The beauty of the sandwich is that you can invent your own. It is almost certainly of doubtful authenticity to attribute the “invention” of the sandwich to John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich who, as the story goes, wished to consume his meat one-handed while still at the gambling table, and so stuck it between two slices of bread. The Earl would eat these meat-between-bread contraptions, so he wouldn’t have to stop gambling, and his peers would order their servants to prepare “the same as Sandwich,” hence the name.
While there is no doubt that the Earl have had his name associated with what he ate, it was surely available long before. It is very convenient to wrap a protein, sauce and side in the relatively clean and filling envelope of some grain-based baked good, be it a wrap or two slices of bread.
We’ll take a look at traditions of sandwiches and their close cousins from around the world. Just don’t forget the mayo…
American Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich
How do I choose only one “American” sandwich, when there are so many regional variations that come to mind? This strikes me as particularly American, since peanut butter is an American invention, patented in 1895 by the Kellogg brothers, who made a spreadable paste out of steamed peanuts. For American children, this is the go-to staple, more common than the club sandwich or the BLT (bacon lettuce and tomato).
French Croque Monsieur
Two slices of bread, surrounding ham and cheese, with a melty cheese and béchamel on top, then fried or baked: this would not be on the Earl’s one-handed list of options, but it sure is good.
New Haven Hamburger
Historians say they “invented” the hamburger, the first in the US to grill patties of ground beef and stick them between slices of toasted bread. Works for me.
Montreal Smoked Meat Sandwich
What New Yorkers call pastrami, Canadians call “smoked meat”. Rye bread stacked high with cured beef brisket, yellow mustard and a side of sour pickles.
While perhaps not the most exciting of Italian specialties, the triangular-cut cold sandwiches on plain white bread (with the crusts cut off) can be found at every café. Standard tramezzini include tuna and tomato, mozzarella and tomato, tuna and corn, prosciutto and more. These were invented in 1925 at Caffe Mulassano di Piazza Castello in Turin, a variation on English tea sandwiches.
English Tea Sandwich
This is a more refined version of what the Earl might have gone for, with dainty triangles of crustless white bread cut and arranged on plates to accompany afternoon tea. Cucumber and cheese, cheese and relish, smoked salmon and cream cheese, cheese and watercress are among the usual suspects.
The Netherlands is full of sandwich-focused luncheonettes, where you can order broodjes with all manner of filling. They are usually on the smaller side, so you’d order two or three to make a meal.
Vietnamese Banh mi
This is a Vietnamese street classic. A baguette is loaded with many elements, but one or more meats, possibly tofu, sardines, pate, hardboiled or fried eggs, cilantro and pickled vegetables make this a multifaceted triumph.
Order “toast” in Slovenia and you don’t get toasted bread, but in fact a sort of simple but satisfying grilled ham and cheese on white bread, which is a staple at cafes and is often consumed for breakfast or a late morning snack called malice.
Chilean Barros Luco
A South American alternative to the Philly cheesesteak, this features toasted white bread filled with melted cheese and thinly-sliced beef.
Spansih Bocadillo de Calamares
Normally deep-fried foods do not enter the realm of sandwich-ness. Unless you’re in Spain, where fried calamari rings nestle in sliced French bread. Just don’t forget to ask for ali oli garlic mayo.
British Breakfast Bap
Aka “The Bacon Butty,” a bap or butty is a bun that can be stuffed with bacon and buttered. Not the lightest breakfast, but who said anything about wanting a light breakfast?
In Uruguay, those baps are stuffed fancy, with sliced filet mignon, melted mozzarella, tomatoes, bacon, olives, hardboiled eggs, ham and mayo.
For those who like multiple meats in their sandwich, the Cuban (as it is referred to in the US), features roasted pork, salami and ham, sided with Swiss cheese, mustard and pickles, then toasted on a hot griddle or a la plancha.
Trinidad and Tobagoan Doubles
Fried flatbread called bara is the vehicle for curried garbanzo beans, in this exotic Caribbean alternative.
Danish Dyrlaegens natmad
Part of the rich tradition of open-faced sandwiches, the Danes like to start with rye bread, layer on raw onions, water cress, meat in aspic, salted beef, and leverpostej, a type of liver pate.
Shawarma, when sliced and wrapped in flatbread, as opposed to thick sandwich bread, is called a yufka, and might be considered an Arabic burrito.
I know what you’re thinking. I’m opening up a proverbial “can of worms” by introducing wraps into this discussion, and if I mentioned burritos (meat, baked beans, rice and veggies in a tortilla), then I should surely include tacos and a whole slew of other Mexican wrapped delights. But in the interest of brevity, let this act as a bookmark to a separate chapter on wrapped Mexican delicacies.