I’ve written another Adventures in Food column for the AJC, this one about sandwiches, but here’s a much expanded version, with many more fun stories. Enjoy!
Just about anywhere you go in the world, one thing you’re almost sure to find, no matter what the culture, is their equivalent of the sandwich.
And, folks everywhere love to talk about their favorite sandwiches — from PB&J to tuna fish, from the many variations on the hamburger to regional favorites like cheesesteaks and lobster rolls, along with breakfast sandwiches, sloppy joes, and other cultures’ contributions: gyro, panini, muffuletta, croque-monsieur, banh mi, Cuban sandwiches and pita.
Of course, what’s acceptable as a sandwich differs from region to region and person to person. Darrell Huckaby was telling me recently that his wife ridiculed him for loving pineapple sandwiches (a Southern delicacy). “She says she has never seen anyone except me eat those, but they were not only a staple, but kind of a fancy choice, when I was growing up,” he said. “Dole sliced pineapple rings on white bread with lots of mayonnaise. We always used Blue Plate. A slice of cheese and a piece of lettuce made it extra fancy, which is how I had mine today.”
The other argument he and his wife have involves banana sandwiches, “and whether it should have peanut butter or mayo, and whether the banana should be sliced in pinwheels or lengthwise. I prefer lengthwise.”
That reminds me of when I was growing up: My Mom would make a mountainous platter of sandwiches for her husband and three hungry sons, and of the several different types she’d make for one meal, there’d usually be both banana sandwiches and pineapple. I preferred banana and didn’t like pineapple sandwiches, while my middle brother Jon was the reverse!
Then, there was the woman my wife Leslie worked with, who was aghast at Southerners’ penchant for tomato sandwiches. However, my friend Allan Kozinn, who grew up in New York, also likes tomato sandwiches. “I didn’t know they were Southern,” he said. “I thought I invented them by not having anything else to put on them, and being too lazy to go get some. Hell, I’ve been known to eat salad dressing sandwiches, which is even more minimal.”
Everyone has a favorite fast-food sandwich, too, whether it’s McDonald’s filet-o-fish drowned in tartar sauce or one of the contenders in the recent chicken sandwich wars.
Or, they lament the loss of a sandwich that’s no longer around (a frequent thing in Atlanta). Longtime Atlanta disc jockey J.J. Jackson is among the folks who still miss Good Ole Days’ flowerpot sandwiches; others remain angry at Chick-fil-A for doing away with its chicken salad sandwich; and, when Milton Leathers goes to the Varsity, he misses “their old grilled Swiss cheese and ham on rye! It was perfect.”
When I first moved to Atlanta, before I was married, I practically lived off sandwiches, especially the too-wide-for-your-mouth deli sandwiches at Harold’s, on Marietta Street downtown. Ham, turkey or roast beef, they were huge.
Howard Pousner also was a Harold’s devotee. “I don’t know how Harold made any money,” he said, “because he couldn’t possibly charge enough for those enormous sandwiches. … Of course, he was probably riffing on the Stage and Carnegie delis in New York, also known for mile-high sandwiches!”
Speaking of thick sandwiches, I remember in high school a friend asking me if I wanted a late-night snack at his house. He proceeded to open a brand-new pack of cold-cuts and put half the pack in his sandwich, and the other half in mine. I was pretty sure his mom was going to kill him when she found out.
Nowadays, my favorite sandwich is the smoked salmon BLT at The Station at Person Street, in Raleigh, NC, near where my son, Bill, and daughter-in-law, Jenny, live. It has smoked salmon, bacon, lettuce, tomato and lemon dill aioli, served on sourdough bread. I have to have one every time I visit them.
According to my daughter, Olivia, a very popular item these days is the subway sandwich from Publix, fondly known as a “Pub sub.”
Brigid Choi, who grew up in Atlanta, but now lives in Seattle, laments that the thing she misses most out West is “we don’t have Publix, so Pub subs aren’t a thing! That’s something that people from the South miss around here.”
Pub subs have been named the country’s best sandwiches by the Thrillist site, and Publix will make it any way you want it. Still, their most popular hot sub is the one with freshly cooked chicken tenders.
Most of the time, though, when eating out, my daughter’s go-to is the grilled cheese, a diner classic. The best ones generally are at Waffle House, she said, though she was really taken with the grilled cheese at Sweet Grass Dairy Cheese Shop in Thomasville, GA, while she was on a Midwifery clinical there for several weeks, learning to catch babies. (She ate a lot of Pub subs while in Thomasville, too.)
