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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Obscure Origins Of Famous Sandwiches

Fit For A King......Or At Least An Earl

Consider the sandwich. More than just a quick and convenient form of immediate nourishment, it's a meal you can hold in your hand.

The concept of what we consider a “sandwich” has been around for a long time. Ancient Hebrew tradition holds that back between the years 30 BC and 10 AD, one of the most important figures in Jewish history, the religious leader Hillel the Elder, took slices of meat from a Passover lamb and some bitter herbs and wrapped them between two slices of matzah. And “open-faced” sandwiches were common in much of Europe during the Middle Ages. Food was frequently eaten in “trenchers,” which were basically hollowed out loaves of bread. But according to legend, it took the Earl of Sandwich to give a definitive name to the marriage of bread and meat.

England's 4th Earl of Sandwich, John Montagu, is reported to have had something of a gambling problem. He'd settle in at the gaming tables for marathon stretches. In 1762, not wanting to be interrupted by so pedestrian an activity as eating, he ordered his cook to come up with something he could consume without having to get out of his seat. The clever cook slapped some meat between slices of bread and served it to the earl, who was so delighted by the concoction that it quickly became his favorite thing to eat. Owing to his position in British society, it wasn't long before the cook's on-the-fly idea acquired a name: the Montagu! No, seriously, it became known as the “sandwich.” Soon after the Earl's gambling binge, a fellow by the name of Edward Gibbon penned in his diary that he had seen “twenty or thirty of the first men of the kingdom” eating “sandwiches,” as he called them, in a London restaurant.

By the time of the American Revolution, the sandwich was well established in England, but no much in the Colonies. The rebellious colonists were not enamored of things British, you see, and it wasn't until 1815, many years after memories of the guns of war had faded, that a sandwich recipe appeared in an American cookbook. In case you were wondering, that sandwich wasn't good ol' American peanut butter and jelly; it was beef tongue. Peanut butter and jelly came along about a hundred years later.

In fact, peanut butter used to be considered a high-priced commodity. It was originally combined with things like pimento or watercress and served at fancy tea parties. But as commercial peanut processing got better, peanut butter got cheaper and by the time national brands like Peter Pan and Skippy were introduced in the 1920s and '30s, mothers all across the country were packing peanut butter sandwiches in children's lunches. Peanut butter was one of the few things not rationed during WWII, making it a great alternative source of protein. Because of that, peanut butter was issued to GIs during the war. So was jelly. It is said that enterprising soldiers put the two together and an American classic was born. At least, that's the legend. Ask older folks, though, especially those who lived out in the country, and they'll recall their moms mixing peanut butter and jelly back during the days of the Depression as a means of stretching scarce food resources. But whether it was frugal mothers or inventive soldiers who created it, PB&J is now iconic in American culture.

So, in no particular order, let's have a look at some other famous iterations of the Earl's namesake.

The Dagwood

Once upon a time, practically everybody knew who Dagwood Bumstead was. Married to Blondie Boopadoop on February 17, 1933, Dagwood became an international sensation on the newspaper comic pages before moving on to movie and radio stardom. And he also laid claim to a bit of culinary notoriety as the inventor of the eponymous “Dagwood Sandwich.”

The way “Chic” Young created and drew Dagwood, he was fairly inept at nearly everything. The one thing, however, at which he excelled was going into the kitchen, especially at night, and precariously piling mountains of various leftovers between slices of bread. The huge sandwiches the character created on his nocturnal refrigerator raids became known as “Dagwood sandwiches,” a term which even made it into the dictionary.

Now, Young was never specific about exactly what Dagwood put into those gargantuan multi-layered sandwiches, but they most often appear to be huge amounts of cold cuts, cheeses, and vegetables, slathered in condiments and stacked on and between numerous slices of bread, all topped off by an olive skewered through with a toothpick.

