However You Slice It, She Knows Her Sandwiches
We talk shop with Susan Russo, the author of the ‘Encyclopedia
Maybe a ham and cheese melts you inside, or a mom-made BLT is the closest thing to TLC in your life. Tuna on rye might make your tongue tingle, or perhaps a Monte Cristo with a delectable dollop of strawberry jam is your favorite thing on a plate.
Whatever the case, local food writer Susan Russo has got your number. “The Encyclopedia of Sandwiches,” her new book, examines the appeal of 110 varieties of you-know-what.
She provides recipes and historical trivia too. Chicken salad was reserved for the wealthy until after World War II. Sliders probably trace their roots to square-shaped White Castle burgers in the 1920s. And depending on where you live, the torpedo (as you’re most likely to call it here) may be a hoagie, submarine, blimpie, hero, Italian sandwich, grinder, bomber, zeppelin, spuckie or even a wedge.
As I chowed down on a turkey sandwich (hold the tomatoes) at a Little Italy coffeehouse, the Rhode Island native explained why we love this sometimes-humble food that’s equally at home in a lunch box or at a fancy restaurant with “Chez” in its name.
How did we end up with sandwiches in the first place?
We owe our love of sandwiches to an inveterate British gambler called the Earl of Sandwich. The story goes that he was gambling in London one night, didn’t want to leave the gambling table, and asked a servant to bring something he could hold in his hand. The servant brought bread with some meat in between, and he absolutely loved it. He’s the person who sparked the whole sandwich revolution in the 1800s.
What’s the most popular sandwich?
The grilled cheese. Everyone from toddlers to grandmas and grandpas loves a warm, comforting grilled-cheese sandwich. All you need is bread, cheese and butter, and those are three ingredients that everybody has.
Surveys say Americans eat over 2 billion grilled cheese sandwiches a year. And what’s a more iconic American lunch than grilled cheese and tomato soup?
Do you have a favorite sandwich?
My favorite is the meatball sandwich. I grew up in an Italian family. Like a lot of people, we gravitate to our favorite sandwiches from our childhoods that put a smile on our face and still do so today.
Lots of people love the PB&J since it reminds them of being kids. What’s the story behind that sandwich?
The first mention of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich was in 1901. At the time, peanuts were actually very expensive. A peanut butter sandwich was considered a delicacy, and not a lot of people ate it. It wasn’t until the 1920s that peanut butter became mass-produced.
It really exploded in popularity during World War II. The U.S. government actually issued peanut butter to the G.I.s, who would make sandwiches. But they complained they were hard to swallow, so the government began issuing rations of jelly. Kids wanted to mimic the soldiers, and they were happy to take them to school.
Are there any sandwiches that you roll your eyes at?
At the risk of alienating any Hawaiians, I have to say the spamwich. Hawaiians love the spamwich; they eat an average of six cans of Spam a year. But I think I’m in the majority. I just don’t see the appeal. Something about the texture and color doesn’t appeal to me.
Are there any California sandwiches?
The French dip originated in L.A. The story goes that the owner of a restaurant was serving roast beef on a soft roll and when he went to hand it to the customer he dropped it in the roast beef juice. The customer ate it, and he said this is so delicious you should do this more often. That’s how the French dip happened.
What’s your favorite sandwich here in San Diego?
It’s a Croque Madame at Cafe Chloe downtown. Tender French ham, melty Gruyère cheese, creamy béchamel sauce, and a crispy fried egg adorn a perfectly buttered slice of toasted bread. It’s sandwich nirvana.
Can you think of a sandwich that people think must be made in a certain way, no exceptions?
Philly cheesesteak. It’s the one sandwich that you can guarantee you’re going to get yelled at while ordering. They’re really rigid, and you can’t ask for anything different — a special side or hold a certain ingredient or add a certain ingredient. They pretty much say this is the way it’s going to be, you have a certain number of options, and that’s it. They feel like there’s a right way to do it.
I’m glad you told me. I would have said something like, “Could you put some mayo on that?”
No, no. They’ll just yell at you. They really do!
Are people really fussy about other sandwiches?
There are also bratwursts in the Midwest. I’ve been told that you never put ketchup or mustard on a brat, and that you must always wash your brat down with a beer. They feel so strongly that they actually call it a brat wash.
This might be the biggest question in the world of sandwiches: What do you think about Miracle Whip?
(Laughs.) I don’t like Miracle Whip.
Bless your heart.