My buddy David Gibson also is partial to grilled cheese. “It is the ultimate comfort food,” he said. “Mine is usually a slice of cheddar sandwiched between two slices of American cheese, with mayo, grilled in a heavily buttered skillet. And I’m going to make one now.”
If you don’t want to make your own, and you live in the Midwest or South, where QuikTrip convenience stores are located, Mike Webb noted that the chain “has a pretty good grilled cheese, for only $1.99.”
Ironically, the U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn’t even consider the grilled cheese to be officially a “sandwich,” which they define as “a meat or poultry filling between two slices of bread, a bun, or a biscuit.”
But, then again, they once tried to convince us ketchup is a vegetable!
To my mind, any handheld dish that puts a filling, whether vegetable, dairy or meat, into some sort of grain-based covering is a sandwich. End of discussion.
For many folks, favorite sandwich memories involve childhood concoctions. Recalled my old friend Mark Gunter: “Every day, when I got home from school, I’d fix a butter and sugar sandwich,” which involved two slices of white bread, butter and white sugar.
Likewise, Steve Oney said, “My favorite childhood sandwich belongs in a Jeff Foxworthy routine: ‘You might be a redneck if … your favorite childhood sandwich was mayo on white bread.’ I must have eaten hundreds of them. Sometimes, I used Miracle Whip, other times Hellman’s. As for the bread, I never wavered: Little Miss Sunbeam. I went cold turkey (not as a sandwich ingredient) when I was at UGA. I wanted to live to 25.”
Anne Segrest Freeze, with whom I grew up, learned an important sandwich lesson in college. “My Boston roommate taught me, from her daddy, to always spread anything on a sandwich to the very edge, so that every bite tastes as good as that bite from the middle,” she said. “I kept that rule when I had my food shop in Athens (Foodworks) for our sandwiches.”
Of course, most Southerners are partial to barbecue sandwiches of one type or another. Georgian Jim Auchmutey, author of “Smokelore: A Short History of Barbecue in America,” grew up south Decatur, “and was fortunate to be surrounded by good barbecue places: Lefty’s on Candler Road, Log Cabin on Glenwood, Hensler’s in Avondale Estates and Old Hickory House on Memorial Drive.”
But, Jim said, “my favorite barbecue sandwich growing up was probably the sliced beef sandwich at Old Hickory House. I know, I know … we’re in Georgia, and barbecue is supposed to be pig meat. But, for some reason, the Old Hickory House chain did beef barbecue, and their sliced beef sammie was really good.”
Jim offered “a quick bit of history: Barbecue sandwiches were some of America’s first convenience foods. When people took to the road in cars during the 1920s, many of the earliest roadside eateries were barbecue places. It was right up there with hamburgers as road food. One of the biggest chain restaurant operations in the 1920s and ’30s was an operation out of Texas called Pig Stands. Some of their outlets were in little buildings that looked like a pig. Their slogan was: ‘Eat a Pig Sandwich.’ A lot of people don’t know that McDonald’s started as a barbecue drive-in in San Bernardino, Calif., and then switched to burgers a few years later.”
Wayne Rogers, who hails from southeastern North Carolina, is partial to the liver pudding sandwich. Also called livermush in the western part of the state, liver pudding is a pork product prepared using pig liver, parts of pig heads, cornmeal and spices.
Sandwiches rule up North, too. “You can’t be a true New Jerseyan unless a Taylor ham [a brand of pork roll], egg and cheese is your go-to breakfast sandwich,” Tom Frangione told me. “Preferably on a bagel, but only if you are in a bagel store. No supermarket or deli bagels. That’s heresy. Mick Jagger himself, from the stage at MetLife Stadium on the Rolling Stones 2019 tour, cited the nearby Tick Tock Diner (itself a New Jersey landmark) for their vaunted take on this classic.”
Tom is a serious sandwich lover. One year, his parents, at a loss for what to give him for Christmas, settled on a deli slicer.
Said Tom, “Like many a New Jerseyan, I’m Italian. And if Italian delis are your thing, Hoboken (just this side of Manhattan) is a true paradise. Home of the original cake boss (Carlo’s Bakery, which still makes the best chocolate dipped pecan wedge on earth), it also has a disproportionate share of Italian delis. And, leading that pack is Fiore’s, where the daily sandwich special is centered around their store-made mozzarella.”
