Alright, so I know it’s a bit weird to blog about one of Judaism’s most famous leavened breads during Passover (which, for all the non-jews out there, is a holiday where you abstain from leavened bread), but I’m not the best Jew, so this isn’t entirely out of character.
There are a few origin stories for the bagel. One, a myth that has since been debunked, tells the tale of a baker in Vienna in 1683, who created a bread shaped like a stirrup, in honor of King John III Sobieski of Poland, who prevented the Turks from taking over the city. This story even claims that the word bagel comes from the German word for stirrup, bugel. Though this story held sway for many years, we now know that it is totally false, since the Yiddish word beygl can be found in a 1610 document of rules for a Jewish community in Krakow. The rules state that bagels were to be given to women in childbirth as a gift. It’s believed that the bagel actually originated in South Germany, where it was named beugel, or bracelet. It then moved into Poland, where, some sources say, it was used as an alternative to the obwarzanek, a very similar bread, that was associated with Lent. Whether or not this is true, the bagel has quite a history in Poland. In the shtetls, hawkers sold bagels out of baskets or on long sticks, and were required to have a license. Even the illegal selling of bagels occurred, mostly by children with widowed mothers, though if they were caught, the police would often beat them and take away their goods.
However the bagel originated, with the diaspora of the Jews, it spread to Western Europe and the east coast of America, where it found a stronghold. Many Jews found employment selling bagels in their new cities. These days, the bagel is one of the more well known Jewish foods, and is intensely associated with New York. In fact, New Yorkers claim that they actually make the very best bagels, thanks to the high quality of the water. They even call their plain bagels “water bagels.” Another variety of bagels is the Montreal bagel, which is made with malt and is blanched in water with honey.
Bagels, in addition to being a famed Jew-food, also hold a lot of significance in Jewish culture. The shape of bagels symbolizes the circle of life; the loop of a bagel has no beginning and no end. Even more, they were considered to be a good luck token and it was thought they could fend off the evil eye. For this reason, it has held meaning in ceremonies that are life cycle events, like circumcisions, during childbirth (as mentioned above), and funerals. And as much of Jewish humor revolves around food, you can bet there are bagel jokes…namely “a bagel is a donut with rigor mortis.”
But really, while all of this bagel history is interesting, what is more interesting is how delicious they are. Bagels are made from an enriched dough with flour, water and yeast, though these days many people add eggs as well. The dough is then rolled out and shaped into the familiar rings, and are left to rise briefly. In order to get the fantastic crusty outside with the delightfully chewy center, the dough rings are blanched quickly in boiling water, and, after being drained, are then baked to bagel-y perfection. Of course, bagels don’t retain their freshness for very long, which is where that rigor mortis joke comes in!
But what really makes bagels so great are their ability to make delicious sandwiches. While much of bagel cuisine revolves around cream cheese and smoked salmon, the bagel is truly a versatile bread. Really, you could throw anything between a halved bagel, and chances are, it’d be awesome. Even better, is that the bagel is a very sturdy bread, so you can easily make open face sandwiches! Of the photos above, the sandwich ones are from Tompkins Square Bagels in New York City, which was around the corner from where my brother used to live, and was a place that necessitated at least two visits per trip to New York. The first open face bagel is a homemade sandwich, with lox from Zabar’s, and the second two are from The Wood in Los Angeles, a cute restaurant, and this, in my opinion, is the star of their menu.
But however you eat your bagel, (or for that matter, whether you’re a Jew or not!), bagels are definitely a part of both the sandwich and the breakfast culture of America. You can get a bagel with cream cheese at almost any grab and go breakfast place, and even many lunch places: Dunkin Donuts will put any of their sandwiches on a bagel for you. And these days, you can get just about any flavor of bagel you want, from plain to blueberry, to pumpernickel. Which really just gives you more options for your sandwiches.
As soon as I tried onigiri for the first time, I knew I had to eventually post something about it on Anatomy of a Sandwich. I had thought that, like many other posts I’ve done, I’d have to spend most of my time justifying how onigiri fit into a sandwich blog. But then I opened up a book by Shizuo Tsuji called Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art. This book is widely considered to be the first translation of Japanese cuisine into Western understanding, not to mention the foremost encyclopedia on traditional Japanese foods. So needless to say, I was thrilled to find this sentence leading the description of onigiri: “Japan’s traditional sandwich equivalent.”
