Suddenly, sandwiches are big. • Big, meaty sandwiches are the cover boys of April magazines (Saveur, Food Network), and the meal between bread is the star of two new books. The Encyclopedia of Sandwiches catalogs our most beloved sandwiches, and The Big New York Sandwich Book is filled with recipes from the big city's biggest chefs. Think prosciutto, grilled fennel and pear with Gorgonzola aioli. • If magazines and books are not enough to vault our favorite breakfast-lunch-and-dinner food to new heights, keep in mind that April is National Grilled Cheese Month. Time to get your molten goo on. (Mark your calendars: National Sandwich Month is August, and National Sandwich Day is Nov. 3.)
And one place not known for sandwiches is learning more about where its bread could be buttered: Last week, Dunkin' Donuts began testing a chicken salad sandwich in the Northeast. Can it be long before they figure out a way to inject turkey and Swiss into a jelly doughnut? The Dunkin' D Monte Cristo?
The appeal of sandwiches is nothing new to Americans, who nosh about 45 billion of them annually. In tough economic times, they can be inexpensive to engineer, and when times are flush, or we just want to splurge, there are fancy cheeses, fresh herbs and lunch meats that cost as much per pound as filet mignon, maybe more.
We tote sandwiches to the office, pack them in school lunches, eat them on road trips and as midnight snacks. Messy ones are devoured over the sink, juice from the tomato dripping down our arms. Tidy numbers are served crustless with hot tea. Sandwiches have the power to kindle memories of home, but they are never quite right unless we eat them at the source. (In Florida, we always blame the bread.) The Philly cheesesteak is a good example of that, as are the Hot Brown from Kentucky and the muffuletta of New Orleans. And which could claim itself the state sandwich of Florida? The Cuban or the grouper?
Numbers are difficult to come by, but the lion's share of those billions of sandwiches have to be PB&Js, all variations of turkey and homemade tuna salad. We have strict notions about what makes them good, from the type of bread to the brand of mayo. We all have our favorites.
Take the peanut butter sandwich, a lunch box staple. There's chunky and creamy peanut butter to pick between, along with natural or freshly made, and, of course, the bread presents more choices. Jelly offers many alternatives (grape, strawberry, peach, raspberry, etc.), but then there are other amiable partners. Me? Creamy peanut butter, raspberry jam and a layer of salty Ruffles potato chips, all on pillowy white bread and smashed just a bit. Elvis? Peanut butter and bananas grilled on white, the bread buttered. Who's to argue with the King?
But the variations on peanut butter sandwiches don't stop there. Pair the creamy spread with marshmallow creme, crispy bacon or apple slices. Drizzle with chocolate for dessert-ish panini. If only Elvis had lived long enough to eat a Bananas Foster PB Sandwich, in which the bananas are sauteed in butter with sugar and cinnamon before being slapped on the sticky spread.
Salute to the sandwich
In The Encyclopedia of Sandwiches (Quirk, 2011), author Susan Russo catalogs 100 classic sandwiches, from the British Chip Butty (french fries on white with mayo) to the frosted '50s Sandwich Party Loaf, an invention that looks more dessert than entree. Russo's book is a fun romp through the food that fuels us.
"Not only do we love to eat sandwiches, but we also love to make them, talk about them and gaze upon them," Russo writes. The San Diego food blogger (foodblogga.com) celebrates sandwiches from around the country and provides recipes for all of them. The most basic creations get their due, too, including grilled cheese and fried bologna.
While Encyclopedia of Sandwiches covers the basics, the April issue of Saveur covers the world in its "Sandwich Issue." (If you're flipping through at the checkout, go to Page 63 to see the $50 triple-decker.) Sure, we love sandwiches in America, but protein (or veggies) between starch is a global cuisine.
Vietnam has the banh mi (a hoagielike sandwich with pork, crunchy vegetables and a salty-sweet vinaigrette) and India its potato-fritter vada pav, served from carts as street food. There's Lebanese manoushe (herbed vegetable on flatbread) and the Venezuelan specialty, patacon maracucho (avocado and chicken served between discs of fried plantain).
It's nice to taste outside your comfort zone a bit, but the familiar is often the more likely choice when it comes to homemade sandwiches.
I almost always choose hot or salad sandwiches (anything parmigian-ed; grilled cheddar cheese dunked in ketchup; tuna salad with black olives; egg salad with just mayo, salt and pepper) over cold meat sandwiches. By conservative estimate, I've made at least 4,500 sandwiches for my teenage son in his lifetime. I am embarrassed to say how many have been turkey or peanut butter, though the tuna melt is coming on strong. A homemade breakfast sandwich — egg, cheese, bacon — on a French hamburger bun is also a repeat request.
My new favorite is the Fried Green Tomato BLT. Russo's recipe is simple, and when you can find green tomatoes, give it a try. I guess I am setting down some Southern roots, because a little bowl of creamy grits sure goes nice with the cornmeal crunch of the tangy tomatoes. And bacon never hurts anything it's paired with.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8586.