Saturday, September 15, 2012

Menander/Nagasena redux:
on the grilled-cheese "heap" problem

Greco-Bactrian King Menander and Buddhist monk Bhante* Nagasena, done with talking about the infamous chariot, turn their attention to grilled cheese.

NAGASENA: O Lord, is it your contention that a grilled-cheese sandwich contains only cheese between its slices of bread?

MENANDER: Verily, Bhante.

NAGASENA: And, with the addition of any meat whatsoever, the grilled cheese would then cease to be a grilled cheese?

MENANDER: It is so, Bhante.

NAGASENA: O Great One, how do we smell things?

MENANDER: That is easily answered, Bhante. Molecules of whatever we smell drift inside our nostrils and make contact with our olfactory nerve. This is how we smell.

NAGASENA: If a single molecule of a substance were to drift into your nose, would you smell it?

MENANDER: No, verily, Bhante. Molecules are exceedingly small. A single molecule of any substance would be unnoticeable to the human sense of smell.

NAGASENA: Suppose I were making grilled cheese in my kitchen, with an open, ten-dollar bag of Costco crumbled bacon next to the stove. Would I be able to smell this bacon?

MENANDER: Verily, Bhante, it is so.

NAGASENA: It is safe to assume, then, that many molecules of bacon are in the air?

MENANDER: Verily, Bhante.

NAGASENA: And if I were to place my cooked grilled-cheese sandwiches on a plate, and pass the plate over the open mouth of the bag, would not many bacon molecules adhere to the sandwiches?

MENANDER: They would indeed, Bhante.

NAGASENA: O Most Worthy One, would the grilled-cheese sandwiches cease to be grilled-cheese sandwiches because of those tiny molecules?

MENANDER: That is ludicrous, Bhante. The grilled-cheese sandwiches would of course still be grilled-cheese sandwiches!

NAGASENA: Earlier, O Lord, you had affirmed that, with the addition of any meat on your grilled-cheese sandwich whatsoever, it would cease to be a grilled-cheese sandwich.

MENANDER: In truth I did, Bhante.

NAGASENA: Is there not then a contradiction, O my King?

MENANDER: Forsooth, Bhante, there is.

NAGASENA: How do you explain this contradiction, O Lord?

MENANDER: A few molecules on the sandwiches cannot be enough to change them from grilled-cheese sandwiches to something else.

NAGASENA: O King, how many molecules of bacon does it take for a grilled-cheese sandwich to transform into a different sandwich? A thousand? A thousand and one? A thousand and two? Can you name the ordinal number of the molecule that effects this change?

MENANDER: In truth, Bhante, I cannot.

NAGASENA: Is there, then, a clear distinction between a grilled-cheese sandwich with meat and one without?

MENANDER: There is not, Bhante.

COMMENT: The king could have doubled down and insisted that even a single bacon molecule would violate the grilled-cheeseness of his sandwiches. But, being a wise king, he knew that to do so would be to call both his intelligence and his sanity into question.

*Bhante is an honorific title for a monk in Theravada Buddhism. Nagasena (naga + sena) means "snake (or dragon) army."



Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Ah, I get it! Making a grilled-cheese sandwich is really hard! Especially if we're strict about the process, for the very expression "grilled-cheese sandwich" informs us that the cheese must first be grilled and afterwards placed upon the toast.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

Kevin Kim said...

My buddy Mike mentioned something similar the other day: technically, it's not the cheese that's being grilled. The term is already a misnomer!

Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Change the name to "grilled cheese-sandwich"!

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

Kevin Kim said...

Ah, the power of a single hyphen.

Charles said...

I had always interpreted it as "grilled (cheese sandwich)" as opposed to "(grilled cheese) sandwich." Am I the only one?

Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yes, Charles, you are the only one. The rest of us were too focused on eating our delicious whatchamacallit sandwiches to think about such things.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

Charles said...

Didn't spend too much time thinking about it, actually. In fact, it never occurred to me to think of it as a "(grilled cheese) sandwich" until I read the comments. Even with all those hyphens Kevin insists on using...

Kevin Kim said...

Well, we generally hyphenate phrases that serve as noun-preceding adjectives (there-- see?), unless the phrase itself is somehow clear enough, on its own, not to need a hyphen. (See especially Rules 4 and 5 here, or see Rule 1 here.)


a one-time deal
a real-world situation
punch-drunk love
a brain-dead policy
a thirteen-inch schlong

--and yes: a grilled-cheese sandwich (although I see nothing wrong with leaving the expression un-hyphenated if you mean "a grilled [cheese sandwich]".) Or we can use the un-hyphenated "grilled cheese," tout court, which refers metonymically to the entire sandwich.

Bratfink said...

OMG those pictures made me hungry!

Elisson said...

These sorts of nitpicky questions are what has kept our rabbis in business for the past few thousand years.

BTW, the sandwiches in your photographs look absolutely primo. Molecules of bacon or not, they look hella delish.

Sometimes the nomenclature is not as important as the thing itself, one could say.

Kevin Kim said...


Well, you and Jeff Hodges (sixth comment down from the top of the thread) have both hit upon the Zen answer to this problem. Name and form are examples of dualistic thinking; the enlightened person merely reaches forward, grabs the sandwich, and enjoys the hell out of it. So bravo to you both!

Cf. this Zen exchange-- Shuzan and the shippe (Zen master's stick of authority): here.

s.b. said...

"it is not the grilled cheese that melts but the mind"

zen master bonehead

Kevin Kim said...

Dogen Zenji would approve.