Really? She is writing about sandwiches today? She must have run out of topics. What’s there to write about some slabs of bread and some toppings? Well, if you are a foodie, you don’t get past sandwiches. And if you love history, you will find some pretty interesting stories around them. Let me share you some.
I grew up on sandwiches. Not peanut butter & jelly ones, for sure. For one, they were usually open sandwiches, buttered on one side and topped with one slice of cold cuts or cheese (maybe two, if they were small) or jam. No grape jelly in Germany back then either. Now you know what my breakfast looks like most days. My mother used to make me buttered sandwiches, a thin layer of cold cuts or cheese between two buttered slices of bread, and wrap them into parchment paper. That, along with a sliced and de-cored apple used to be my school mid-morning food. (We went home for lunch and dinner.)
So, you bet I was flabbergasted when I encountered American sandwiches for the first time. At times you have three or four different kinds of cold cuts piled high, add different kinds of cheese, condiments and veggies – I can’t even wrap my mouth around those high-rises in the finger-food world. I have to admit, even if it’s only one kind of meat and one kind of cheese, it’s usually piled on way too high for me. And I dread the amount of carbs and nitrates I will ingest. Ugh, yeah, the German in me …
But where does the concept of bread with toppings or fillings come from anyhow? Some of you will say, oh, come on, it’s this English 18th century earl who wanted to have clean fingers eating, while playing cards. The generic name certainly derives from the gentleman who, by the way, might just as likely have ordered “bread and meats” from his valet when sitting at his naval office desk, working. Of course, the idea of “bread and games” is more appealing.
In fact, topped bread is already mentioned in Virgil’s Aeneid. The hero of the story, leading the survivors of Troy, is predicted to find his promised new home when eating his own table. Well, it turns out that, at one time, they used bread to place their food on and then ate the bread, too. Italians take this as the point where pizza was invented – a hot version of topped bread. The Greek might point to their pita that can be stuffed – and is therefore another variety of the sandwich. The European Middle ages knew of open sandwiches the Aeneid’s way.
Visit other cultures, and you will soon discover that the Ethiopian Injera sponge-like bread is used as cutlery and plate in one. I ate Chapati for breakfast in India like I would have in Germany – topped with butter and jam. Check out a Vietnamese banh mi, a Mexican taco, or a Danish smørrebrød, which means buttered bread (indeed, the term smörgåsbord is Swedish for the same, but the European culinary world sticks with the Danish term) – the concept is the same anywhere bread has made it into food culture. It is used as the shield between a topping or filling and the fingers. What a wonderful connection between the continents, right?
I remember wonderful evenings at my parents’ when my mother had outdone herself creating platters of decoratively rolled or fanned cold cuts, of sliced and soft cheeses, of fish salads, olives, and pickles. Add a plate of butter and a basket of two or three different kinds of German bread – that would be a festive treat in its own right.
The other day I had bought a pound of wonderful roast beef at a supermarket whose name I will keep to myself. For Germans, roast beef is always on the high-end of cold cut choices. Now, at almost 14 dollars a pound, I guess it’s not much different over here. My husband wouldn’t touch it though he usually loves it. The secret? It looked like a dog’s dish. It had been mangled through the slicer – indeed you couldn’t make out a single slice. And on top of it, the package had been rolled up, so everything in it broke apart. Obviously, somebody had had the shaved sandwich-meat concept in their mind while butchering a most beautiful cut. It’s happened not the first time, and not just at that store. Which almost made me cry. Almost.
I don’t know how you like your buttered or mayo-ed bread – and there are so many wonderful creations out there, open or sandwiched, thick or thin, hot or cold, catering the omnivorous as well as vegans. What I love is when a sandwich celebrates its ingredients. Slice by slice, with respect for what you are having. Because even the humblest bread-&-something creation can taste like home and like you are in a cozy place.