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.
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.
When I found out the bus was going to New Orleans, I was over the moon as the city is home to a very special sandwich: the muffuletta. Not only does the muffuletta originate in New Orleans, but its creation is also specific to one grocery store, which is still open. In the early 1900s, Central Grocery was a market that catered to the Sicilian farmers that worked nearby. In traditional Sicilian fashion, the farmers would buy meats, cheese, and bread, and eat it all separately. Now considering that the farmers weren’t having nice, sit-down lunches, but instead attempted balance all of these ingredients on their laps, the meal was a bit perilous. Luckily, the owner of Central Grocery, Salvatore Lupo, noticed these lunchtime difficulties, and figured out that the whole meal could be combined into one, easy to eat sandwich. This sandwich, a phenomenal composition of capicola, salami, pepperoni, ham, swiss, provolone, and marinated olive salad, gets its name from the round muffuletta loaf that its served on. And though the bread plays a defining role, it is actually the olive salad that truly makes a muffuletta. In fact, this is so much a part of the muffuletta that Central Grocery sells it by the jar, for your own sandwich making adventures.
As a person who loves food more than almost anything, and who will try pretty much everything, there is nothing better than finding great local foods. If there is a defining food of a culture, I want to be eating it. When eating with a local, I generally use the “I’ll have what she’s having” approach. This gives me the opportunity to branch out and try new and exciting things, in addition to getting to truly experience the culture. The muffuletta is one of these foods, an embodiment of New Orleans culture. It is also an interesting example because much of this culture is heavily influenced by its French history. This sandwich, on the other hand, is a key part of the New Orleans food culture, but finds its roots in Sicilian tradition.
Now, I’m a big fan of the “italian sub.” I love the combination of meats, and the fact that while it is a pretty common sandwich, many establishments manage to make it their own. And though the muffuletta could easily fit into this category due to its origins and ingredients, it really is in a class of its own. Yes, it has components that you won’t find in any other italian sub, and its own bread, but what truly sets the muffuletta apart is its place in New Orleans culture, as well as in the sandwich culture in America. Search online for the best muffuletta in New Orleans, and you’ll find heated battles between die-hard fans. Everyone has their favorite muffuletta joint, and there are quite a few places around New Orleans that specialize in this unique sandwich. Furthermore, the muffuletta left the Crescent City and can now be found in sandwich shops all over the country.
And let me tell you, this sandwich is amazing. The bread is soft, but dense enough to soak up most of the oil from the olive salad. The addition of swiss takes away a bit of the sharpness of the provolone, creating a cheesy, but balanced platform on which the meats can shine. And the olive salad…brilliant. Made from the classic giardiniera (pickled celery, cauliflower, and carrot) with the added bonus of olives, oregano, garlic, and lots of olive oil, it’s tangy and savory with a bit of a bite, matching it perfectly with every other ingredient in this sandwich.
Essentially, what I’m trying to say is that if you find yourself in New Orleans, you must try a muffuletta. You’ll get a great taste of New Orleans culture. At the risk of offending any muffuletta-heads, I highly recommend going to Central Grocery. After all, it is where the sandwich was originally created, and they still make excellent sandwiches today.
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!
In the blossoming world of gourmet food trucks, the Nom Nom Truck is one of the most famous. After a great showing on the Food Network’s The Great Food Truck Race, the Nom Nom Truck now has a super dedicated, almost obsessive, fan base.
What’s so interesting about the Nom Nom Truck is that they serve banh mi, which are vietnamese sandwiches. Traditionally, banh mi is made with ingredients that most Americans would cringe at: pâté and headcheese. And yet, the Nom Nom Truck has a following that defies all cultural logic. You can get a traditional banh mi from Nom Nom…it’s called “the deli special.” But the more popular options are the grilled pork (pictured), the lemongrass chicken, or the tofu. In addition to the meat, each banh mi has cilantro, jalepeños, mayo, a tangy relish of carrots and daikon radish called do chua, and, my favorite, cucumbers.
Banh mi is a great sandwich to look at in terms of culture for two reasons. First of all, banh mi originates in the French colonialism of Vietnam. The sandwich demonstrates how the co-mingling of cultures creates new, hybrid ideas. In banh mi, the French contribution can be seen in the baguette and the pâté, combined with classic Vietnamese ingredients like the daikon radish. Nn fact, food is one of the best ways to track the movement of culture: by identifying food traits unique to a culture and finding them in other places, you will often find other cultural constructs have moved as well.
