Who doesn’t love a sandwich? Americans certainly do. We consume about 200 of them each year. We all have our favorites, whether it’s poboy, muffaletta, Cuban, reuben or a simple PB&J.
The world’s greatest chefs, neighborhood eateries and home cooks continuously innovate this culinary classic to new heights, whether through entirely new creations or revising a favorite.
However, the sandwich is so much more than food shoved between two pieces of bread—it’s part of our history, and where we come from. In this age of mass food production, chain restaurants and big box stores, the legendary feats of sandwich stardom are among the few fabrics preserving their region’s distinctive personality. You may be able to order a poboy in a restaurant in Minnesota, but it’s sure not going to taste anything like Darrell’s on College Street. The same goes for the rest of America’s iconic sandwiches. It doesn’t taste or feel right unless you’re in its home.
Where did it all begin? History usually credits its namesake, the Earl of Sandwich, John Montagu. The French aristocrat was an avid gambler. One night, in the latter part of the 1700s, the earl was determined to break even. He held out for 24 hours. Needing some sort of sustenance, but something quick and manageable, he instructed his servant to give him a piece of beef between two slices of toasted bread. Thus the term sandwich was born. It became immediately popular in France and then England; from there it embarked on its journey throughout the world. Montagu’s modern ancestors have continued the family legacy by opening a chain of restaurants fittingly called the Earl of Sandwich.
While the Montagu gave the sandwich its name, he (or possibly his servant) didn’t invent this culinary staple. While it’s impossible to pinpoint its origins, many food historians attribute the discovery to Hidell the Elder, a rabbi in Jerusalem who created the Korech or "Hillel” sandwich for a Passover Seder in 110 BC. He served bitter herbs between unleavened matzo. Since then there has been recordings of people eating fillings between bread throughout history.
America’s golden age of sandwiches ranged between the 1920s through 1940s. Much like the Earl of Sandwich, most of these delectable wonders emerged as a solution for a quick meal.
In 1929, the city of New Orleans was shut down by a streetcar worker’s strike. Brothers Benny and Clovis Martin, who had worked as street car conductors before opening a sandwich shop in the French Quarter, vowed to feed the workers throughout the strike. The brothers found that the tapered ends of a French bread loaf allowed them to cut multiple sandwiches of the same length, making sandwiches faster to produce. When feeding the workers they would say "here comes another po’boy!” The name and the sandwich stuck.
The Italian Sandwiches: Muffaletta, Sub and Hero
These delectable sandwiches made of various spiced meats, cheese, vegetables and oil were created by Italian immigrants mostly in the 1920s and 1930s in small delis and stands to feed the working man, who typically had short lunch breaks. However, unlike most of the others, New Orleans’s muffaletta arrived more than a decade earlier.
While there are some regional variances, there are more similarities. The key difference is the name.
The muffaletta was created by Salvatore Lupo, who sold an Italian bread called muffuletto to farmers at his French Quarter store, Central Grocery. In 1906, after noticing that his customers were also buying meat, olives and cheese and were having difficulty balancing the food, he decided to make easier to eat and carry by placing it all together between two pieces of bread. The sandwich was eventually called "muffaletta.”
The most popular term is sub—short for submarine—and was coined in New London Connecticut, as its main consumers were soldiers during WWII at the local Navy base.
The hero is native to New York City and received its name from New Herald Tribune food columnist Clementine Paddleworth. When referring to the large size of the sandwich, Paddleworth wrote, "You had to be a hero to eat it.”
These are just a few of the names. Almost every city and some towns throughout the Mid-Atlantic and New England avidly defend their name of for this Italian sandwich, making it part of who they are.
The Philly Cheesesteak
The Philly Cheesesteak is as synonymous with the city of Philadelphia as the Liberty Bell, maybe even more so. This ambassador of the cradle of liberty made its first appearance in 1930 when hot dog vendor Pat Oliveri decided to try out beef on his grill. It was an instant hit, leading him to open up his own shop, Pat’s King of Steaks. Pat’s owned the market for decades until Joe Vento started a cheesesteak war by opening his shop, Geno’s, across the street. The 40-year battle is still ongoing. Vento claims he added the cheese, but many claim Pat’s did it first.