Food & Drink July 22, 2021

Sandwich Obsession

A history of the simple (and irresistible) sandwich

From hoagies and grinders, to po’boys and bánh mis, the word sandwich means something different to everyone. And perhaps it’s the sandwich’s amorphous nature that has led to its ubiquity and universal appeal. When it comes to the criteria governing what makes a sandwich a sandwich, there are seemingly very few rules that one must follow. It must be built upon a handheld bread structure and feature something betwixt the bread. That’s it. It’s truly a blank canvas, an open platform for creative expression, and the purest form of freedom manifested in a delightfully convenient portable meal.

And to whom do we owe our eternal thanks for the creation of such a liberating and expedient provision? Many bestow the honor upon Sir John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich. However, as with most histories, the truth is far more complicated and difficult to trace. Hence the anecdote of the Earl of Sandwich in all its simplicity and ease has been adopted as the prevailing answer, so it is still the best place to start.

Our hero (pun intended) in this tale, Sir John Montagu, was a prominent figure in 18th century Britain, who led the kind of strangely charmed life only attainable when born into the convoluted web of British aristocracy. Though being brought up in the safety and comfort that come with extraordinary privilege, his life was not without its tragedies, making him a slightly more relatable protagonist than a typical member of British nobility.

His father died when he was just four years old, which set him up to take over the Earldom of Sandwich from his grandfather at the tender age of 10. Clearly the universe knew that if he were destined to leave an indelible mark on human history, it would be best if he got off to an early start.

Sir Montagu was not one to sit back and rest upon his laurels. He completed extensive studies at Trinity College in Cambridge and subsequently embarked upon a customary Grand Tour of Europe, which was something of a rite of passage for all noblemen coming of age. Unique to his tour, Montagu spent extensive time in the realm of the Ottoman Empire in Greece, Turkey, and Egypt. These formative years abroad will provide some inspiration for Montagu’s famous moment.

Fast-forward into Montagu’s adult life, and one will find that he has brilliantly parlayed his inherited role of Earl into several positions of political import, including thrice holding the position of First Lord of the Admiralty (American translation: Secretary of the Navy.) Though it was Montagu’s love of cards, not his political prestige, which gained him notoriety.

He was a deeply committed gambler. So committed in fact, that he would frequently spend 24 hours straight playing cards. And it was at the card table where he came upon his moment of timeless glory, becoming the famous eponym of the sandwich.

While in the midst of a rousing game, Montagu grew rather ravenous. Not wanting to cool his hot hand and interrupt his fellow players, he simply requested slices of meat between two pieces of bread. Upon hearing this request, and noting their own famishment, the rest of the players simply added, “the same as Sandwich!” And thus, the sandwich was born.

Bread and meat had of course been around for tens of thousands of years at that point, and to suggest that the Earl of Sandwich was the first to combine the two flies in the face of simple logic. Some suggest that the notion for Montagu’s request was influenced by his time in the Mediterranean, where it was commonplace to consume food by hand between pieces of bread. Montagu must however be given credit for audaciously eating with his hands in a time when a man of his social status would exclusively dine in the most formal of settings.

So, Montagu did not invent meat held with bread, but he did give it the invaluable gift of a name. A dog without a name is just a dog, but given a name, it becomes a respected and valued member of the family. So too meat and bread without a name is simply sustenance. With the sandwich now named, its popularity spread like wildfire. Hundreds of years later, an actual invention came about that would propel the sandwich’s popularity in the United States into the stratosphere and pave the way for the advent of a myriad of regional sandwich specialties.

In 1928, the Chillicothe Baking Company in Missouri debuted a new innovation that would change the world and set the benchmark in hype by which all future inventions would be measured: sliced bread. Otto Rohwedder’s clever automatic bread slicer made quite the splash, and historical records show that no American has ever sliced their own bread since.* The local Chillicothe Constitution-Review summed up the public’s general feeling upon their first exposure to this novel concept saying, “so neat and precise are the slices, and so definitely better than anyone could possibly slice by hand with a bread knife, that one realizes instantly that here is a refinement that will receive a hearty and permanent welcome.” 1

As the country adopted the unmatched convenience of sliced bread, the sandwich held fast to the coattails of this revolution and developed into the go-to choice for the midday meal. Soon regional specialties began to take hold, and nearly every community in America had a sandwich all its own.

