I ate a sandwich for lunch today. I’m not for a moment trying to suggest that this is news. I’m sure millions of other people did the same thing. And possibly, also like me, they ate a sandwich the day before, and maybe they’ll eat one tomorrow. But for me there’s no “possibly” or “maybe” about it. There is no way that I won’t have a sandwich tomorrow and the day after and the one after that, until the last syllable of recorded time; or at least until I’m too old and decrepit to gum my way through a BLT.
I suppose it wasn’t always this way. There have certainly been times in my life when I’ve had pizza or sushi or even steak frites for lunch, but at some point I realized that I’d always rather be eating a sandwich. And these days, since I’m a freelance writer and my own boss, I can have whatever I want for lunch. And I always want a sandwich.
Now, I don’t always want exactly the same sandwich. We know there are some people who always insist on eating exactly the same thing for lunch–Woody Allen has supposedly eaten a tuna salad sandwich every day for the last 45 years–but I’m not like that. I enjoy variety, different fillings, different breads, a range of condiments; just so long as the variety remains within the bounds of a sandwich, which I suppose means that I’m addicted to the form rather than the content.
I certainly never thought I needed a book of sandwich recipes. Surely, I said, all you need do is find some food you like and put it between two slices of bread. Job done. And yet, once I started casting about, I discovered that many people do need the reassurance that comes from consulting a cookbook, and there are a lot of sandwich recipe books to satisfy the need. Initially as a kind of joke, I started collecting these, but now I find I’m as addicted to sandwich recipe books as I am to everything else about the sandwich.
I like the way a sandwich looks, the way it feels in the hand as much as in the mouth. I like that neither a plate nor cutlery is essential for sandwich eating: you can eat a sandwich while working or reading or even while having a walk. I like the fact that they can be hot or cold, grilled or toasted or fried or pressed. I like that you can eat half now and save half for later, though actually I find that very rarely happens.
I’m especially cheered that sandwiches exist in myriad cultures, picking up local color and flavor as they go: the Mexican torta, the Indian wada pav, the Vietnamese banh mi, the Greek gyro, the Brazilian bauru, even the Japanese sandowichi. And of course the hamburger and the hotdog are sandwiches too, though I must say that when I’m eating them I never feel like I’m really eating a sandwich.
Of course I don’t think that all sandwiches are created equal. Naturally I have preferences. Naturally I’d rather eat a sandwich containing a generous slice of ripe Brie as opposed to a chunk of Velveeta, some good soppressata rather than a slice of bologna. Even so, as the saying goes, it’s all good. I’d rather have a bad sandwich than no sandwich.
My English upbringing must have something to do with it. British food is much derided and abused, not least by the British, and not without reason. Many of us grew up thinking a chip butty–that’s a French fry sandwich to the rest of the world–was a balanced meal. In my native Yorkshire the “mucky fat sandwich” was considered a wholesome bedtime snack for kids: that’s the fat and jelly left in the pan after roasting a piece of pork, allowed to cool and solidify, then spread on white bread and heavily salted. By contrast, the height of English elegance and refinement was supposedly the cucumber sandwich, which seemed to imply that food became more sophisticated the less it tasted of anything.
With every sandwich I eat I try to disprove this proposition, and to be fair, things have changed in Britain in recent years. The sandwich chain Pret a Manger now has crayfish and rocket or “pole and line caught tuna Nicoise” in its sandwiches. Even so, the feeling remains that things are done rather better in America. An American sandwich oozes, leaks and drips in a satisfying way that the English version never quite does.
Even the American names attached to sandwiches are a wild and exciting ride, a mix of the metaphoric, the geographic and the eponymous: the hoagie, the hero, the submarine, the grinder, the Monte Cristo, the Philly cheese steak, the New Orleans muffuletta, the Reuben, the Sloppy Joe. And each one of these has a mythology and often a fiercely contested history attached to it.
Then there are all those consciously silly, and sometimes downright annoying names, like Denny’s Moons Over My Hammy (which is a registered trademark), or the Nosh, Nosh Nanette–the Carnegie Deli’s take on the open-face turkey sandwich. Junior’s in Los Angeles offers a range of sandwiches named after prizes, starting with the Golden Globe and moving via the Oscar and Pulitzer all the way to the Nobel, which is actually pastrami and turkey with Russian dressing. You’d have thought they might have gone with something more Norwegian; smørbrød perhaps.
Of course having other people make your sandwiches is a pleasure, but more often than not I make my own. I enjoy preparing food. I have aspirations in this area but very few pretensions, and what could be less pretentious than a sandwich? In most cases it requires an act of assemblage rather than actual cooking. In most cases I’m happy to improvise, but once in a while inspiration flags and I need some straight facts about the difference between a croque-monsieur and a croque- madame or how to make a Monte Cristo, and that’s when I turn to my library of sandwich books.