Banh mi is also interesting in terms of popular culture. It seems to have become the new, hip thing in the food world, with fans of all types. The best way I can illustrate this is through an episode of The Great Food Truck Race. The trucks found themselves in a small town in the South. It seemed as though the Nom Nom Truck’s winning streak had come to an end; everyone expected the burger truck to win. The Nom Nom Truck pulled out a huge victory, even in a place where most of the people had never heard of banh mi. For whatever reason, this Vietnamese sandwich appeals to everyone. The New York Times has done an article about banh mi, and in it, lists the top ten banh mi spots in the country (coincidentally, a commenter adds Num Pang to the list). When the Nom Nom Truck shows up at a gathering of food trucks, a line forms immediately, and the other trucks lose business fast. Whether it’s the sandwich in and of itself, or the prestige of the Nom Nom Truck or both, right now, banh mi is a force to be reckoned with.
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.
For my birthday, my parents took me to STREET, a restaurant in Hollywood that serves street food from all over the world tapas-style. This was a perfect choice for my birthday dinner, as I consider a great meal to be one in which I get to enjoy many different foods, and not just one big entree. Furthermore, I love trying new things, especially great local foods, which are most often embodied in the form of street food.
STREET is the creation of Susan Feniger, most well known for Border Grill in Santa Monica, and keeps much of the same feel of great food in a casual California setting. Most of the seating is outside, keeping to the street concept, and there is enough variety that everyone will be happy (even the pickiest of eaters like my father). My mom had been to the restaurant before, and was adamant that the kaya toast be a part of our meal.
It was one of the first items that we were served (I think we ended up ordering most of the menu), and wasn’t what I was expecting at all. From the description (toast, coconut jam, egg, dark soy, white pepper), I was expecting more of a breakfast sandwich, but this was better than it ever could have been in breakfast form. The coconut jam, though definitely sweet, was never overpowering, and well balanced by the distinctive flavors of the soy and white pepper. The toast itself was buttery and perfectly golden, the best kind of toast, in my opinion, to dip in egg. The egg was great, and all together, this dish was totally unexpectedly delicious.
Kaya toast, which takes its name after the jam used in the dish, is very popular in its native countries of Malaysia and Singapore. Taken at face value, it may not seem like the kind of food you would find in these places, but kaya toast is actually the product of British influence. Kaya, or coconut egg jam, is a traditional food, while the toast can be attributed to the British diet that infiltrated the culture through colonialism. As the two cultures mingled, the jams and preserves that the British ate on their toast were replaced by the local kaya. Soon, kaya toast became a staple food. Today, there is even a franchise of restaurants that has become famous for its kaya toast. In fact, Ya Kun Kaya Toast‘s slogan is “The toast that binds…Kinship, Friendship, Partnership.” Not only is this reminiscent of the combination of the two distinct cultures that created kaya toast, but also highlights that food plays an important role in all cultures.
I must say that I was skeptical of the kaya toast at first, but I ate the last bite while regretfully wishing there was more on the plate and that I hadn’t had to share it in the first place. Next time I eat at STREET, and there will definitely be a next time, I will be just as adamant as my mom in my recommendation.
The French Dip sandwich. This delicious iconic American sandwich is usually served on a French roll with a side of au jus for dipping, but Philippe’s, one of two restaurants that claim to have originated the French Dip, dips the entire sandwich just prior to serving. This unique style comes from the story of the sandwich’s creation: one day in 1918, ten years after the restaurant opened, Philippe himself was making a sandwich when he accidentally dropped the roll into a roasting pan filled with still-hot juices from the oven. The customer took the sandwich anyway, and the next day, brought back friends who all requested the “dipped sandwich.”
Philippe’s serves its dip sandwich with either beef, pork, ham, lamb, or turkey, and you can get it single-dipped, double-dipped, or wet. I got a single dipped, beef with American cheese, and was blown away. The whole thing just melted in your mouth: between the super tender beef, the melty cheese, and the firm but juice-soaked bread, the Philippe’s French Dip started a party in my mouth.
The other restaurant that lays claim to the invention of the French Dip is Cole’s Pacific Electric Buffet…which will have to be checked out on another sandwich adventure…