Some became so well loved that they gained national fame and are still revered today in the pantheon of American culinary achievements. Notable members of this group include the Cubano, Florida’s riff on ham and cheese, and L.A.’s simple and effortlessly satisfying French Dip.

As classic and respected as these sandwiches are, there are hyper local factions that engage in impassioned arguments over their accepted ingredients and preparations. In Tampa, for example, the Cubano includes salami, while just south in Key West it is omitted, and any suggestion of its inclusion is considered blasphemy of the highest degree. Depending on the Angeleno with whom one speaks, the French Dip should either have the au jus on the side or arrive pre-dunked, and attempting to persuade anyone on the merits of the alternative is an exercise in futility.

These disputes serve as a reminder that the sandwich is just the starting point and a welcome invitation to creatively fill in the blank space. Two slices of bread, and anything goes. It is so ordinary and simple, yet simultaneously so inspiringly limitless.

Thanks to Sir John Montagu, the word “sandwich” means the same thing in every language, and they are enjoyed in nearly every country on Earth. Here in the Wood River Valley, one is not wont for options as our local dining scene boasts a bounty of spectacular sandwich creations. When hunger strikes, don’t be afraid to use your hands and eat like an Earl.

*The author of this article understands the absurdity of this claim and stands by it wholeheartedly.

1 (1928, July 6) Sliced Bread Made Here. Chillicothe Constitution-Review, pp. 1

6 Standout Sandwiches in Sun Valley

Johnny G’s Subshack – 8” Delbello

 It is often said that you haven’t been to Ketchum until you’ve been to the Pio. But there are a good number of locals who would suggest the prerequisite to claiming you’ve been to Ketchum is enjoying a Delbello from Johnny G’s Subshack. Family owned and operated since 1998 by proprietors John & Gretchen Gorham, Johnny G’s has become a staple among working locals and is home to the $1 Budweiser and some of the friendliest sandwich slingers in town.

As a shop in the heart of America’s first ski town, you’d be forgiven if you guessed that the Delbello was named for the ski boot brand (DalBello). “The Delbello is actually named for Gretchen’s uncle, Richard Delbello,” says John Gorham. “He ran a deli in Chicago for years and actually lived right above it.”

The Delbello exemplifies the classic Italian with ham, salami, pastrami, provolone and all the fixings. The bread, which is actually sourced from the Windy City, is crusty perfection, and if you want a pro tip, Gorham recommends ordering it with pepperoncini and jalapeño.

Konditorei – Reuben

 Everything about Sun Valley emulates classic Austrian ski culture, and perhaps no place better captures that feel than the Konditorei. Created in the 1960s by Austrian pastry chef Fred Pendl, the Konditorei has become a favorite among not only visitors to the Sun Valley resort but locals as well.

Taking on a true sandwich classic like the Reuben means you’d better bring something good to the table because it will be compared to countless others, and Konditorei delivers. “The most important part of a great Reuben is the brisket,” says Chef Erik Olson. “We slow braise ours for eight hours with a classic blend of spices, making a truly tender, mouthwatering brisket that we can cut thick, just like they do in New York.”

While the brisket is the star of any proper Reuben, Olson also notes that their Russian dressing is made with chili sauce instead of ketchup, lending a deeper flavor to the sandwich’s signature dressing. Local baking outfit Bigwood Bread’s rye completes the best local version of the classic Reuben.

Warfield – Pulled Pork

 As summer reaches fever pitch in Ketchum, you’d be hard pressed to find a better deck to soak up the Idaho sun than the perch atop Warfield Distillery and Brewery on the corner of Sun Valley Road and Main Street. A relative newcomer to the Sun Valley culinary scene, Chef Jay Veregge has the gastropub humming on all cylinders, and his Pulled Pork sandwich is an impeccably executed version of another traditional standby.

