandwich before, and certainly not a revolutionary combination of ingredients nor a specific example of a particular sandwich archetype. Rather, it was a monument to excess, the kind of sandwich that I imagine the Taco Bell R&D department might come up with if you locked them in a deli for a weekend.
Starting with a semicircle of focaccia split in half and toasted, the sandwich is assembled from 21 ingredients in all: 6 meats, 3 cheeses (including multiple layers of Parmesan), tomatoes, and a “Grinder Salad” composed of iceberg lettuce and onion with freshly made dressing. According to Gray, this “Italian grinder” is one of her all-time favorites.
“Put the grinder salad on ANY SANDO to make it amazing,” she advised.
The many, many ways to make a grinder salad sandwich
TikTok viewers took her literally, it seems. A few days after she posted the video, a TikTok creator called @cookiterica (1.8 million followers) made a video (1.2 million views) featuring her own, more streamlined version of the sandwich, mostly concentrating on the salad portion. Within a couple days, she had posted more followup videos, including a more detailed recipe tutorial (4 million views) for the sandwich. This version of the sandwich used a soft Country French loaf from Costco, with part of the crumb scooped out; provolone and Muenster cheeses; ham and Genoa salami; seasoned tomatoes; and the Grinder Salad that’s the star of the show.
After that, it was out of anybody’s hands:
- User @alinaprokuda (2.1 million followers) made a version (8.4 million views) using 4 kinds of cheese and 3 kinds of meat, hurling the ingredients angrily at the bread in a style frequently seen on TikTok.
- User @lorimonigold (281,000 followers) made hers low-carb (38,500 views) with provolone, pepperoni, and the grinder salad wrapped in ham.
- User @desparatelyseekingseitan (49,800 followers) made a vegan version (65,000 views).
- User @thesprinklefactory (196,900 followers) made a grinder salad hot dog (19,800 views).
The flurry of grinder salad videos took the sandwich creators of TikTok by surprise. A niche interest—SandwichTok, as they call it—has only a few established accounts, none of them with the clout that the big food influencers have.
Barry from the @sandwichesofhistory account (279,000 followers) recalls being tagged on quite a few videos about the sandwich, but hasn’t tried it yet; I suppose it needs a few years on it before it’s on his radar as “history.”
Jon, the beloved @sandwichdad of TikTok (176,900 followers), recalls learning about it weeks after the fact and being a bit miffed about missing it. “How could a viral sandwich on TikTok get past a very-on-TikTok sandwich guy?” he mused.
The current all-star player of Sandwich TikTok, @adventuresinaardia (674,800 followers), uses dice and written result tables, D&D-style, to randomly generate himself a sandwich for lunch every day. It is unlikely his method will spontaneously generate the grinder salad any time soon.
Meanwhile, the sandwich’s popularity has continued to spread. Dozens, hundreds of variations on the sandwich have been posted since Gray’s original video. Gray herself has gained quite a few followers since then, and her video has been seen by hundreds of thousands of TikTok users, but she hasn’t quite hit the pinnacles of attention that some of the derivative content has.
The hashtag #grindersalad–which Gray notably did not use on her original video–has over 44 million views, #grindersandwich has 28.8 million, and #grinder has nearly 900 million. (The latter is, however, less specific than the others, combining sandwich content with an odd kind of hardware fetishism.)
And that’s fine. That’s all fine. As Gray said, you can apply the grinder salad to any sandwich, with apparently delicious results, or at least compelling ones. Make it the way you like it! Use a baguette or a ciabatta, a torpedo roll or a batard! Use ham and salami, or capocollo and prosciutto and pepperoni, or whatever combination of deli meats you want! Use Muenster or Gruyere or Emmental or Gouda or any combination of the innumerable cheeses that grace this planet! My sister’s version used sweet Italian bread, salami, honey ham, smoked turkey, cheddar, provolone, and Muenster, and it was delicious. Delicious!
None of these people are approaching the topic with any real rigor, though, no attention to detail. I want the real grinder salad experience. I want a sandwich to make me question my own reality. Turkey and Swiss? on an Italian grinder? I want to taste the chaos! I want to dip my ridged potato chip into the grinder salad of madness, drink the Diet Coke of Doom, and live to tell the tale. I want Sandwich Time, Bitches, and I want it now.