Several attempts at capitalizing on Blondie and Dagwood's popularity as food icons have been mounted over the years. A Dagwood-themed restaurant opened in Toledo in 1951, but was forced to close by the King Features syndicate, who sued over licensing issues. A similar attempt, made by a Michigan entrepreneur who circumvented the syndicate by hyphenating “Dag-Wood”, hung around into the early 1970s. Dagwood's image has been legitimately licensed to a product line of packaged lunch meats, and a “Blondie”-themed restaurant chain named “Dagwood's Sandwich Shoppes” was launched in 2006. The “Dagwood sandwich,” as served there, consists of three slices of deli bread, Genoa salami, ham, pepperoni, turkey, cheddar cheese, provolone, lettuce, tomato, roasted red bell peppers, banana peppers, red onion, deli mustard, and low-calorie mayonnaise. It weighs in at a pound-and-a-half.

The Reuben

The Reuben sandwich is often hailed as the ultimate New York deli sandwich. But some say it didn't originate in New York City or anywhere else in the Empire State, for that matter. Nope. It came straight out of the Midwest. Omaha, Nebraska, to be exact.

Like the Earl of Sandwich, Lithuanian-born Omaha grocer Reuben Kulakofsky was apparently quite a poker player. And he had a lot of poker playing pals, who called themselves “the committee,” and who, also like the Earl, preferred not to interrupt the game to eat. So in the 1920s, Reuben concocted a sandwich for his gambling buddies at the Blackstone Hotel and eventually convinced hotel owner Charles Schimmel to put it on the menu. A former hotel waitress entered and won a national recipe contest with Reuben's sandwich in the 1950s and it soon became popular all over the country.

But hold on a minute! New Yorkers have their own version of the tale to tell and it involves Arnold Reuben, the German-born owner of New York City's famous “Reuben's Delicatessen.” He claims to have invented the “Reuben Special” back in 1914 and his claim is backed by a print reference to the “Reuben Special” in a 1926 edition of “Theatre Magazine.”

Regardless of pedigree, the classic Reuben sandwich is a hot sandwich comprised of corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing, all grilled between slices of rye bread.

The Club

Trying to pin down the origin of the Club sandwich is like trying to herd cats. The classic sandwich that was an avowed favorite of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the former King Edward VIII and his wife, Wallis Simpson, likely got its name because it was popular at hotels, resorts, and country clubs all over the world. But which one gets first dibs?

The place that also gave us the potato chip lays an early claim. Popular theory attributes creation of the Club sandwich to the famous Saratoga Club-House in Saratoga Springs, New York. An exclusive “gentlemen only” gambling establishment, where neither women nor locals were permitted in the gambling rooms, it was originally called Morrissey's Club House. In 1894, it was purchased by Richard Canfield and became known as “Canfield's Casino.”

An unattributed recipe for the Club sandwich appears a few years later in the 1903 “Good Housekeeping Everyday Cook Book,” authored by Isabel Gordon Curtis. That recipe describes the Club Sandwich thusly: “Toast a slice of bread evenly and lightly butter it. On one half put, first, a thin slice of bacon which has been broiled till dry and tender, next a slice of the white meat of either turkey or chicken. Over one half of this place a circle cut from a ripe tomato and over the other half a tender leaf of lettuce. Cover these with a generous layer of mayonnaise, and complete this delicious 'whole meal' sandwich with the remaining piece of toast.”

The 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis gets credit for popularizing an astonishing variety of foods. Hot dogs, hamburgers, ice cream cones, banana splits, Dr. Pepper, cotton candy, and peanut butter are just a few of the everyday comestibles launched at the Fair. The Club sandwich got a boost, too, with four of the Fair's restaurants featuring a version on their menus.

A couple of early published references from the nineteen-teens and '20s credit an ordinary working man with the development of the Club sandwich. According to these sources, a guy came home late one night and found that the family had already eaten and gone off to bed. So he did what guys do: he raided the pantry and the icebox, the forerunner of the modern refrigerator. He made some toast. Then he slathered it with butter and mayonnaise. He found a couple of slices of cooked bacon and some cold chicken. A tomato looked pretty good, and he topped it all with another slice of buttered toast. Then he told his buddies at “the club” about his creation, and so was born the “Club sandwich.”

Of course, contemporary Club sandwiches are “double-deckers,” and some of the experts who study such things believe that the “double-decker” Club sandwich originated on the double-decker club cars of American trains back in the 1930s and '40s.

