This isn’t the first time I’ve poured out my sandwich love or written about my theory that they are this country’s first fusion food. You can read some of this previously published material in Esquire and Travel + Leisure.
When I am working on a story for Travel + Leisure, it’s my job to hit a city’s culinary highlights. But I always make it a point to start with that city’s signature dish as a way of understanding local history. Iconic regional dishes can be used to reveal the roots of local immigration and determine what each ethnic group brought to the community culture.
The great chef John Besh explained to me that New Orleans is unique as a historical port because it was settled with very little Anglican influence, and that the one-pots (like gumbo) are a link to its cultural mix of Spanish and French colonists with a large enslaved Afro-Caribbean community. He told me to look at those long lists of herbs and spices: “Everyone stirred a little bit of their culture into the pot.” Or, when I was working my way through the menu at a Zingerman’s Roadhouse in Ann Arbor Michigan (specializing in “Great American Food,” regional dishes from around the country), I learned the background of chicken fried steak. Due to the prominent role Germans and Austrians had in settling Texas, it doesn’t take much to view that dish as a frontier translation of Wiener Schnitzel (staple of Central European cuisine).
The connection is even more obvious with sandwiches. Most of the country’s great urban sandwich places are in former factory (and working) neighborhoods where immigrants quickly set up shop and folded their native ingredients (and/or cooking methods) into mainstream cuisine. As the quickest way to layer the tastes of the old country into the new, sandwiches are probably our original fusion food.
There are plenty of American regional sandwiches (with accompanying stories) like the Beef-on-Weck in Buffalo or Loosemeats in Sioux City, IA. But I decided to limit myself to tracing the outline of the country, starting in Maine and working down the coast to Miami, over to New Orleans and then across the Texas land border, up the West Coast and across the Northern boundary to Chicago.
This was not an exercise in “best:” I am not much of a food ranker. I like to think about context, and although there may not always be perfect symmetry between city and sandwich, here is my version of the United States, according to sandwiches.
From Maine to Connecticut, the lobster and clam roll
There might not be a specific ethnic link for the lobster roll (many folks like Red’s Eats, Wiscasset, Maine, a picturesque road side stand that’s been around since 1938). But there is an “embarrassment of riches” aspect, common in many immigrant family kitchens. In the 1988 film Mystic Pizza, townie waitress Daisy (Julia Roberts), invited to the summer home of a rich WASP boyfriend (played by Adam Storke in a classic James Spader role), is less than thrilled when dinner turns out to be lobster—a staple in her family’s household because her Portuguese-American mother works in a lobster plant on the docks.
Maine was the site of the first recorded European colony in 1604 and according to the state’s Department of Marine Resources, lobster fishing is “probably the oldest, continuously operated industry on the North American continent.” Prior to commercialization, every lobster caught in Maine stayed in Maine. (Early records are scarce, but in 2000, the lobster harvest yielded 57,000,000 pounds.) So imagine what lobster was at one time: poverty food. Indentured servants (who exchanged labor for passage to America) had it written into their contracts that they would not have to eat it more than three times a week, and a law guaranteed prisoners the same protection (cruel and unusual punishment by crustacean).
To me, a heap of lobster in a roll that requires a good grip is nothing more than a device to turn seafood into a solid meal: heavier, heartier family fare is typically achieved by adding bread (even those crunchy Trenton oyster crackers soaked in chowders qualify).
The same theory can be applied to the clam roll, a shoreline staple along the Connecticut coast. Since the Native Americans showed colonists how to harvest clams (the white shells were carved into beads and used for currency, or “wampum”), shell-fishing has been a vital part of the state’s economy. But you can’t feed your family a steady diet of clams on the half shell, which accounts for some of the heartier regional clam dishes, like New Haven’s famous clam pizza.
In Madison, Lenny and Joe’s Fish Tale serves a clam roll made with breaded whole or full-bellied clams (also known as Ipswich or steamer clams, these have a thin brittle shell which doesn’t completely close because of its protruding long neck or siphon). No pre-breading and sitting around for these clams. Instead, they are batter-dipped, rolled in cracker meal, and fried to order. Since the breading is done at the last moment, the clams remain completely coated, forming a protective crust on contact with the hot oil which produces the internal steam necessary to properly cook the clam, and in the process, creates a sandwich of delicious contrasts: crispy but tender.
A regional requirement: both of these sandwiches must be served on a toasted top-loading New England hot dog bun, which looks like a small rectangular “box” made of white bread. I imagine it was invented like this: a hungry guy in a hurry took a piece of toast and folded it in half with one hand, letting the seam rest along his palm like a trough. Then he filled it up.