Mondays at Fiore’s means tuna, mozzarella and balsamic vinegar, he said, which is “heavenly. But nothing compares to the Friday roast beef, mozzarella and brown gravy. It is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”
Back to Allan Kozinn, whose sandwich memories also skew Italian. “When I was in high school, in Yonkers, New York, there was an Italian family deli called Landi’s, just down the street from school,” he recalled. “Their subs were legendary to generations of Yonkers High School students, and at lunchtime there would be a line snaking down the street for one of their sandwiches. When you got to the front of the line, you told them what you wanted — it could be a turkey sub with lettuce and tomatoes, to which they would add oil, salt, pepper and some other combination of seasonings that was probably proprietary.”
The guy making the sandwiches wore a white deli smock that “always had the wipings of who-knows-how-many sandwiches on it,” Allan said, “and in those days, guys at delis were not required to wear gloves. So he’d be coughing and sneezing into his hand, and making your sandwich, and kids joked about that, but no one was ever too grossed out to stop getting them, because they were delicious, and the alternatives were school food, which was dismal, or bringing a bag lunch from home, which, to a 16-year-old circa 1970, just wasn’t the kind of look you wanted to cultivate.”
Al Sussman, who used to live in New Jersey and worked in New York City, but retired to Pittsburgh, misses “the roast beef sandwiches at the Manhattan delis that one can hardly bite down on, because the roast beef is piled in so high.”
In Pittsburgh, Al said, the most popular stop for sandwiches “is Primanti Bros., home of sandwiches with cole slaw and French fries on top of the sandwich fixin’s.”
For Doug Criss, nothing beats a Philly cheesesteak. “What could be simpler? Beef (either ribeye or skirt steak) paired with cheese (American, provolone or cheese whiz) on a hoagie. Simplicity never tasted so good! I don’t even go for all the other stuff that a lot of folks like on their sandwiches: onions and other such nonsense. Just give me the bread, meat and the cheese!”
Rich Lavery, who is from Connecticut, but now lives in metro Atlanta, told me the “grinders” (hot subs) served in his home state beat the subs he’s had in Georgia, chiefly because of the bread. “It’s thicker on the outside, but doughy inside.”
David Persails now lives near Houston, Texas, but “back in the day, in my hometown of Flint, Michigan, we could pick up a very decent steak and onion sandwich from a small, local chain called Big John’s Steak and Onion. These were excellent then, and the restaurant is still running (since 1972!), though I haven’t visited in many years. Great for a local flavor, and now that you’ve got me thinking about it, I’m going to have to visit when we return this summer!”
In Chicago, Kit O’Toole loves the Italian beef sandwiches, and “our take on the sub, namely putting delicious giardiniera (an Italian preparation of marinated vegetables) on as a condiment.”
Kit added: “I don’t know if you’re counting a hot dog as a sandwich”— I am, Kit, with the blessing of Stephen Colbert and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg — “but, of course we’re known for our ketchup-free dogs.”
Of course, food is serious business in New Orleans, where native Bruce Spizer notes “the po’boy is the most popular sandwich, although the muffuletta is also well-known, due the city’s large Italian-American population. The key to a great po’boy is fresh French bread and generous amounts of the ingredients, be it meat or seafood. Po’boys are normally ‘dressed,’ meaning mayo, lettuce, tomatoes and pickles, unless you request otherwise. The city has a po’boy festival each November.”
Bruce’s favorite place for po’boys is Parkway Tavern & Bakery. “During my childhood, when I returned from summer camp, my parents would take me straight to Parkway after picking me up at the train station or airport, because they knew I had gone eight weeks without my favorite New Orleans meal,” he said. “I would get a roast beef po’boy with mayo and gravy only. It was a messy and delicious experience. I still enjoy going there any time I am in the area.
“One of my favorite foods at the Jazz Fest is the cochon de lait po’boy, which is pulled pork. It comes with cole slaw, unless you order it ‘naked’ (as opposed to ‘dressed’). Another institution for po’boys is Mother’s, where I get the Fredi’s Special, which is ham, roast beef, roast beef debris and gravy.”
As for the muffuletta, another Louisiana native, Louis Mayeux, explained that it’s “an Italian sandwich with distinctive round bread. Along with lettuce and tomatoes, it has Italian meats and cheeses.”
In Nashville, Greg Bailey recommends the cheeseburger at Rotier’s, which is served on French bread. “It may be the most iconic sandwich in Nashville,” he said. “It’s terrific … The bread is always soft and fresh, the burger cooked old-style … right off the griddle, dressed perfectly, and paired with an off-the-menu chocolate milkshake (best in town).”
