Today is National Sandwich Day, a day where we venerate a food item we think of as typically American. But, like so many other food items we take for granted, the sandwich was invented outside America. It was a gambling problem that made John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, invent what we named in his honor. He slapped two pieces of bread around a piece of meat to keep his fingers from becoming greasy, and to be free from the knife and fork at the gaming table. He created a new convenience food and freed us from the hot lunch.
Sandwiches have taken many forms around the world, and there are certainly some that are truly American. The peanut butter and jelly sandwich is certainly American. Whether you prefer crusts cut off, crunch vs. creamy peanut butter, or even the addition of potato chips, you won’t find a European eating one of our American childhood favorites. The grilled cheese is most certainly American, with the insertion of our unnaturally bright neon orange American cheese. And, the sandwich has reached pop icon status with fast food chains like Tom & Chee, which specialize in all sorts of grilled cheese varieties, from those with barbecue potato chips, to gruyere cheese and caramelized onions.
Speaking of gruyere cheese, there’s the sandwiches that the French have contributed – the croque-monsieur and croque-madam. The monsieur is grilled gruyere cheese and ham, with cheesy béchamel sauce, while the madam has a fried egg on top of the monsieur. But, like the fussy French, neither of these can be picked up and eaten like a sandwich should be – one must eat with a fork and knife. But then more recently the French have invented the crepe sandwich which is good and convenient and can be eaten on the go or at the gaming table.
Then there’s the piled high Dagwood sandwich of the 1920s, the Hoagie, and the Hero – other typically American sandwiches. Although a sandwich is usually about the meat or the filler, the bread substrate has become the focus in fast food chains who have switched to the popular pretzel bun or the brioche bun, amping up a typically boring sandwich bun.
Ok, well then you mention the Kentucky Hot Brown – a state that we can’t blame for being fussy about their food, requires a fork and knife to eat as well. Originally created in 1926 by Fred K. Schmidt at the Brown Hotel in Louisville, KY, it’s an open faced sandwich of turkey, bacon and Mournay sauce, broiled until the bread is crisp and the sauce begins to brown. At its inception sliced turkey was rare, and turkey was reserved for Holiday feasts. The hot brown, of course has many variations on the original, that take it far away from its beginnings.
With the infusion and popularity of Vietnamese cuisine in American cities, any sandwich on crusty French bread with pickled carrots, onions, and cucumbers is called a banh mi – the now beloved sandwich from far Asia. The banh mi typically has either braised pork, tendon, chicken or even trip with the pickled trio, cilantro and jalapeno with the typical Vietnamese fish sauce. It’s become so popular that KFC is test marketing a new concept called the Banh Shop that features chicken banh mi sandwiches.
Move south and you have the Po Boy – typically fried oysters or other seafood on a long roll; in New England, you have the infamous lobster roll; in New Orleans, you have the muffaletto, which has an olive-pepper relish over good salami , meats and cheeses. Go east and you have the pita wrapped gyro with lamb, beef or falafel and the delicious tzatziki sauce. And, of course we’ve taken the burrito concept, called it a wrap, and filled it with everything from calamari to Thai chicken.
In Cincinnati, we have our traditional braunschweiger sandwich on toasted white bread with salt and mayo or the stinky limburger cheese and onion sandwich with pepper on good rye bread.
For me, my favorite sandwich of all time is from a little old school deli around the corner from my house. It’s the hot crab and artichoke on a croissant from Carl’s Deli. It’s a melted gooey hot crab salad with tender artichoke hearts, black olives, big lumps of crab and melted cheese on a crisp, buttery croissant. It’s so rich it needs no accompaniment, other than a drink. Whatever your favorite sandwich, make sure to celebrate it with a classic today, and thank the Earl for his gambling problem.