“Nothing beats good barbeque and cold beer on a hot summer day, and fortunately for us, we’ve got both,” Veregge says with a smile. “We do our pulled pork Carolina style and source the best pork we can find raised right here in Idaho.” Often cited as the oldest form of American barbeque, Carolina style features a healthy dry rub of spices and plenty of vinegar-based sauce mopped on throughout the long, slow smoke.

With pulled pork and crispy fried onions piled high atop a house baked brioche bun and served alongside fresh Moravian-style slaw, this Warfield sandwich will satisfy barbeque snobs and noobs alike.

Atkinson’s Market – Build Your Own

 No local sandwich offering embodies the creativity of the sandwich quite like Atkinsons’ Market’s deli. At their locations in Bellevue, Hailey, and Ketchum, Beth Waligorski, Sandy Alford, and Marlys Ridihalgh (respectively) are stewards of your own sandwich vision. With more than 75 years of combined experience bringing your sandwich dreams to life, it is safe to say they have mastered the art.

If you ask Ridihalgh, there are wrong ways to make a sandwich. “The key is protecting the bread. Lettuce on one slice, cheese on the other. That keeps the bread from becoming a soggy mess.” No one argues with the master.

Boasting seven bread options, choice Boar’s Head meats and cheeses, local Sun Valley Mustard, and a plethora of other fixings, one is free to test the boundaries of sandwich exploration. At just $6.99 for a full sandwich and a pickle, there’s a reason the noontime line stretches far behind the counter.

The deli faithful in the know have picked up on a few tricks over the years. For example, when selecting the bread, you can never go wrong with the house-baked French bread, and on cold days, you can actually put chicken tenders in your sandwich. Game changer.

Jersey Girl – Sloppy Jerz

 If you hail from New Jersey, few things will elicit more joy or nostalgia than the mention of Pork Roll. Created in Trenton, this pleasantly salty processed meat is the pride of Garden Staters everywhere and is right next to Bruce Springsteen in cultural importance.

Thanks to Jersey Girl in Hailey (and soon to be in Ketchum, too), you can enjoy the ineffable flavor of Pork Roll right here in Idaho. Inspired by a request from a North Jersey visitor to the Hailey sandwich shop, the Sloppy Jerz puts the Pork Roll front and center on its rightful pedestal. This double-stacked sandwich requires three slices of rye to contain the profusion of house roasted turkey and grilled Pork Roll and is topped with a delightfully Reuben-esque combination of house made Thousand Island dressing, sauerkraut and melted swiss.

“Pork Roll, or Taylor Ham if you’re from North Jersey, whatever you call it, it’s the celebrity of this sandwich,” says Hannah McNees, proprietor and proud Jersey girl. “We took the North Jersey Sloppy Joe and put a Jersey Girl twist on it, subbing out a cold cut for some greasy Trenton Pork Roll.” As a photo in McNees’s shop proudly proclaims, “Trenton makes, the world takes.” We’ll happily take more of what Jersey Girl is making.

Rasberry’s – Old El Paso

 There may not be a more pleasant or inviting basement anywhere in the world than the subterranean space occupied by Rasberrys Bistro in Ketchum. Artfully decorated and filled with the happy sounds of conversation and laughter, the space sets the stage for the exceptional dining experience enjoyed by everyone who ventures in. Founded in 2005 by sisters Callie and Maeme Rasberry, Rasberrys Bistro has been a longtime local favorite.

With a focus on exceptional ingredients and creating nearly everything in house, Rasberrys’ menu is full of Tex-Mex inspired fare, including their signature sandwich, the Old El Paso. Fresh, house baked ciabatta bread is sliced and lavishly loaded with shredded carnitas-style pork and crispy bacon and is topped with pepper jack cheese, guacamole, slaw, and cilantro aioli.

Growing up in the border town of El Paso, the Rasberrys were exposed to a melting pot of culinary influences, and this sandwich is a culmination of those influences. “The Old El Paso will be forever in your heart, just like the city is in ours,” says Callie Rasberry. “It was featured on our original menu and has been going strong for 15 years. How could we ever change it?”

Delicious and immensely gratifying, the Old El Paso juxtaposes the flavors of a perfect street taco with a rich cheesy goodness and a bright crunch of fresh slaw to create a downright perfect sandwich.

This article appears in the Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.