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 Three: A snack for the elites
By Paul Freedman, Yale University, and originally published in theconversation.com
Unlike many American food trends of the 1890s, such as the Waldorf salad and chafing dishes, the club sandwich has endured, immune to obsolescence.
The sandwich originated in the country’s stuffy gentlemen’s clubs, which are known – to this day – for a conservatism that includes loyalty to outdated cuisine. (The Wilmington Club in Delaware continues to serve terrapin, while the Philadelphia Club’s specialties include veal and ham pie.) So the club sandwich’s spread to the rest of the population, along with its lasting popularity, is a testament to its inventiveness and appeal.
A two-layer affair, the club sandwich calls for three pieces of toasted bread spread with mayonnaise and filled with chicken or turkey, bacon, lettuce and tomato. Usually the sandwich is cut into two triangles and held together with a toothpick stuck in each half.
Some believe it should be eaten with a fork and knife, and its blend of elegance and blandness make the club sandwich a permanent feature of country and city club cuisine.
As far back as 1889, there are references to a Union Club sandwich of turkey or ham on toast. The Saratoga Club-House offered a club sandwich on its menu beginning in 1894.
Interestingly, until the 1920s, sandwiches were identified with ladies’ lunch places that served “dainty” food. The first club sandwich recipe comes from an 1899 book of “salads, sandwiches and chafing-dish dainties,” and its most famous proponent was Wallis Simpson, the American woman whom Edward VIII abdicated the throne of Great Britain to marry.
Nonetheless, an 1889 article from the New York Sun entitled “An Appetizing Sandwich: A Dainty Treat That Has Made a New York Chef Popular” describes the Union Club sandwich as appropriate for a post-theater supper, or something light to be eaten before a nightcap. This was one type of sandwich that men could indulge in, the article seemed to be saying – as long as it wasn’t eaten for lunch.
Professor Paul Freedman specializes in medieval social history, the history of Catalonia, comparative studies of the peasantry, trade in luxury products, and the history of cuisine. His latest book is Ten Restaurants That Changed America (Liveright/Norton, 2016).