Every sandwich tells a story, don’t it?

Everyone has a favorite sandwich, often prepared to an exacting degree of specification: Turkey or ham? Grilled or toasted? Mayo or mustard? White or whole wheat?

We reached out to five food historians and asked them to tell the story of a sandwich of their choosing. The responses included staples like peanut butter and jelly, as well as regional fare like New England’s chow mein sandwich.

Together, they show how the sandwiches we eat (or used to eat) do more than fill us up during our lunch breaks. In their stories are themes of immigration and globalization, of class and gender, and of resourcefulness and creativity.

It’s a five-part series entitled “Every sandwich tells a story, don’t it?”


Part Two: East meets West in Fall River, Massachusetts

By Imogene Lim, Vancouver Island University, and first published in theconversation.com

“Gonna get a big dish of beef chow mein,” Warren Zevon sings in his 1978 hit “Werewolves of London,” a nod to the popular Chinese stir-fried noodle dish.

During that same decade, Alika and the Happy Samoans, the house band for a Chinese restaurant in Fall River, Massachusetts, also paid tribute to chow mein with a song titled “Chow Mein Sandwich.”

Chow mein in a sandwich? Is that a real thing?

I was first introduced to the chow mein sandwich while completing my doctorate at Brown University. Even as the child of a Chinatown restaurateur from Vancouver, I viewed the sandwich as something of a mystery. It led to a post-doctoral fellowship and a paper about Chinese entrepreneurship in New England.

The chow mein sandwich is the quintessential “East meets West” food, and it’s largely associated with New England’s Chinese restaurants – specifically, those of Fall River, a city crowded with textile mills near the Rhode Island border.

The sandwich became popular in the 1920s because it was filling and cheap: Workers munched on them in factory canteens, while their kids ate them for lunch in the parish schools, especially on meatless Fridays. It would go on to be available at some “five and dime” lunch counters, like Kresge’s and Woolworth – and even at Nathan’s in Coney Island.

Fall River’s famous chow mein sandwich. Roadfood

It’s exactly what it sounds like: a sandwich filled with chow mein (deep-fried, flat noodles, topped with a ladle of brown gravy, onions, celery and bean sprouts). If you want to make your own authentic sandwich at home, I recommend using Hoo Mee Chow Mein Mix, which is still made in Fall River. It can be served in a bun (à la sloppy joe) or between sliced white bread, much like a hot turkey sandwich with gravy. The classic meal includes the sandwich, french fries and orange soda.

For those who grew up in the Fall River area, the chow mein sandwich is a reminder of home. Just ask famous chef (and Fall River native) Emeril Legassé, who came up with his own “Fall River chow mein” recipe.

And at one time, Fall River expats living in Los Angeles would hold a “Fall River Day.”

On the menu? Chow mein sandwiches, of course.


Imogene L. Lim is an ethnoarchaeologist by training in VIU’s Department of Anthropology. Research interests include: foraging societies, rock art, ethnicity, the Chinese diaspora in North America (archaeology & ethnohistory), and the anthropology of food. As of August 2017, Dr. Lim has a two-year appointment as a member of the Editorial Board of BC Studies.

5 COMMENTS

  1. I have never had a chow mein sandwich. Sounds good though. I thought that photo was of a bar-b-q sandwich. Sure seems like a lot surrounding the bun.

  2. I am also reading about these chow mein sandwiches feeding the workers of the textile mills there in Falls River, Mass. and also R.I. That definitely must have been years and years ago, don’t know for certain, but all the textile mills near where I grew up, are gone with the wind, now days. The textile mills mentioned where the sandwiches were, that they spoke of in this article, however, were different mills operating than where I grew up, but still, in the good ole’ USA. The textile mills packed up and moved operations to China. Then one of the companies that had packed up and moved to China, later tried to move back in, in some capacity, and people living there were not rolling out the welcome wagon for them at all, even with their fancy talk of jobs, jobs, jobs……

  3. Some of the old giant textile mills dinosaurs have been renovated as apartment complexes and rent for a lot monthly, and are very nice, even upscale in some areas near where I used to live.

  4. This brings me back to this thought….what ever happened to the Chinatown that was supposed to go in out there near Kelly Park Crossings??? Remember the Chinese businessman that traveled here to Apopka from China, and met with the city officials, and Mayor Land gave the gentleman a grand tour around here? Did the Chinese man give up waiting on something to happen, or what was the reason that it did not materialize? Did he get a fortune cookie, he didn’t like, or what? LOL I think he even was presented with a key to the city by Mayor Land. Maybe it was Bush’s fault…..LOL, as there was a bad economic downturn that happened.

  5. I remember they talked about all this big giant warehouse business that was going to put us onto the maps…….with Chinese imports.

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