The sandwich, one of America’s favorite culinary traditions, is equally popular around the world. Created as a convenience meal, it lends itself to wide interpretation that can be as simple or elaborate as the dining occasion demands.
A favorite sandwich can qualify as comfort food, filling you both physically and emotionally. A university study concludes that individuals turn to comfort foods in response to feelings of stress and isolation. But many more reasons give the sandwich enduring appeal: they are easily assembled, portable, and suitable to eat nearly any place or time. If trendsetting American restaurant menus online are any indication, sandwiches are more popular than ever. The USDA reports that nearly half of all Americans eat a sandwich on any given day.
Bread is the foundation of the sandwich and the edible casing for interior ingredients. Bread provides flavor, texture, variety, nutrients, and eye appeal. White, whole grain, or rye? Bread choices are numerous! Crusty baguettes, sourdough, brioche, focaccia, challah, Mexican telera rolls, and pretzel buns can be found in markets, artisanal bakeries, and panaderias.
Spreadable condiments, like mayonnaise, butter, cream cheese, mustard, chutney, aioli, and bacon jam, seal the bread and add layers of flavor. Many British prefer salad cream as a mayonnaise alternative. Likewise, South Carolinians are devoted to Duke’s Mayonnaise. Sandwich fillings can be mixed and matched: meat, charcuterie, poultry, fish and seafood, fresh or pickled vegetables, leafy greens, and dairy. Garnishes are the final complementary touch.
Since ancient times, rustic flatbreads have been useful for scooping up foods, wrapping around meats, or doubling as edible plates, which were the first open-face sandwiches. In the earliest documentation of a hand-held meal, Jewish scholar Hillel the Elder (c. 110 BC–10 AD) sandwiched lamb with bitter herbs and soft matzah during Passover.
England’s fourth Earl of Sandwich, John Montagu, is credited with popularizing the sandwich in 1762. His descendant, the 11th Earl of Sandwich, said that when his aristocratic ancestor served as the First Lord of the Admiralty, he requested “two pieces of bread with boiled beef in the middle” as a dining convenience during the heat of a battle with the French. The prevailing story that his lordship made the request while engaged at the gaming tables is also true. The new eating trend quickly became fashionable among the peerage, and the sandwich craze was launched.
The present-day Lord Sandwich operates a sandwich franchise business in the United States called The Earl of Sandwich. The Original 1762 is a warm roast beef sandwich with horseradish and melted cheese on crusty, artisan bread.
Ham, tongue, and beef sandwiches were popular in early Victorian England when cucumbers were believed to be poisonous. When cucumbers and watercress came into vogue, they were incorporated into the elegant tea sandwiches that remain an essential part of the English cultural identity.
The sandwich’s popularity spread around the world in the 19th century. In Directions for Cookery (1837), Eliza Leslie provided recipe suggestions for sandwiches with ham, potted lobster, marbled veal, and tongue. In 1838, Mary Randolph’s cookbook, The Virginia Housewife, offered a recipe for oyster loaf, which is a small, hollowed-out bread round filled with creamed oysters.
The New Orleans Creole version was called La Mediatrice, which means “the peacemaker,” and fried oyster and shrimp po’boys were not far behind. It is rumored that husbands carried a peacemaker sandwich home when they needed to negotiate treaties of domestic peace.
Around 1895, John Harvey Kellogg, a pioneer in creating peanut butter from raw peanuts, promoted peanut paste as a nutritious protein and healthful butter substitute. The ancient Aztecs are believed to have been the first to eat this. Ladies started spreading it on their British-inspired tea sandwiches along with creamed sardines, walnut-olive paste, and pink-tinted cottage cheese.
The first “peanut paste” sandwich that called for jelly appeared in 1901 in the Boston Cooking School Magazine. By the 1920s, the PB&J was standard fare in children’s school lunch boxes. Modern versions include creative jelly and jam flavors; sprinklings of chocolate chips, pomegranate seeds, toasted coconut, and dried fruits; and swirls of honey or Nutella. Elvis preferred his PB&J toasted with bacon and banana added.
In 1913, Massachusetts resident Emma Curtis, the third-great-granddaughter of Paul Revere, produced Snowflake Marshmallow Creme with her brother. She spread the creamy treat on her peanut butter sandwich, and the “Liberty Sandwich” was born. In 1960, it was renamed the fluffernutter to promote Marshmallow Fluff, a product similar to Emma’s marshmallow creme. The fluffernutter sandwich remains an iconic New England food.
The recent trend of serving gigantic portions of sandwiches, burgers, and hot dogs makes them nearly impossible to eat by hand. The mile-high Dagwood sandwich is named after Dagwood Bumstead of the comic strip Blondie. The character’s only kitchen skill was constructing an enormous, multi-decker sandwich with a mishmash of layered ingredients. The Dagwood is reminiscent of the towering club sandwich, which originated in elite Northern gentlemen’s clubs as a trendy fare served during post-theater suppers.