Now some of these tomes really do seem to be stating the obvious. For example, I’m not sure I really need Frederic Girnau’s Sandwich Book of All Nations to tell me how to make an egg sandwich, which is a Scottish specialty apparently. And I think I can handle American cheese without referring to Sandwich Exotica: The Sandwich Manual for Connoisseurs, by Louis P. de Gouy.
On the other hand, people really do put things in their sandwiches that I quite literally would never have imagined. That same Sandwich Exotica contains a recipe for a sandwich of peanut butter, sardine and potato salad on rye, and yes in the interests of research I have made and eaten one. The words “better than expected” spring to mind, though of course it all depends on what you were expecting.
For that matter, Florence Cowles’ 1001 Sandwiches (a follow up to her earlier 700 Sandwiches) contains a recipe for a liver and jelly sandwich, which I admit I haven’t sampled and am unlikely to, but there’s also the cheddar cheese and cranberry sandwich, which I certainly hadn’t thought of, but now that she mentions it, sounds pretty damn good.
One of the gems of my collection is a beautifully produced 19-page booklet from 1957 with the title turn to sandwiches (yes, all lower case). It was published by the American Institute of Baking, and it offers the wisdom, “You turn to sandwiches if you are a busy modern.” The idea that I might be “a modern,” busy or otherwise, seems every bit as exciting now as it must have in 1957. In fact, many of the recipes here aren’t especially outlandish, although you just know that the Hawaiian Frankfurter sandwich is a recipe that won’t have stood the test of time: the franks are simmered in pineapple juice and the liquid is thickened at the end with cornstarch. There’s also a description of a “carport picnic,” the carport apparently being the place where “young suburbia” enjoys a get-together around the grill–and eats sandwiches. Yes, really.
But if you were looking for just one book to confirm that the past is another country and that they eat things different there, may I recommend Arnold Shircliffe’s The Edgewater Sandwich and Hors d’Oeuvres Book, originally published in 1930. Shircliffe was a Chicago restaurateur and quite a figure in the food world of his day. He also had collecting habits that make mine look utterly insignificant. After his death, his son donated his collection of menus to the New York Historical Society: it consisted of ten thousand items.
The Edgewater Beach Hotel was one of Chicago’s great hotels, frequented by the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Judy Garland and Dwight D. Eisenhower, and chances are they may well have eaten some of Shircliffe’s sandwich concoctions. I can easily imagine previous generations enjoying a Duke sandwich, made with quail and currant jelly, and we know that frogs’ legs were once an essential of high living: Shircliffe recommends you only use the best bullfrogs.
But surely if Charlie Chaplin really ate one of Shircliffe’s Buzz Bee sandwiches containing honey, cress, clover and nasturtium blossoms, it must have been in the interests of finding comic material. And as for the Cinara sandwich made with “artichoke tubers” or the Fried Mush sandwich, can these really have been big sellers, even in the 1930s?
Still, to give him his due, Shircliffe is interested in the whole process of sandwich making, not just the bread and the fillings, and so he gives recipes for “fancy butters and miscellaneous spreads” that can be part of the finished article. Some of these seem reasonable enough, blending butter with mustard, garlic or walnuts. But then he describes caviar and catsup butter–which is exactly what it sounds like. And there’s his supreme achievement: bacon butter–three strips of crisped bacon, crumbled and worked into two ounces of creamed butter. I would never have thought of that either, and if I had I’d have been wracked with cholesterol-guilt.
Once in a while I do think I should come up with a recipe that’s all my own: the Nicholson or perhaps the Nicholsonian. But the fact is, whatever you think of putting in a sandwich, somebody’s done it already. A girlfriend used to consider me a freak because I ate peanut putter and cheese sandwiches, but the books show that to be fairly commonplace. I once thought I was the only person who ate curried cottage cheese sandwiches but these days I’m absolutely certain that somebody somewhere is tucking into one right now.
And if I had one piece of advice for the aspiring sandwich maker it would be, “Don’t get fancy just for the sake of it.” Last year the British celebrity chef Martin Blunos created a $200 sandwich involving cheddar cheese with white truffle, pea shoots, quail eggs, red amaranth and a sprinkling of gold dust. I’d say that’s trying way too hard. I’d also say that any time I had to choose between gold dust or bacon butter on my sandwich, the choice would be a very easy one indeed.
Geoff Nicholson’s books include Bleeding London, The Food Chain and The Lost Art of Walking. He blogs as Psycho-Gourmet.