This means, fortunately, that instead of validating onigiri’s inclusion here, I get to talk about the fun stuff!!!
Onigiri, also called omusubi, are delicious balls of rice stuffed with vegetable, meat, or seafood fillings, then wrapped in seaweed (called nori). Though the word “onigiri” has the same root as “nigiri”, a form of sushi, rice balls actually fall into a different category of Japanese cuisine. The relation here has to do with the etymology of “nigiri”, which means “clenched” or “gripped”. If you’ve ever seen a sushi chef make nigiri, then you know what I’m talking about. Onigiri are also clenched, as the rice must be pressed hard enough to stick together, without squishing the rice grains, which makes them harden. In fact, it is said that, since cooking was traditionally done by women, the clenching of onigiri was a sign of a mother’s love gripping the rice together. Onigiri are usually triangular in shape, but can also be tubular or round.
On the other hand, there is a very big difference between nigiri and onigiri: the rice. While sushi rice is made with vinegar and sugar, onigiri rice is simply steamed. Furthermore, when making nigiri, you simply wet your hands so the rice sticks together, but not to your hands. With onigiri, wetting your hands is followed by salting your hands, so that as you press the ball together, you are also seasoning it. The reason behind this actually has to do with the original reason each dish was created. Sushi was created as a way to preserve fish: the fish was put between layers of this vinegared rice in order to preserve the fish. Alternatively, onigiri is salted because it originated as a method to preserve rice, not the filling inside. To this end, traditional fillings for onigiri are usually preserved in and of themselves, like umeboshi (pickled plum), salted salmon, and tarako (salted cod roe). Onigiri is also on the larger side, meant to be handheld, you know, like a sandwich!!! Furthermore, onigiri is often thought to be Japan’s oldest food, possibly originating before the widespread use of chopsticks, since it takes rice, a difficult food to eat with your hands, and makes it more accessible. Archaeologists have even found a lump of carbonized rice from around 300 BC that showed evidence of being held by human hands!
Today, onigiri holds a very similar place in Japanese cuisine as sandwiches do in Western cuisine. Found everywhere from onigiri shops to gas stations and convenience stores, modern technology has had a large part in making onigiri as widespread as it is. While traditionally, the emotional associations and precision needed to make onigiri made it impossible to mass produce, these days we’ve figured out how to have machines grip the rice properly, stuff the ball with filling, and package the ball with nori in a way that prevents the seaweed from going soggy. It is a truly portable meal that is eaten in the same context as sandwiches, and is considered one of the best platforms for highlighting local flavors and trends. They are also used to explore other cuisines, as now you can find the traditionally English filling of tuna mayo, or even Italian-style, with tomato sauce and cheese. In LA, we have two great onigiri spots: Sunny Blue (in Santa Monica, with a new location in Culver City) and Kawaba Rice Ball in Hollywood. Both offer a great combination of traditional and modern fillings, as you can see in the photos. And both are unbelievably delicious and reasonably priced, so are great for a snack or a full meal, which means if you pass one of these places, you have no excuse not to go!
Well, it’s been quite a hiatus, but I’m back, and starting up again with one of my favorite sandwiches…the lobster roll.
Let’s begin with a bit of lobster history! There are actually quite a few species of lobster, but culinarily speaking, there are two that really matter. Lobsters are actually found all over the world, but the two we eat most are from each side of the Atlantic Ocean: the American lobster, and the European lobster. In fact, lobsters have been a part of the human diet as far back as the Greeks and Romans! For our purposes, let’s stick with the lobster we all know and love, from the westside of the Atlantic.
When the Americas began to be populated, lobsters were overwhelmingly plentiful, and not considered a delicacy. As it became a part of our diet, it was actually seen as the opposite: only the poor, prisoners, and indentured servants ate lobster…and they weren’t happy about it! But by the mid 1800s, eaters in Boston and New York had begun to pick up on the deliciousness, and technology advanced to a point where lobsters could be fished more easily for mass consumption.