Apparently, you can make a Club sandwich out of almost anything. I've seen them packed with hummus, avacado, and even Dungeness crab meat. But the “classic” Club consists of toasted white bread, lettuce, tomato, bacon, thinly sliced chicken, and mayonnaise. Sometimes ham and/or cheese are added and maybe some mustard. The sandwich is usually constructed as a “double-decker,” having two layers separated by an additional slice of toasted bread.

The “Dean of American Cookery,” James Beard, had definite opinions on many food-related topics, including the Club sandwich. In 1972's “James Beard's American Cookery” he wrote: “. . . it is one of the great sandwiches of all time and has swept its way around the world after an American beginning. Nowadays the sandwich is bastardized because it is usually made as a three-decker, which is not authentic (whoever started that horror should be forced to eat three-deckers three times a day the rest of his life), and nowadays practically everyone uses turkey and there's a vast difference between turkey and chicken where sandwiches are concerned.”

The Grinder/Submarine/Hoagie/etc., etc.

This is a sandwich that really got around. Instead of slices of loaf bread, the base for the sandwich is a split roll, usually a long roll of some sort. The roll is then filled with a variety of meats, cheeses, vegetables, seasonings, and sauces. Nearly everybody who researches such things agrees that the sandwich is Italian in origin. Or, at least, it started with Italian immigrants.

The main issue with this sandwich is not who invented it or what it's made of; the bigger issue is what to call it. To some it's a “Po' Boy.” Many dub it a “Grinder.” Others call it a “Hoagie.” Some folks prefer “Hero,” while still others refer to it as a “Sub” or “Submarine.” If you really want to go off the deep end, you can call it a “Spuckie,” a “Blimpie,” a “Wedge,” or a “Bomber.” In some places it's a “Torpedo” or a “Zep,” shortened from “zeppelin.” To further add to the confusion, some folks think it's a “Dagwood.” In many instances, what you call it depends largely on where you're standing when you order it. Earlier, I alluded to herding cats. Well, this one is like herding spastic cats on acid. But here goes.

Most authorities agree that the “Po' Boy” came first. What they don't agree on is how the term “Po' Boy” came into being. That it originated in New Orleans is pretty much universally accepted. From there you have the Benny and Clovis Martin supporters. The Martins, streetcar conductors turned restaurateurs, supposedly invented the sandwich in 1929 for former colleagues who were striking against the streetcar company. They allegedly referred to their customers as “them poor boys,” which, in Louisiana dialect, translated to “po' boys,” and the name just kind of stuck to the sandwich. Other folks insist that dialect did play a part, but that the “boys” in question were literally poor and the sandwich was something which a “po' boy” could afford. The Martin supporters usually have the edge in the debate.

When the sandwich migrated to New England, it picked up a number of new names, the most common of which were “grinder” and “submarine.” The “submarine” appellation, later shortened to just “sub,” came about because the sandwiches looked kind of like......well, like submarines. Another theory holds that the sandwich picked up the name because of its popularity among workers at the Navy yards in Groton, Connecticut, a place where submarines were made. Here's where those spastic cats come in: the sandwich was supposedly invented by an Italian shopkeeper named Benedetto Capaldo, who called it a “grinder” because that was a slang term for the local dockworkers who were among his biggest customers. This version of the story says that because most of those “grinders” worked on submarines, the term “submarine sandwich” came into vogue. One way or another, submersible vehicles were involved.

Another entry posits the notion that the sandwich was a favorite among a particular type of “grinder,” the one in charge of rounding off rivet heads. The term “grinder” is also said to have been added to the lexicon because the bread was so crusty and chewy that it took a lot of “grinding” to eat it.

I've seen some who date the “submarine” sandwich specifically to WWII. Others insist that it was a product of the '50s. To both I present the 1940 phone book for Wilmington, Delaware wherein an advertisement was placed for “submarine sandwiches to take out.”

