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The History Behind Sandwiches

By Julian Brunt, Eat Drink Mississippi Contributing Writer

Everyone has heard that the Earl of Sandwich invented the sandwich in 1762, or thereabouts. It’s an interesting story but certainly isn’t true. The people of the Middle East have been putting leftovers on flatbread for generations, and the frugal French have been doing the same thing with their crusty baguettes, albeit sliced open and stuffed. But nowhere in the world has the idea of the sandwich taken off as it has in the U.S., and no part of this country enjoys the idea more than in the Deep South. I have read that Americans eat three million sandwiches a day, and I’d wager a significant portion of that number are in the South.

Upscale sandwiches, like the Muffuletta from New Orleans, the Reuben, either from Omaha or New York City, depending on who you ask, and the French Dip from Los Angeles are all good examples of favorite American sandwiches. However, the sandwiches I grew up on in the South were something quite different.

I am still a huge sandwich fan and love to get creative when in the sandwich mood. I often drive to a local bakery to buy a crusty loaf of bread, something dense and chewy, but when I was a kid, soft crustless bread was just being introduced and had become the fashion. Before American white bread made the scene, some pretty interesting bread could be found. But white bread took over, mainly because it was marketed as “sophisticated” bread. It didn’t have a crust, which was required to keep it fresh. The message was that crusty bread was for the poor. It was soft and easy on children’s tender mouths, but it has no other redeeming qualities and certainly is not delicious.

One of our favorite toppings for American sandwiches is cheese. But cheese has met the same demise as crusty bread. It’s been dumbed down to the point that the average grocery store carries only cheddar (not real cheddar), grated parmesan (not real parmesan Reggiano), Swiss (same thing), Colby jack, Velveeta, which isn’t a cheese at all, and a few others.

Think about this: the French alone produce more than 300 recognized cheeses. How many can you name? Other than parmesan Reggiano and mozzarella, how many Italian cheeses can you buy at the store? There are hundreds. Parmesan Reggiano is the bestselling cheese in Italy. What’s the number two bestselling cheese? It’s Taleggio.

I am not being snooty, just making the point that the ingredients of Southern sandwiches are more often than not simple stuff. In fact, they were born of poverty, as are so many food traditions. When I was a kid, perhaps my favorite sandwich was a simple hot dog on a white bread bun. It was vastly better when charred on a charcoal fire, but we often ate them just boiled in water. And yes, we ate them with ketchup. I also enjoyed mustard and mayo, and if I could get a thin slice of American cheese to go on top, that was a great thing indeed.

The grilled cheese may be the most famous. In my youth, grilled cheese was almost always served with Campbell’s bean and bacon soup, tomato soup or chicken noodle. I tell you, a good grilled cheese (several slices of cheese make it so much better), cut in half and dipped in a bowl of hot soup, is pretty damn good. It is one of my comfort foods of choice. Banana sandwiches are also pretty good. I love the combination of banana, peanut butter and mayo sandwich. If you add bacon to it, it becomes the Elvis, named, of course, for Elvis Presley. The Elvis is also pretty darn good grilled, like a grilled cheese. In these difficult times, many people have become creative with comfort food, and many creative sandwiches have been created. I love a Vienna sausage, mayo and pickle sandwich. Corned beef and mustard are not much of a stretch, but if you sauté the corned beef first, it is much better. The same thing goes for Spam. I have made sandwiches from leftover braised leek, but more often than not, I try to keep it simple: a fried egg sandwich, which can be souped up with bacon (or sausage) and cheese. And it is hard to beat a good ham sandwich; the hard part is finding a good, smoked ham. I adore Black Forest ham but have never found any in the U.S. close to the Schwartzwald chicken we used to get in southern Germany.

I love a good sandwich and don’t follow any specific rules, like no ketchup on a hot dog. A sandwich can be made from almost any leftover in the fridge, it’s hand potable and can be inexpensive, and, if you use a little creativity, absolutely delish. Don’t forget the soup!

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