The problem is, lobsters inherently lend themselves to being a luxury. They live alone, on the sea bed, in rocky outcrops, and reproduce very slowly….it can take up to two years to produce fertilized eggs, and then another six to eight years for the lobsters to become large enough to legally fish. Furthermore, lobsters are caught in traps, not with huge nets, and have been known to engage in cannibalism when in captivity. So in terms of price, female lobsters are the way to go…not only are they generally bigger, but the eggs, or coral, can also be used in sauces, and many gourmands believe that they taste better anyway.
In America, Maine is known for their lobster, and lobster is associated more than anything else with Maine. And it’s true, a lot of lobster comes from Maine. But actually, there’s a whole lot more in Canada, Maine just has a better PR company.
But let’s move on to lobster rolls. Lobster rolls come in two forms: hot and cold. The original lobster roll, unsurprisingly, comes from Maine, and is cold. The Maine version usually has a bit of mayo and some seasoning tossed with the lobster meat. Elsewhere in New England, the meat is usually mixed with mayo, celery, and a bit of seasoning…it’s actually a bit similar to a tuna salad, just overwhelmingly better (because it’s lobster). The hot lobster roll is credited to Harry Perry of Milford, CT, and is a simpler affair: hot chunks of lobster meat, drenched in drawn butter. But where the hot and cold join in the Venn diagram of lobster rolls is the bread: a toasted hot dog bun (or similar shape) cut down from the top instead of horizontally. I think the wonderfulness that is the lobster roll is best summed up by Susan Russo in her book The Encyclopedia of Sandwiches: “it’s ironic that lobster, one of the world’s most luxurious foods, is also the featured ingredient in this, one of New England’s least pretentious sandwiches.”
I think anyone who has had a lobster roll in New England can agree. The photos above are from Captain Scott’s Lobster Dock in New London, CT, where I went to college. The afternoons I spent there, eating lobster rolls (always hot of course…I may be a sucker for mayo, but there’s nothing better than hot lobster and drawn butter), are recalled with casual vibes and feelings of relaxation, not of white tablecloths and fine wines. It was about sitting outside at wooden picnic benches with friends and a cold beer, watching the boats come in and out of the harbor, chowing down on delicious food.
When it comes to a cheap, quick meal, most people think of fast food. However, not only does fast food have generally little to no nutritional value, but it is also seriously lacking in culture. Now, it is easy to argue that everything has some sort of culture, but I’m talking about a meaningful history, and an idea represented through consumption that eaters want to be a part of.
The po boy, on the other hand, combines history and culture with an inexpensive sandwich option. As with many culturally important and region-specific sandwiches, there are lots of stories about how the po boy was created. Generally, though, this sandwich’s early beginnings are agreed upon. During a streetcar strike in 1929, the Martin brothers, Bennie and Clovis, both former streetcar workers, vowed to feed every man involved. They partnered with John Gendusa to create a larger, yet inexpensive sandwich. Gendusa’s bread was bigger than the usual sandwich bread, and came to define the New Orleans-style French bread. The Martins served spare bits of roast beef and gravy on this bread, and after supplying enough of them to the “poor boys” that came to eat, the name stuck to the sandwich.
Today, roast beef is still one of the most popular and common po boys, along with the fried seafood varieties, available thanks to New Orleans’s location. Po boys are served “dressed” with shredded lettuce, tomato, pickles and mayo. They are also generally the cheapest sandwich on any menu, from restaurants to delis to convenience stores. This creates and interesting situation. The po boy was born out of the need for inexpensive food, so it is almost comforting to see that it has not left this part of its identity behind in the growing foodie culture of America. On the other hand, this position does not encourage much quality control. After all, very few people will complain if the cheapest sandwich doesn’t quite live up to their expectations. To counteract this laziness and to uphold and honor the po boy’s history, some establishments take great pride in their sandwiches and make a point of it, too. Furthermore, the New Orleans Po Boy Preservation Festival was created to keep the sandwich and its place in the city’s culture alive.
Sadly, the po boy pictured in this post is not from one of the places that puts emphasis on creating an exceptional sandwich. I discovered this sandwich in a po boy joint that supposedly had the best in the neighborhood. Unfortunately, this was apparently not a neighborhood that has remarkably high food standards, instead continuing the po boy’s history as a meal for those who might otherwise be unable to afford one. I got the classic roast beef, dressed. Though the sandwich was tasty, it was good in the way that cheap food is. It was very obvious that customers frequenting this establishment were not foodies. And while the sandwich itself was not spectacular, I definitely had a po boy experience reminiscent of its early days.