The number of sandwich types eaten in the melting pot of America would be difficult to determine. Augusta National’s famous pimento cheese sandwich is a classic. So are Columbia’s pimento cheeseburger and pulled pork barbecue sandwiches with mustard-based sauce. Beloved classics include the grilled cheese; ham with cheese; roast beef; hero; BLT made with bacon, lettuce, and tomato; tuna melt; bologna; chicken salad; meatloaf Sloppy Joe; Reuben; and the ultimate Southern summer enjoyment, a fresh heirloom tomato sandwich.
The hamburger is the quintessential American sandwich, its popularity equal to or greater than that of all the others.
Spicy Black Bean Burgers
Top these savory, protein-rich bean burgers with your choice of grainy mustard, leaf lettuce, red onion slices, Roasted Plum Tomatoes (recipe below), avocado slices, sauteed mushrooms, or salsa.
1 can (15 ounce) black beans (rinsed, drained, lightly mashed)
2 cups cooked, cooled quinoa
1/2 cup shredded sharp cheddar or Pepper Jack cheese
1/2 cup quality mayonnaise
2 to 3 teaspoons mashed chipotle peppers, to taste
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 medium carrot, shredded
1/4 cup minced red onion
1 minced clove garlic
1/3 cup finely chopped cilantro leaves
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
4 tablespoons panko bread crumbs, extra if needed
Prepare and combine all the ingredients. If too soft, stir in 2 tablespoons more panko. Shape mixture into 6 to 8 patties. Heat a nonstick skillet over medium heat; add 2 tablespoons oil. Cook patties on both sides, turning once; don’t press with the spatula. Add a little more oil if needed. Cook 10 minutes or until golden brown. Serve on buns with toppings. Serves 6 to 8.
Roasted Plum Tomatoes
Plum or Roma tomatoes have more flesh and less liquid; slow-roast them to concentrate their flavor. Slice or chop and add to sandwiches or spreads.
12 medium plum tomatoes, halved lengthwise
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon sea salt
Grated black pepper
1 tablespoon chopped, fresh rosemary or thyme (1 1/2 teaspoons dried)
Preheat oven to 225 degrees F. Mix tomatoes with the remaining ingredients. On a heavy baking sheet, roast tomatoes cut-side-down 2 1/2 hours or until caramelized and a bit leathery. For fast results, roast at 325 degrees F for 45 minutes, then raise the heat to 400 degrees F and cook about 15 minutes more. Check often toward the end. Cool and refrigerate 4 to 5 days.
Picnic-Perfect Salami Sandwich
These sandwiches are perfect fare for a picnic at the lake or even in your backyard. The ciabatta can be spread with pesto, garlic aioli, or olive tapenade in place of the tasty cheese mixture below. Or, sprinkle with extra-virgin olive oil and white balsamic vinegar, then top with sliced provolone or fontina cheese. Deli meat options include mortadella, capocollo, prosciutto, Spanish serrano ham, and even smoked turkey. For the freshest and best quality deli meat, have it cut at the counter. Thin-sliced red onion is an optional ingredient that will add flavor and texture.
6 ounces goat or feta cheese, crumbled
2 tablespoons quality mayonnaise
2 tablespoons fresh herbs (basil, flat-leaf parsley, chives), chopped
1 teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
A pinch of sea salt and black pepper, to taste
1 loaf ciabatta bread (12- to-16 ounce), or 4 square ciabatta rolls
Roasted Plum Tomatoes (see recipe) or roasted red bell pepper, sliced
4 ounces Genoa salami, thinly sliced
4 ounces soppressata salami, thin sliced, or 4 thin slices Black Forest ham
1 packed cup fresh arugula or watercress
Combine goat cheese, mayonnaise, herbs, lemon zest and lemon juice, salt and black pepper; set aside. Cut ciabatta loaf into 4 equal portions; split open each portion. Spread cut sides with a little cheese mixture. Top the bottom bread layers with equal amounts of tomato, sliced salami, soppressata or ham, and arugula. Cover with bread tops; press down. Serve at once or wrap securely in plastic wrap and refrigerate up to 3 hours. Makes 4 servings.
Egg & Pancetta Tramezzini
Store-bought Italian tramezzini are dazzling to look at, yet simple enough to make at home and satisfying to eat. Bake a rectangular Pullman loaf for slicing and trim crusts, or choose quality, firm, white or wheat sandwich slices like a country or farmhouse sandwich bread. The filling options offer several variations. Use sustainable tuna brands such as Wild Planet or the Spanish Ortiz Bonita del Norte.