Grinder Salad Sandwich à la Gray Fultz
Courtesy of Gray Fultz and Josh Wright, as interpreted by Jim Behymer
- Course: Main Course
- Cuisine: Aggressively American
- Servings: 4 sandwich wedges
- 1/2 round focaccia, 10" diameter
- 4 slices cheddar cheese
- 4 slices Swiss cheese
- 4 thin slices deli turkey, folded
- 3 slices deli ham, folded
- 4 thin slices sopressata
- 5 thin slices capocollo
- 4 thin slices prosciutto
- 10 slices pepperoni
- plenty of freshly shredded parmesan cheese
- 3 cloves garlic
- 1/2 cup Duke’s mayonnaise
- 2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
- 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
- 1 tsp. freshly cracked black pepper
- 1 tsp. oregano
- 1 tsp. red pepper flakes
- 1/4 cup sliced pepperoncini, drained
- 1/4 red onion, sliced thin
- 1 head iceberg lettuce sliced to roughly 1/4" thickness
- 1-2 tomatoes sliced to roughly 3/8" thickness
- extra virgin olive oil
- additional salt and pepper, to taste
First, if you haven’t purchased one at the store, make a whole damn focaccia in a 10" cast iron pan. The recipe requires a half focaccia, and you can’t have a half focaccia without first having a whole focaccia. That’s just science. (Here’s a focaccia recipe you can use; just skip the tomatoes.)
Slice one half of the focaccia horizontally (like a hamburger bun) so that there is a top half and a bottom half. Arrange them so that the cut sides are facing up. During the complicated instructions ahead, we will refer to these as “top bread” and “bottom bread,” respectively.
Lightly butter the focaccia halves and toast them briefly under a broiler.
Place 2 slices each of Swiss and Cheddar on the cut side of each slice of focaccia.
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Place the focaccia halves on a rack in a baking sheet and heat for 3 minutes in the oven to “melt the bread,” as Gray put it in her TikTok video. (“I mean melt the CHEESE not bread lol” she would clarify later.)
Place folded turkey slices on the bottom bread and ham slices on the top bread. The folding is extremely important to create the “fluffy” meat texture Gray prizes.
Place sopressata and capocollo on the bottom bread and prosciutto slices on the top bread. Top both halves with pepperoni.
Heat the meats for 5-8 minutes in the 400-degree oven, long enough to cup the pepperonis pizza-style. Next, shred some parmesan cheese atop the meats.
Mince garlic into a large bowl. Add mayonnaise, red wine vinegar, salt, pepper, oregano, chili pepper flakes, and pepperoncini. (“I’m a spicy girl!” says Gray. So am I, friend.) Whisk together.
Add the thin red onion slices to the dressing and toss together. Add the iceberg lettuce and toss together. This is your “Grinder Salad.”
Add enough tomato slices to the top bread to cover. Drizzle olive oil over the tomatoes and season with salt and pepper.
Add a good layer of grinder salad on top of the tomatoes.
Top the grinder salad with another substantial layer of freshly grated parmesan cheese.
Finally, bring the two halves of the sandwich together. Cut the sandwich into wedges. Use skewers to hold each wedge together—frilly toothpicks aren’t strong enough to stand up to this behemoth.
Serve with potato chips, extra grinder salad, and Diet Coke. The Diet Coke is a required part of the experience, and the only acceptable drink pairing, according to Gray’s video.
Be sure to scoop up the leftover grinder salad with your chips—again, Gray demands it.
So how does the sandwich taste?
Yes, I ate the sandwich. It is… a lot. Focaccia is a poor choice for a sandwich bread most of the time, and the immense pile of meats and cheeses and veggies in this sandwich makes it impossible to bite into directly—one has to approach it sidelong.
Slicing into the lettuce and coating it in a salty dressing causes it to express water, a process that continues well after it has been added to the sandwich. The turkey is superfluous, as is most of the cheese, which functions primarily as a moisture barrier to prevent the salad from soaking into the bread. The sandwich is a complete mess, and I ended up wearing as much of it as I consumed. I’m already thinking about making another one.