The club sandwich. Be it diner, deli, or cafe, chances are there’s a club sandwich on the menu. Though the classic club is characterized by three layers of bread with sliced chicken, bacon, tomato, lettuce, and mayo, cut into triangles and held together by toothpicks, there are now an endless number of variations. Just as the sandwich category is held together by a few specific guidelines, so is the club sandwich: as long as it has at least three layers of bread and has a need for toothpick security, you’re good. This allows for a lot of creativity in the fillings, and a lot of great sandwiches.
Supposedly, the club sandwich made its debut at the Saratoga Gentlemen’s Club (get it?) at the end of the 19th century. What is generally agreed upon is that it mimicked the double decker train cars that came into use in America around that time.
The sandwich pictured on its side is the Mickey Mouse Club from Peggy Sue’s that Corey ordered (turns out, he’s a big fan of club sandwiches). This one had oven baked turkey, ham, bacon, tomato, lettuce, and american cheese. Since I’ve already blogged about Peggy Sue’s, I won’t say any more, but I wanted to give an example of a club variation.
The second sandwich, from Sweet Marley’s in Fredericksburg, TX, was great and interesting for a couple of reasons. First, the shop itself: Sweet Marley’s began when Marley was born. Marley has an extremely rare disease, called Rhizomelic Chondrodysplasia Punctata, or RCDP. There are currently less than 100 children living with the disorder, and most of them won’t make it past their second birthday. Marley has broken every rule of RCDP, and is now two and a half years old. Marley’s parents use the shop to pay for most of Marley’s medical bills, and also donate a percentage to other children with the disease. What’s great is that most mornings, you can find Marley having breakfast in the cafe, and can see what an amazing little girl she is. But on to the sandwich…
The Texas Club at Sweet Marley’s is quite a sandwich: three slices of texas toast, black forest ham, roasted turkey, cheddar, pepper jack, bacon, spring mix, tomato, and jalapeno mayo. Now, I’ve had a good number of club variations, but this one was awesome. For me, aside from the buttery texas toast and the sweetness of the ham, it was the pepper jack and jalapeno mayo that did it. The contrast between savory and a little bit of spice was exactly what I wanted from this sandwich.
So as you can see, the club sandwich is pretty pervasive throughout the sandwich world, and could even have its own blog, considering all of the tweaks and personalizations you can do to it. Keep an eye out for more clubs in the future.
Peggy Sue’s is hard to miss. Leading up to the diner on I-15 are more signs than you can count. We took this as a sign and decided to get lunch. Now, Peggy Sue’s is a tourist trap. There are just no two buts about it. Stocked to the brim with old movie memorabilia (the owners used to work in the industry as well as at Knott’s Berry Farm), a 5 and dime store, and a diner-saur park, this diner is most definitely a place to stop if you need to stretch your legs.
Now, apparently I had neglected to mention to the Love, the Bus boys that I was taking my blog on the road…or for that matter, that I write a sandwich blog to begin with. So, they were rather excited when I started snapping pictures (some of their sandwiches will also be featured in due time). For this first meal, I decided to get a patty melt.
I am a big fan of patty melts. For me, they are the ultimate diner and truck stop sandwich. A few years ago I was driving from Santa Cruz to LA with a friend and we stopped at a truck stop for lunch. I ordered a patty melt, and it was most definitely one of the most flavorful, cheesy, meaty, greasily awesome sandwiches I’ve ever had. Ever since then, patty melts have been my go to sandwich at any greasy spoon spot. What better sandwich to start the road trip off with?
Supposedly, the patty melt appeared around the 1940s as a new incarnation of the cheeseburger. And really, the patty melt takes pretty much everything great about a cheeseburger, removes all the healthy stuff (do you really need lettuce and tomato?), and adds caramelized onions and buttered rye bread, all fried up. Though traditionally served with swiss cheese, Peggy Sue’s decides to do a combo with american cheese as well…which, of course, only makes it more fatty and delicious. An interesting aspect of the patty melt is that unlike other sandwiches, it is served without any condiments. I like to dip my patty melts in ketchup, but I do think that this sandwich can stand alone just fine. Patty melts can also be made open faced with the use of a broiler.