4 paper-thin slices pancetta (salt-cured pork belly), prosciutto, or cured ham
4 extra-large, hard-boiled eggs, chopped
1/3 cup quality mayonnaise, homemade or store-bought
2 teaspoons grainy mustard
2 to 3 teaspoons herbs (basil, chives, parsley, rosemary), minced
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted
4 slices firm, white sandwich bread, crusts removed
Mayonnaise or butter for spreading
In a small skillet, fry pancetta on low heat until it starts to get crispy; drain. Mix eggs, mayonnaise, mustard, seasonings, and pine nuts in a bowl; adjust seasoning if desired. Coat bread slices lightly with mayonnaise. Divide egg filling between 2 slices (mound slightly in the middle). Top each with pancetta and remaining bread, mayonnaise-sides down. Press gently. Slice diagonally to form four tramezzini. Serve at once, or cover with plastic wrap and a damp tea towel and chill. Serves 2.
Filling Options (follow basic instructions above)
- Quality tuna in olive oil, drained and mixed, with minced flat-leaf parsley, rinsed capers, lemon juice, and grated zest, and a little mayonnaise, if desired; add freshly ground black pepper. Layer with arugula and strips of roasted plum tomatoes or roasted red bell pepper.
- Thin-sliced prosciutto cotto or other cooked ham; sliced Gorgonzola; toasted, chopped walnuts; and thin-sliced pear or figs.
- Sauteed, seasoned eggplant slices drizzled with balsamic; marinated, roasted bell pepper strips; torn, fresh basil leaves; thin-sliced provolone.
- A little chopped, marinated artichoke hearts, Kalamata olives, or hearts of palm stirred into the egg mixture for the Egg & Pancetta Tramezzini.
Curried Chicken Salad on a Croissant
This tasty sandwich filling offers a range of irresistible elements: creamy, crunchy, spicy, and fruity. Use fresh poached chicken or purchase a rotisserie chicken. Serve the mixture on four or five toasted croissants with some watercress. Alternative bread choices include rustic or country bread, as well as pita pockets.
1/3 cup sour cream or plain yogurt
1/3 cup quality homemade or store-bought mayonnaise
2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, chopped
2 to 3 teaspoons curry powder, to taste
Juice of 1/2 small lime or lemon
2 tablespoons mango chutney
Sea salt and black pepper, to taste
2 cups poached chicken breast cubes (about 3/4 inch)
1/3 cup slivered almonds, toasted
1/3 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup honey crisp apple, small-diced
1/3 cup celery, finely chopped
2 thin green onions with ends trimmed off, minced
Stir together sour cream, mayonnaise, cilantro, curry powder, lime juice, chutney, salt, and pepper. Blend in remaining ingredients. Taste to adjust seasoning, if desired. Spoon a portion, plus some watercress, into each croissant. Serves 4 or 5.
The place where America’s favorite deli sandwich was created is hotly debated. Was it Manhattan or Omaha? One point is certain — the tasty sandwich includes Irish corned beef or peppery pastrami, German sauerkraut, Jewish rye, and Russian dressing, which was invented in New Hampshire. Deli sandwiches are often piled high with up to a 1/2 pound of meat; at home, 2 to 3 ounces will suffice. For a Reuben with a twist, substitute thin-sliced turkey, smoked Gouda cheese, and caramelized onion jam. Don’t forget the dill pickle on the side!
4 slices rye bread or marbled rye
1/3 cup Russian dressing (recipe below), or spicy mustard, to taste
8 thin slices Jarlesberg or Emmenthaler Swiss cheese, divided
8 thin slices Jewish-style corned beef, divided
6 tablespoons sauerkraut from a jar or pouch, rinsed, well drained, room temperature, divided
4 tablespoons soft butter
Spread two slices of bread with a tablespoon of Russian Dressing each. Place a layer of sauerkraut over each slice, then top with equal portions of meat and cheese. Spread the remaining two bread slices with dressing; place on sandwiches, dressing-sides-down. Spread butter over both sides of each sandwich. Cook over medium-high heat in a hot griddle or grill pan until golden brown, pressing occasionally with a spatula to help with crisping and melting the cheese. Slice sandwiches in half; serve with pickles.
In a medium bowl, blend 1/4 cup mayonnaise, 1 tablespoon ketchup or chili sauce, 1 to 2 teaspoons prepared horseradish, 1 teaspoon minced shallot or green onion, 1/4 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce, and sea salt and black pepper, to taste.
To make these delightful open-face sandwiches, cut 1/2-inch-thick slices of bread, preferable from a rustic country loaf. Lightly toast each slice, then spread generously with mascarpone, a naturally sweet, luscious, triple-creme cheese. Decorate with a few fresh raspberries and blueberries, then spoon a small amount of lightly warmed raspberry jam or honey over the tops. Optional: sprinkle with toasted, sliced almonds or pine nuts. Serve as a breakfast treat, a snack, or for dessert. This easy recipe is adapted from A Taste of Italy (Susan Fuller Slack, American Cooking Guild).
Sandwich Craft for Kids
Invite your kids to use cookie cutters to transform their favorite sandwich into personalized works of art. For example, create a checkerboard design using one slice of white bread and one of whole wheat; cut sandwich into quarters, then flip two over to form the checkerboard.