The Fyre Festival Cheese Sandwich is the iconic image of the influencer age. Those four words alone instantly conjure up a picture of the simultaneously dry-yet-slimy polystyrene picnic: two slices of brown bread, two pale cheese singles and a wedge of tomato barely supporting itself atop a bed of wet lettuce.
Two years after the disastrous festival, you can now buy enamel pins, socks and even dog bandanas featuring the snack. Multiple restaurants, bars and pop-ups have sold their own take on the sandwich, with the latest version set to be on sale in Chicago throughout May. Though it was just cheese and bread when it was first served to guests in April of 2017, the Fyre Festival Cheese Sandwich is now much more. It is the emblem of the entire failed festival.
Which would be totally and absolutely fine, if more than three pictures of the sandwich existed.
In January of 2019, two Fyre Festival documentaries were released near simultaneously. Neither the producers of Hulu's Fyre Fraud nor Netflix's VICE Studios-produced Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened interviewed Trevor DeHaas, the man who took the first picture of the sandwich, which went on to be retweeted 1,600 times. Both documentaries featured visuals of the sandwich repeatedly, but neither included interviews from guests who claimed to have eaten the snack.
How is it that a festival full of Instagram's most influential produced so few snaps of dinner? If Fyre was attended by thousands of people, where are all the traumatised sandwich eaters? Could the cheese sandwich be the real Fyre Festival scam all along?
"I never got to experience the cheese sandwich firsthand," says Adam Thompson, a 30-year-old from London who paid roughly £500 to attend Fyre. Thompson says he never saw the cheese sandwich at any point during the festival, though he was fed hot dogs and rice at the beach bar festival-goers were taken to before arriving at the main site.
Seth Crossno is a blogger who shared some of the most infamous images of Fyre. Tweeting as his satirical persona William Needham Finley IV, Crossno shared some of the earliest images and videos of the decrepit tents, the scramble for luggage and festival co-founder Billy McFarland calling for order while stood on top of a crate. During the festival, Crossno also shared another image of the Fyre Festival cheese sandwich (this time, with mustard!), though it received just 13 retweets.
"One of the biggest misconceptions about the festival is that everybody was given a cheese sandwich," says Crossno, explaining that he was fed a hot meal of pasta, chicken and a small salad that was actually "pretty good". Crossno received the sandwich picture from a female attendee who noticed his posts were going viral on Twitter (her manicured thumb is visible in the bottom right corner of the picture). He later bought the copyright of the picture from her, and says the woman who took the picture prefers not to speak to press.
Just days after Fyre, the first rumours emerged that the already infamous cheese sandwich was not as it seemed. TMZ ran a story claiming that the sandwich was actually intended for festival staff, while "GUESTS HAD REAL FOOD!!!" DeHaas (who did not respond to a request to comment) denied this claim on Twitter, writing, "That's news to me. That's literally what they were handing out to people." He speculated that Fyre organisers were behind the claims in the TMZ story.
Yet now, Denaldo Bain – a Bahamian caterer hired by Fyre after the original caterers, Starr Events, pulled out weeks before the festival – confirms the sandwich was intended for staff.
"The cheese sandwiches are funny because they were really just supposed to be for staff, for everybody that worked," says Bain now. "None of the guests were supposed to get them. But when you have hundreds of people and they are all over the place looking for food, the sandwiches ended up in their hands." Bain estimates a "handful" of guests got the sandwiches.
The fact the sandwich was intended for staff is backed up by the third and final photo of the sandwich that is readily available on Twitter. "Look at the food they are feeding to my team at @#fyrefestival. Literally no words for how disgraceful they are treating their partners," the blurry image is captioned. The tweeter did not respond to a request for comment.
"I think I probably saw three to six people with the sandwiches," says Austin Rose, a 24-year-old who paid roughly £1,000 to attend Fyre because he hoped Kanye West would be performing. "People definitely had them… but they weren’t just handing them out; there was definitely a finite quantity of cheese sandwiches." Rose says Fyre looked like a "dystopian universe" when he arrived, and that there was a "massive, massive line" for food: "They had people coming through the line passing out little bags of chips. It would've taken an hour to get through the line so we just grabbed as many potato chips as possible."
Rose adds that people in line were making jokes about cheese sandwiches after some early guests received them, but that by later in the evening pasta was being served. "It was in this Styrofoam thing and they didn't have any utensils, and there was nowhere to sit."
Crossno believes guests got their hands on cheese sandwiches because "it was so difficult to find where you were supposed to go". He says there were two large white catering tents, one open on all sides (that held the sandwiches) and another which was draped off (where he found the pasta he ate). It is still unclear who exactly made the sandwiches and whether they were physically handed out, or just taken by guests. Crossno says that Andy King – the festival producer who infamously said in the Netflix documentary that he planned to give a blowjob to a Bahamian customs official in order to release trucks of bottled water – told him that he himself had a hand in feeding guests.
"He said he handed cheese sandwiches out so people wouldn’t be so drunk," Crossno says. "I don’t know if he was sitting there handing out 100 cheese sandwiches, or if he handed out two, and that’s the one that went viral." It is currently unclear if Maryann Rolle – the caterer who also featured in the Netflix documentary, and lost thousands of pounds providing food for Fyre workers before the internet crowdfunded her losses – was involved in preparing the sandwiches.
Regardless of whether the sandwiches were intended for workers, or who made them, Crossno says they were still "definitely" eaten by some guests. And although there was other food at the festival – including pasta, chicken, rice and, for breakfast, syrup and waffles – it certainly wasn’t up to the standards of the luxury cuisine Fyre initially advertised. The caterer Bain intends to sue the people he says hired him for the festival – two University of the Bahamas professors and a Ministry of Tourism executive. He claims professional and student chefs were hired from around the Bahamas by a newly-created company calling itself Cater Fyre.
"When we got on the property, nothing was set up, a lot of the furniture they were just pulling out of a trailer," Bain explains, saying the kitchen he was expected to work from initially didn’t have any running water. He says staff didn’t have the necessary equipment to prepare food, so the food was moved to another property. Nonetheless, Bain did manage to make some food for guests, including rice and salads.
"In the evening we grabbed food. I can’t remember what it was, but actually it was pretty good," says Brandon Nelson, a guest who attended Fyre with seven friends. In the morning, Nelson says they also received sausage and waffles for breakfast, and he and his friends were entrepreneurial when it came to finding food. "We dug into one of the discarded pallets and found some Sour Skittles, so we ate a ton of those," he says.
Later, on the beach, Nelson bumped into a man from Dubai who "looked like royalty" and "was definitely on mushrooms or something". Nelson says the man told him he paid thousands of dollars to attend Fyre.
Yet this, too, is one of the great misunderstandings about Fyre Festival, says blogger Crossno, who is documenting a behind-the-scenes look at the festival in a new podcast, Dumpster Fyre. "There’s a misconception that everybody that went was so wealthy," Crossno says. "A lot of these people were on their college spring break and they got tickets for $500. I don’t know anybody that paid $12,000 for this thing."
The Fyre Festival Cheese Sandwich became famous because of the irresistible idea that rich kids were provided with a primary school packed lunch. Yet the richest attendees of Fyre fled the site the fastest, or stayed offsite in villas. In reality, a small number of average kids ate an average sandwich, and some other average kids ate some "pretty good" pasta (plus Skittles). What does this show except that we – the Fyre Festival mockers – are just as easily influenced by online images as the misguided Fyre Festival attendees?
Throw down your pins, your socks and your dog bandanas. Question the sandwich, question social media – question yourselves!
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.