A Tale of Two Slices

The Prose and Condiments of the American Sandwich

Where to Begin.

The problem of sandwich genealogy is manifold. Each new look at the project provides another starting point, an additional approach to a sprawling undertaking, and a staggering new narrative to be noted and duly pursued. Culinary history seems as a whole to be marked by this amplitude of angles–the sandwich’s history is itself embroiled in questions of culture, science, politics, sociology, economics, and perhaps most satisfyingly, the study of happy stomachs.

Charged with telling the saga of the American sandwich, there is but one place to turn for the solace of unity through organization and categorization, and that is the library. One of the main reasons I undertook a historical project was for the chance to spend a considerable amount of time conducting archival research–dredging classic cookbooks and magazine back issues for clues in the sandwich saga.

The public library is always a sure starting point. Excepting the hassles and disappointments of Book Delivery at the Boston Public Library, the collection of culinary reference materials in the public library was extremely useful in providing me with the information necessary to start stocking my own personal reference well by gathering basic facts and dates on which to build as more specific data files in.

The more exciting, more specific information comes from the more archival resources, the original cookbooks, commercial pamphlets, and other assorted writings that shaped the sandwich’s history. I am lucky, as any culinary historian or enthusiast is lucky, to have access to the Schlesinger Library, part of Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Schlesinger, dedicated to women’s history, houses about 15,000 titles pertaining to the culinary arts. A search of the online catalog turns up several pages of sandwich sources, some dating as far back as the late 1800s.

The Schlesinger Library.

The Schlesinger Library.

The Schlesinger Library is truly something to behold. Housed as it is in iconic “Harvard-looking” buildings, the library is welcoming and encouraging for researchers. The librarians are knowledgeable and helpful. They even provide pencils if you forget to bring your own. I however, went prepared.

I’m not ashamed to say that I took great pleasure in gathering provisions for my first trip to Schlesinger. The only objects allowed into the reading room are pencils, loose leaf paper, and laptops. I outfitted myself with four pristine, pre-sharpened Dixon Ticonderogas, and, in keeping with the spirit of culinary research, a thick stack of loose leaf paper made from sugar cane waste. Once I settled into the reading room, dressed in my most collegiate-looking sweater, I noticed that I was the only researcher not tapping out citations on a MacBook.

The necessary equipment.

The necessary equipment.

My books arrived in pristine condition, some in tight-fitting plastic covers, or sturdy folders, or, my personal favorite, a secret compartment-type outfit with the outward appearance of a medium sized book. Folding back four manila flaps revealed a pocket-sized “cookery manual” about bread baking so well-preserved that it seemed no one had used it since its publication in 1883. It was like unearthing a treasure or watching an egg hatch–very exciting to a very specific party, in this case, someone with a pretty severe library habit.

I am considering moving my personal belongings into the Schlesinger Library and taking up permanent residence.

Check it outhere..

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This entry was posted on March 18, 2009 by in Libraries, Research and tagged , , , .

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