“Hoagie” supposedly got its name thanks to Italian shipyard workers on Philadelphia's Hog Island. (Say “hog” with an Italian accent and you'll get it.) It is also said to have Irish roots taken from the name “Hogan,” either used as a slang term for Irish dockworkers or from an actual Irishman of that name whose wife apparently made killer Italian sandwiches. Still another theory holds that back in the 1920s, a Philadelphia jazz musician, later turned sandwich shop owner, named Al De Palma saw some fellow musicians chowing down on a big sandwich. He supposedly said to himself “you gotta be a hog” to eat a sandwich that big. So, naturally, when he opened his sandwich shop in the '30s, he dubbed his big sandwiches “hoggies.” And, speaking of jazz musicians, the sandwich was in no way related to the great “Hoagy” Carmichael, whose first name was Howard and whose middle name was “Hoagland.” Another Philadelphia “hoagie” theory has to do with “hokey-pokey men.” No, they weren't guys who spent all their time putting their left foot in and taking their left foot out. They were early-twentieth-century street vendors. Why that made them "hokey-pokey men" is beyond explanation. Anyway, the story goes that when Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta “H.M.S. Pinafore” opened in Philadelphia in 1879, local bakeries commemorating the event produced a special long loaf called the “pinafore.” And the "hokey-pokey men" sliced the loaf in half, stuffed it with antipasto salad, and sold the world's first "hoagie" sandwich. Another fringe theory out of South Philly says that among Italian immigrants there, the phrase "on the hoke" was a slang term used to describe a destitute person. Supposedly, kindly shop owners would give away scraps of meat and cheese in an Italian roll known as a "hokie", but since there's no letter “k” in the Italian alphabet, the local immigrants pronounced it "hoagie." Which sounds like a lot of hokey-pokey to me.

The other funky names I mentioned represent regional variations on the same theme. “Spuckie” is native to Boston, where it derived from the Italian word “spucadella,” a kind of Italian roll. “Blimpie's” come out of Hoboken, the “Torpedo” and the “Zep” are Pennsylvania natives, the “Bomber” hails from Buffalo, and the “Wedge” is specific to Westchester County, New York and adjacent Fairfield County, Connecticut. The story goes that the Italian owner of a Yonkers deli got tired of saying “sandwich” and shortened it to “wedge.”

Another example of pronunciation possibly influencing the name of a sandwich comes from the “Hero.” Now, I read something about people calling it a “hero” because it was such a big sandwich that it took heroic effort to eat it. That story can be traced to New York Herald Tribune columnist Clementine Paddleworth who penned the comment in 1936. But the Greeks had (and have) a sandwich called the “gyro.” Americans have a strange proclivity toward anglicizing anything and everything that they can't otherwise pronounce, so that sandwich got mutilated as “JY-roh.” But the proper Greek pronunciation is closer to “hero.” The flaw in that theory is that “heroes” have been around since the '30s and '40s, but “gyros” didn't really catch on in America much before the '60s. One more kind of whacked-out theory, but one that appears to have some legitimate basis in scholarly research, proposes that the term was actually part of the jargon of armored car guards who used “hero” to describe a really big sandwich. Take your pick. I like the Greek option.
The Muffuletta

Back to the home of the Po' Boy we go for the origin of the Muffuletta. The pedigree of that one, at least, leaves no doubt: it's Italian. Specifically, Sicilian. It is said to have originated at the Central Grocery in the French Quarter of New Orleans, where owner Salvatore Lupo sold salami, ham, cheese, olive salad, and either long braided Italian bread or a round muffuletta loaf to Sicilian immigrant farmers who sold their produce at the nearby Farmers Market. The farmers ate everything separately while sitting on crates or barrels and balancing their lunches on their knees. Salvatore suggested cutting the bread and putting everything on it in a decidedly non-Sicilian sandwich style. The farmers rejected the thick braided loaf in favor of the softer, rounder muffuletta loaf, and a new sandwich was born.

The traditional muffuletta is a cold sandwich consisting of the bread, split horizontally and covered with layers of marinated olive salad, mortadella, salami, mozzarella, ham, and provolone. Some vendors heat the sandwich in order to melt the cheese.

I was going to tell you all about hamburgers, but for some reason I'm suddenly very hungry. And there's fresh-baked bread and ham and cheese and Benton's bacon and a bunch of other stuff calling to me from the kitchen. So maybe next time, okay?

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