Furthermore, patty melts are not the only melts out there. I’ve featured a tuna melt before, though not in the context of melts, and crab melts are also popular. Are there any other melts that you like? Let me know and I’ll go search one out!
I’ve known for a while that I wanted to do a post about Fromin’s because it’s one of those places that is the ultimate Jewish deli. Growing up in Santa Monica, I think I ate Fromin’s almost every Sunday for about five years.
When I went to Fromin’s with Sara, I decided to get the hot pastrami sandwich (on rye of course) which comes with a lovely little bowl of au jus on the side (not pictured). As far as this sandwich goes, I don’t have a whole lot to say – this sandwich was even more simple than my last post and about eight million times better. Perfectly cooked pastrami that juicily melts in your mouth, some swiss cheese, a touch of dijon mustard, and fluffy rye bread. Dip an already great sandwich in au jus, and of course it only gets better. Which all goes to show that if done right, simple can be awesome.
The other interesting thing about Fromin’s is that it is only about four blocks away from another well known Santa Monica Jewish deli called Izzy’s, and the community seems to be loyal to one deli or the other, but not both. This may also stem from the fact that the clientele at each restaurant is very different. Izzy’s is open 24 hours and is the kind of place that has a million pictures of the owner with various celebrities…the demographic here is much more varied and includes tourists, hoodlums, and a spattering of 10-13 year olds from the middle school up the street (in addition to the diner loving Jews of Santa Monica). Fromin’s, on the other hand, has pretty much one type of customer: the elderly Jewish couple. In fact, when Sara and I went, we were the youngest customers by at least 40 years.
Now, you may be thinking, why are you a Fromin’s customer instead of an Izzy’s kind of girl? Wouldn’t you rather be among people who are closer to your peers? Well let me tell you. The Jewish deli is a place that I feel has been robbed of its true nature, especially in Southern California. Instead of feeling like local spots where everyone knows each other and the food is just like grandma used to make, they give off a very commercial vibe. It always seems to me like I’m caught in a tourist trap: welcome to SoCal, the land of the Jews…you must be this tall to ride. Look! Real Jewish grandparents eating knishes and borscht! Fromin’s feels real – no show, no gimmick, just the same people working and eating day after day. THIS is why i love Fromin’s. Every single person seems to have an emotional connection to this deli, whether you grew up having their chicken noodle soup when you were sick, or it’s the place your grandparents took you every Saturday after your soccer game.
For those of you who have been following along, you may remember my friend Molly from her delicious meatloaf-style burgers. On my trip back to Connecticut, Molly once again busted out her serious cooking chops and whipped up an amazing Eggs Benedict breakfast for us.
Now, even I think Eggs Benedict pushes the sandwich envelope a little bit, mostly because there is no easy way to eat this dish, and using your hands is out of the question (at least in civilized company). This issue disqualifies Eggs Benedict from the category based on lack of convenience. On the other hand, the ingredients and composition fit in perfectly with the concept of the open-face sandwich: bread on bottom, meat, condiment, plus additional fixings layered in the order of any breakfast sandwich, minus the bread on top. I think the aspects of Eggs Benedict that qualify it are more important than those that don’t, and so in my eyes (and mouth and stomach) that makes it enough of a sandwich to put it in this blog.
The more important question is, what makes Molly’s Eggs Benedict so utterly awesome? Let’s start at the bottom: instead of using the classic English muffin as a base, Molly made biscuits from scratch, which were everything a biscuit should be: fluffy, yet dense, buttery, and just plain delicious. The Canadian bacon was pretty generic, but, let’s be honest, fry anything in butter and it will be tasty. Poached eggs are tricky (also my favorite preparation of eggs), and, in my opinion, are generally overcooked. As you can see from the second photo above, Molly poached the eggs PERFECTLY and is therefore my egg hero. Top it all off with a tangy, thick, homemade hollandaise, and I dare you to tell me this breakfast wasn’t awesome.
Eggs Benedict is a classic breakfast dish, made more famous by the fact that there are so many variations available, such as Eggs Florentine, Artichoke Benedict, Smoked Salmon Benedict, and dozens others. There are a few origin stories of this delicious egg meal, all involving someone named Benedict asking for this combination of ingredients. Today, Eggs Benedict can be found on almost all breakfast menus, and back when the New York Times wrote about it in 1967, it was noted that “Eggs Benedict is conceivably the most sophisticated dish ever created in America.” Even though Eggs Benedict is often one of the most expensive breakfast items on a menu these days, I’m not sure that most people would agree with this statement any more. So while this dish is very questionably a sandwich, and has obviously moved down a few spots on the elegant foods list, it still has a history that places it solidly in American food culture.