Out in Washington state, Dan Raley said that, “for both my and my wife’s families, the turkey sandwich, full slice, was the Northwest staple. I first had it when I was 8, on a ferry headed to British Columbia. I’ll never forget it. It was just heaven. I’ve been devoted to a good turkey sandwich ever since.”
But, when Raley worked in Atlanta, “I was in for a totally new experience. I had never had barbecue before. I couldn’t believe what I was missing. Beef or pork, it didn’t matter. I was 8 years old all over again. Fox Bros. became a favorite hangout for me in my two years in the capital city of the South. I took family members there. I grabbed the MARTA and went alone on weekends. I might prefer the barbecue now over the turkey sandwich. I’ve been to North and South Carolina, plus Florida and Louisiana, for work, and I’ve sampled them all. Nothing beats good barbecue.”
In Los Angeles, Rip Rense said, the sandwich experience revolves around Philippe’s Downtown, “Home of the French-Dipped Sandwich.” Said Rip: “It was founded in 1908, and is substantially the same as it was then, in terms of menu selection and ambience, though it has changed locations a couple of times. The beef, pork, lamb, turkey dipped sandwiches are smaller than they used to be, and, of course, more expensive, but still great workingman’s (and women’s) fare.”
The ingredients, Rip said, are “a French roll dipped in au jus (secret recipe, of course) meat of choice, with or without cheese (cheddar, Swiss — I prefer Swiss.) A must: Philippe’s homemade trademarked hot mustard, which will clear out your sinuses in a hurry. Eat with a side of pickle and/or hot peppers, and you’re living large. I always add either their signature cole slaw or potato salad, as most folks do. A very satisfying repast.
“Stay away on days of Dodger home games, unless you like crowds. The sandwich — which Philippe’s claims to have invented (disputed by Cole’s on 6th Street downtown) — is uniquely Southern California fare.”
There is a new L.A. sandwich trend, Rip added, “that might or might not pick up speed: yakisoba sandwiches. These are staples in Japan (and often found in Chinese bakeries), and are showing up with frequency in Little Tokyo and Sawtelle Japantown. They’re basically stir-fried noodles with onion, and maybe carrots, on a French roll. Disclosure: I have not tried them, but they are very tempting in appearance.”
Another Angeleno, Rick Ginell, noted that “The Habit is a Santa Barbara fast-food place that has expanded into a chain that now stretches throughout Southern California. Their hamburgers actually rated No. 1 on a recent Consumer Reports survey, beating out the legendary In-N-Out Burger stands.”
In the wilds of Montana, meanwhile, the burgers tend to be made from bison, John Firehammer said. “The meat is tasty, and leaner than beef.”
But, he said, “there’s also a small Montana chain called the Staggering Ox, which specializes in ‘clubfoot sandwiches.’ The bread is baked in a tin can, creating an opening, which you can stuff with ingredients. The signature sandwich is called the Nuke,” which comes with ham, turkey, beef, swiss, provolone, cheddar, lettuce and sauce, with a wide range of the latter offered, including ranch, horsie, Italian and salsa. Unless you request otherwise, the sauce comes inside the sandwich.
And, when John visits his son, who’s in college in St. Paul, Minn., he loves the Twin Cities’ famous Juicy Lucy burger. “The cheese is placed inside the patty, not on top, and it’s delicious.”
Sandwiches certainly aren’t exclusive to America, either. Brigid Choi, who travels frequently, said that, in Japan, “you’re likely to see egg salad sandwiches, katsu sandwiches, curry sandwiches, and yakisoba sandwiches at convenience stores,” with entire sections of shelves devoted to prepackaged sandwiches.
However, ground zero for the sandwich remains the U.K., which gave the meal its English-language name, thanks to an 18th century nobleman, the Earl of Sandwich, who reputedly asked for some beef to be served between two slices of bread to avoid him leaving a gambling table.
The Brits, who love to nickname everything, refer to buns or sandwich rolls as a bap or a cob, and often call sandwiches butties or sarnies. Miranda Rehm, who grew up in Atlanta, but moved to Britain in the mid-19080s, said, “One of my earliest experiences when I moved here involved being asked to go out and buy someone a ‘sarnie’ when I was temping at a bank. It took me a moment to realize they were asking for a sandwich!”
The offerings can range from the quintessential British sandwich — cucumber, egg and cress, made with butter, often served at afternoon tea — to a plebeian bacon sarnie or chip butty (essentially french fries in a roll). Fish finger sandwiches (using what Americans call fish sticks) also are popular there.
