The Prose and Condiments of the American Sandwich
Nobody really needs a cookbook to make a great sandwich. This, I believe, is a large part of the sandwich’s widespread appeal. A truly fantastic sandwich can be made with leftovers or pantry staples, and needs only a little creativity to turn a pile of odds and ends into a meal. Most times, the name of a sandwich or a simple list of its ingredients communicates all that is needed for turning a sandwich into reality. Making a sandwich requires little to no mastery of specific kitchen skills, save the ability to successfully pile meats, cheeses, vegetables, and other sometimes slippery or oddly shaped things onto bread. This is a skill hard-earned through constant practice. None of this, however, explains the long and winding paper trail of sandwich recipes and cookbooks through history, beginning most notably with eighty-six pages in 1912 put forth by “the nation’s instructress in dietetics and cookery.”
Now, if you’re like me, you think that words like “instructress” and “cookery” sound vaguely medieval and maybe even a little bit scary. Also like me, you may have read Sarah Tyson Rorer’s Sandwiches cover-to-cover, or even more likely, you have scrolled through the entire tome on Google Books, as I have. Sandwiches is very much emblematic of a culture that predates food-centric television programming and the reign of the food blogger. More importantly, its recipes and instructions ring true of the American mindset at the turn of the century, a mindset not yet burdened (or unburdened, depending on your point of view) with the modern day culture of convenience. This is a sandwich cookbook for sandwich makers before sliced bread, before prepackaged meats, before affordable jarred mayonnaise. Or Miracle Whip. Take, as my best and favorite example, this introduction to a section of Rorer’s book dealing with bread: “To make good sandwiches, especially when one is a long way from a city, it is quite necessary to know how to make sandwich bread, which is quite different, or should be, from ordinary bread” (p. 9).
What’s immediately clear to modern-day readers perusing Rorer’s recipes is that a great deal has changed since the recipe mavens of 1912 were writing the rules of home economics and entertaining. Since then, such innovations as refrigeration, sliced bread, and mass-produced prepackaged meats, cheeses, and condiments have brought the sandwich into a unique realm that encompasses both the familiarity of the everyday, and a kind of mythical, revered space firmly rooted in regional pride and Americana. Sandwiches from across the country (sometimes the world–I’m looking at you Banh Mi) have become much-loved strongholds of the American diet. Many of these sandwiches come with disputed stories of origin, or exciting historical contexts. In all of the research I have done and continue to do on sandwiches, sandwich recipes, and their histories, no cookbook has ever quite captured the dual character of the American sandwich quite like Susan Russo’s Encyclopedia of Sandwiches (2010).
Russo’s text is part cookbook, part sumptuously illustrated history lesson, and part reference book. Photographer Matt Armendariz captures each sandwich beautifully, and the book could almost just be a coffee table book to leaf through and show off to company. But that would be a waste of time better spent making and eating sandwiches. Each recipe includes a short anecdote or historical brief.
There are two aspects of this book that set it apart from the mainstream of sandwich texts. The first is an “ingredient index,” an exhaustive, alphabetical index of food items that directs readers to sandwiches that can be made with said ingredients. The index promises “a sandwich for every imaginable ingredient,” and it seems to achieve this goal. This is, I think, a huge addition to a sandwich cookbook, a resource that truly captures the utility and serendipity that come together in the crafting of a sandwich at home.
The second characteristic of this book that I find myself so taken with is its exhaustive coverage, a facet I would be tempted to link to modernity were I still writing my BFA thesis. Russo reaches out to all corners of sandwich phylogeny, from the Croque-Monsieur, Dagwood, and Muffuletta, to the Fried Bologna Sandwich, the Fluffernutter, and the Spamwich. This book leaves no stone of sandwich possibility unturned, and this is what keeps it absolutely true to the history of sandwiches and sandwich-making.
I wish I had written this book, but I will be content with owning it. And eating out of it.
Here is The Encyclopedia of Sandwiches by Susan Russo on Amazon. It’s a winner.