Since I have posted on R + D before, I won’t go into too much depth about the restaurant itself, but this sandwich is more than worth mentioning.
I went to R + D one night after work with a coworker, and, like always, encountered one hell of a wait for a table. Luckily, the company was good and the Chimay was cold, and soon we were seated. As previously mentioned, the menu is not very large, and I had already tried that night’s sandwich special, so I took the opportunity to try the Reubenesque. Upon my recommendation, Aaron ordered the chicken meatballs, and we patiently waited for our food with a second round.
When the Reubenesque was set down in front of me, I knew that this was going to be a sandwich worth writing home about (or at least blogging). The Reubenesque is the epitome of R + D: a classic sandwich with a modern twist so subtle that it is simply more delicious than the original. Take for example, the corn rye bread. It’s still rye, keeping the basic component of the sandwich the same, yet the corn intensifies the flavor, augmenting the other ingredients, rather than letting them hide behind the taste of the rye. The corned beef is fantastic, and if you closed your eyes, you would think you were in a nice Jewish deli, albeit a time-warped modern deli. The baby swiss is mild enough to allow the rest of the flavors to shine, and unlike most reubens, is not melted. To top it all off, R + D combines the last ingredients, the sauerkraut and sauce (be it Thousand Island or Russian) into one fantastic creamy coleslaw. Furthermore, as you can see in the pictures, there is one obvious difference between the classic reuben and the Reubenesque: the coleslaw makes up most of the sandwich. This, in addition to the cheese, makes the sandwich cold and hot at the same time, since the bread is toasted, which is definitely different from the traditional grilled aspect of a reuben.
Basically, this sandwich is so good that despite the awesomeness of the chicken meatballs, Aaron stared hungrily at my plate, and one bite only made him want it more. So much more, in fact, that he went back the next day and got one.
One of my friends from school is from Redondo Beach, and we decided to get together for a sandwich date before she headed back to Connecticut. She had strongly suggested that we go to Sloopy’s in Manhattan Beach, a cafe known for its beachy patio setting and great food. The decor is great…all eclectic patio furniture that almost feels like you’re sitting in your own backyard. You order from a counter, not waiters, making it feel less restaurant-y and more like you’ve found a great local secret. But on to the sandwich…
The Masterpiece appealed to me because I discovered the classic Italian sandwich when I lived on the East Coast. This type of sandwich is not at all limited to this region, but did, in fact originate there. On a personal note, I had never eaten pig products before college when I lived in California, and I definitely associate this classic with my time on the East Coast. I’ve found so far that a lot of great sandwich shops in Southern California have an Italian-esque sandwich that is more customized, resulting in a lot of great variety. The Masterpiece continued this trend of personalizing this sandwich, while upholding the staples of the classic: prosciutto, ham, salami, cappicola, provolone, arugula, banana peppers, balsamic with cracked pepper mayo on ciabatta. The best part about the Masterpiece for me was not the meat combination, which is the standard, but rather the balsamic and cracked pepper mayo combined with the banana peppers. Though the mayo was interesting in and of itself, the tanginess of the banana peppers complimented it perfectly. For me, composition is a HUGE part of the success of a sandwich, and that includes the order of ingredients: different tastes and textures will be brought out by the way you put your sandwich together. Putting the banana peppers and mayo together really made the sandwich in my opinion, instead of having the mayo on the meat. In addition, I always like the combination of mayo and lettuce, which this sandwich also had. Really, the only problem I had with this sandwich was the ciabatta: though the taste and texture was great, I filled up on the bread quickly and didn’t get very far into the second half of the sandwich.
The Italian sub, which can be found under many names, such as a hoagie, hero, grinder, or torpedo depending on where you are in America, is most definitely a staple of our sandwich culture. Regardless of what it’s called, this sandwich originated in Italian-American communities throughout the Northeast, and is more or less the same sandwich from place to place, albeit small differences. One of the great things about the Italian sub, though, is that it creates a framework that can be tweaked and customized, creating great sandwiches all over the country.