Tuesday, August 23, 2011

So Many Sandwiches

So I am sure you have heard that the sandwich got its name from the Earl of Sandwich, who liked to eat while playing cribbage. He was pretty serious about his cards, and placing meat between two slices of bread let him keep on playing without stopping to eat, or getting the cards all greasy. It does seem that this old tale is indeed why we call this form of food a "sandwich," but they had been around for centuries, and known by many different names. Which really says something about the Earl's sandwich intake. Can you imagine eating so much pizza that they decided to rename it in your honor?

The earliest written reference of sandwich eating is attributed to the Jewish sage Hillel the Elder (now that's an awesome name) in the 1st century B.C. He was known to eat slices of lamb between flat breads, or matzahs, held together with a mixture of chopped nuts, fruit, and bitter herbs. It is said that the layers between the bread were symbolic of the mortar between the bricks his people were forced to lay for the Egyptians. Hillel is also credited with coining the expressions "if not now, when?" and "that which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow". You might recognize that second one as the "golden rule". He had me at the sandwich.

The middle ages in Europe brought another version of this food involving just one, very stale, slice of bread. The rock-hard piece of bread - called a trencher - was used as a plate of sorts, with meat and gravy placed atop it. As the diner ate the toppings, the trencher absorbed the juices and it softened up a bit. The trencher was often tossed to a nearby dog or beggar (probably in that order), or eaten by the diner, depending on his appetite. This is clearly the forerunner to today's "open faced" sandwich, which is only slightly more appetizing than the name "trencher".

But of course the Earl of Sandwich came along and the name stuck. And like many things English, it was exported to America and took on a life of its own. For example, have you ever heard of a hot brown? It's a transformative experience, and a real slice (see what I did there?) of Americana. The hot brown is an open faced sandwich of turkey and bacon, smothered with a mornay sauce, and broiled until it is bubbly brown. It was created by Fred K. Schmidt in 1926 at the Brown Hotel in downtown Louisville, Kentucky. You might see a hot brown pop up in other parts of the country, but they are impostors, and you really need to get to the Bluegrass State and try one for yourself. Timeshares are located in Park City and Taylorsville, which are both about 30 miles away. If you think 30 miles is too far to drive for a sandwich, you clearly have never had a hot brown.

How about a muffuletta? I know it sounds like something that belongs on the underside of your car, but it is in fact a glorious sandwich made famous at the Central Grocery in New Orleans. Now a muffuletta is a round Sicilian sesame bread, about 10" across. But it is also a sandwich where said loaf is sliced horizontally and filled with ham, capicola, salami, pepperoni, swiss, provolone, and marinated olive salad. That's four meats and two cheeses for those of you playing at home, and that olive salad can be a meal all by itself. The Central Grocery sells half and quarter muffulettas, suggesting that a whole one is really more than one person can eat. I didn't find that to be the case, but I had a light breakfast that day. A timeshare rental at the Quarter House puts you within crawling distance of the Central Grocery's French Quarter location, should you find yourself incapacitated after your muffuletta.

Surely everyone knows that a french dip is a roast beef sandwich on baguette, served with au jus (with juice) on the side for dipping, and exported from France, right? Wrong. It's actually an American creation, and the subject of a heated debate between two Los Angeles eateries. Both Cole's Pacific Electric Buffet and Philippe The Original, opened their doors to the public in 1908, and each claims to have invented the sandwich. What they do agree on is that the "dipping" in the french dip is done by the chef, not the diner. That's right, the bread from the sandwich is dipped in the au jus prior to its assembly, and sent to the table "wet". You may even request a double-dip, but you will not be getting any dipping juice of your own. An Anaheim timeshare puts your within a half an hour or so of L.A., and right near Disneyland. And since the controversy over who created the sandwich is unlikely to be resolved at this point, I think you owe it to yourself to try one from each place.

It's a big country, and there are a lot of sandwiches out there to try. Knowing that you'll never get to them all, I highly recommend the documentary Sandwiches That You Will Like by Rick Sebak. In the film, he criss-crosses the country trying out regional sandwiches and gathering their histories along the way. It's good fun, and you might get a vacation destination or new sandwich idea out of it. But I have to say this guy has it easy. He actually gets paid to go all around the country, eating new foods, and then writing about it. Where do I get a gig like that?

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