Pastrami in New York
More than a decade ago, the late Abe Lebewohl, founder of the Second Avenue Deli, showed me how to hand-slice pastrami. Now this is an instinctive art. You have to be able to “feel” the pastrami because each one is different, taking into consideration how hard or soft the meat is after steaming as well as the fat content. Placing a whole brine-cured and smoked beef belly on a narrow wooden counter (where it fit perfectly into the indentation shaped by the thousands that went before it), Abe trimmed off the crisp, spicy edges, pushing them into a little mound and motioned for me to “eat, eat.” I left that day with a securely foil-wrapped packet of still warm and beautifully fatty pastrami in my purse, feeling like I was transporting an organ.
Although it is more of a global village now, the Lower East Side of Manhattan was once the epicenter of Eastern European immigration, packed with pushcarts peddlers and synagogues, and Abe, known as the Mayor of Second Avenue, was a throw back to the day when that street was lined with theaters and called the “Yiddish Broadway.” Like Ukrainian refuge Lebewohl, pastrami has deep Jewish roots (explanation better left to an expert like Joan Nathan) even appearing as a cultural stereotype in Woody Allen’s great urban romance Annie Hall (1977), when Midwestern transplant Hall (Diane Keaton) orders a “pastrami on white bread with, uh, mayonnaise and tomatoes and lettuce,” and New Yorker Alvy Singer (Woody) looks embarrassed and then a little afraid.
I have my own procedure: Order pastrami on rye—no trimmings or toppings. When the sandwich arrives, use my thumbs to pick up the edges of the bread (as though I am shuffling cards) and then, because the fat to meat ratio is never exactly “right,” peer down at the pastrami and give a little philosophical shrug. Add mustard.
In 1996, the wonderful Abe Lebewohl was murdered while making a deposit at a local bank. I went back to the deli once after that, but it didn’t feel right. Then it closed. But recently, I read that his nephew opened a relocated Second Avenue Deli, where I have yet to go.
Philadelphia and its connection to New Orleans
Slide down the map until you get to Philadelphia, the largest fresh water port in the world and surely the sandwich capital of America. This is a city with several iconic regional specialties: cheese steak, roast pork, and the hoagie are a few. For this purpose, I settled on using the hoagie, reportedly named for the Italian immigrants who labored in the iron and steel building naval shipyards on Hog Island (the world’s largest shipyard during WWI). The “hoggie” was a meal on the move with all the flavors of home: an assortment of cured pork meats (prosciutto, sopressata and coppa), sharp provolone cheese, and a make-shift salad of sorts (lettuce, tomatoes, onions and hot peppers, dressed with oil, vinegar and a pinch of dried oregano). The bread—typically a crunchy seeded crust with a soft but substantial interior—was merely transportation.
At this point, jump over to the port of New Orleans because one of its signature sandwiches—the muffuletta—is exactly the same as a hoagie—only different. Like two dialects of the same language, the central elements are there: a layering of meats (with the inclusion of mortadella, a pork bologna) and cheese. But while Philadelphia’s turn-of-the-century Italian settlers came from the Southern provinces of Italy, 90% of those who came thru New Orleans were from Sicily. That explains why their sandwich (“invented” in about 1906 to feed that city’s wharf workers) is on round, soft, slightly hollow Sicilian bread (or muffuletta), and the standard hoagie salad toppings are translated into an idiosyncratic pickled olive-laden vegetable medley, distantly related to the regional Sicilian specialty of caponata (a sweet and sour eggplant relish reminder that Sicily is a leading olive and caper growing area).
When I made this very same American iconic regional sandwich trip years ago, I got a warm muffuletta at the Napoleon House and a toasted Frenchuletta (on a baguette) at Luizza’s. But like most visitors, I also went to Central Grocery in Viuex Carre or French Quarter, once known locally as Little Sicily. Slightly spongy (to absorb the olive salad) and intersected by a ribbon of meat/cheese filling, this huge muffuletta is pre-cut into quarters and wrapped in old-fashioned sturdy white paper. Although the highly-hyped grocery may look like a tourist trap, don’t be put off by the discarded Barq’s root beer bottles, crumbled Zapp potato chip bags, or the long lines. The people of Central Grocery are sandwich professionals.
(There is also a link between NOLA’s shrimp/oyster po’ boy and Connecticut’s fried clam roll: both turn local seafood into heartier fare. I got my po’boy from Parkway Tavern, at the corner of Hagan and Toulouse, overlooking Bayou St. John.)
Breaded and fried shrimp (served with lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise and pickles) on distinctive New Orleans–style French bread (lightly crisp crust, interior as airy as cotton candy) from celebrated Leidenheimer Bakery.
Editor’s note: Part 2 covers the iconic sandwiches of the American South, Southwest, West Coast and Midwest.