In 1950s Liverpool, where Bill Harry went to art college with John Lennon, post-war food rationing was still a thing, and mothers would take the beef drippings left in the bottom of a roasting pan “and pour it into a little white bowl where it would set with the fat on top and the jelly part beneath. They would then spread it on bread.
“I remember the time before sliced bread, when we would cut the bread, and it would be very thick, so we referred to them as ‘doorstops.’
“I lived in the working class dock area, and remember having dripping butties regularly. We never used the word sandwiches; it was always butties or sarnies.”
My friend Simon Rogers noted that, in the 1960s and ’70s, before shops started selling prepackaged sandwiches (popularized by the Marks & Spencer chain), British sandwich tradition was dominated by “the average working man’s cafe, lovingly called a greasy spoon, which offered the holy trinity of bacon, sausage or a fried egg. Any request for a sandwich made of anything else was met with looks of suspicion. The Monty Python spam sketch was not too far from the truth.”
Simon and another British friend of mine, David Bearne, recall a “coronation chicken” sandwich, which David said “would include mayonnaise, curry powder and sultanas.” Simon said the sandwich, invented in 1952 in honor of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, was “a bright yellow,” with an “almost glow-in-the-dark filling of cooked chicken, curry powder and heavy cream.”
To Simon, “there is still something deeply soothing about a bacon sandwich in a working man’s cafe between two thick doorstop slices of bread. Served with a big mug of steaming tea. Just don’t ask me what’s the better sauce to have with it, red or brown.”
That’s one of the things Brits like to argue about: the relative merits of red sauce (ketchup) and brown sauce, which Richard Buskin explained to me is “a tomato base blended with malt vinegar, wine vinegar, molasses, glucose-fructose syrup, sugar, dates, corn flour, rye flour, salt, spices and tamarind. I love it, but it’s very likely an acquired taste.”
My first-cousin Lyndon Parry, who lives in Nottingham, said, “The thing you have to keep in mind with us Brits is we can put anything between two slices of bread.”
Breakfast sandwiches are big in the U.K., Lyndon said. Usually, it’s a bacon or sausage sandwich, frequently involving a fried egg.
But the ultimate, he said, features a full English breakfast (bacon, sausage, egg, mushrooms, black pudding, baked beans and/or tinned tomatoes) on a soft roll. “It’s a taste sensation, but very messy.”
Lyndon’s brother John remembers a childhood treat where “thick bread was dipped one side in condensed milk, sweet and gooey. Then the bread and butter were dipped in sugar. It’s a wonder I still have my teeth!”
John also loves a sandwich combining marmite (a food spread made from yeast extract) and cheese.
Wendy Rogers offered some other classic British sandwiches: “Apart from the chip butty, there’s also the crisp sandwich. Potato chips, as you guys call them, are emptied onto a slice of bread and squashed (usually) between another slice. Very popular!
“Also, the salad cream sandwich. Salad cream is like mayo, but cheaper. It’s spread onto bread and, again, squashed into a sandwich. … The cheese ploughman also is popular. It’s a huge amount of cheese, with salad, and always Branston pickle, and is so-called because ploughmen had a mini meal in a sandwich to take into the fields!”
And then there’s the “cheese and pickle, an old-time British classic,” Miranda Rehm said, adding that “‘pickle’ here is a chutney/relish.”
Moving on in the world, many people wouldn’t automatically think of a sandwich as Mexican food, but Doug Hall, a Georgia native now living in Mexico City, would beg to differ. When Hall was a boy in Middle Georgia, he used to love mashed potato sandwiches made with a yeast roll.
He had not experienced them in years, he said. Then, after moving to Mexico City, “imagine my surprise when I sat down at Quesadillas Lucha, in the Coyoacan Market, and saw on the menu ‘quesadillas de papa.’” That’s a doubled-over corn tortilla filled with mashed potatoes and cheese, then deep-fried.
“I like mine with a helping of Mexican crema and red bayo bean salsa,” Hall said. “I try my best to limit myself to only a few a year. But, my goodness, they are wonderful.”
Rosa Song, a native of Beijing now living in Arizona, told me that sandwiches are pretty much the same in China as in America, “though we might use different bread or put different ingredients in.” One traditional Chinese dish, she said, is rou jia mo, which is “meat and a little bit of veggies” in a roll, and looks very much like an American sandwich.
Rosa’s favorite sandwich when she lived in China? “I only remember Subway,” she said with a laugh.
Yes, sandwich seems to be the universal language.