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  • Writer's pictureLaura McBride

Sandwich Wars

The sandwich, you might recall, was invented in England.

It was supposedly created haphazardly as John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich (Nov. 1718-Apr. 1792) had his servants supply him with a slab of meat between two slices of bread so he could sustain himself without leaving his extended games of billiards. According to Wikipedia, Johnny M. was something of a screw-up, holding many posts of some importance in his lifetime--including First Lord of the Admiralty, a post later held by Winston Churchill--but actua

lly accomplished very little. Except the corner pocket and a meal between slices of bread, perhaps. Sandwich's corruption and incompetence suggested, says Wikipedia, that his contemporaries thought his epitaph should read, “Seldom has any man held so many offices and accomplished so little."

I suppose that might be one reason it is so difficult to find a decent sandwich in England; there must be a race memory that the man after which the food is named was not a desirable example of a Brit, and thus why bother to enhance the food of the same name?

This rumination on sandwiches began today when I craved a BLT. On our way home from a short trip to the beach with Heidi, wonderdog, we stopped at Morrison's for a few things for dinner. I picked up a pre-packaged BLT.

A salvo across the bow

Is it fair to compare such a thing, with its days-old lettuce, pale and soggy bacon and barely ripe tomatoes to an actual deli sandwich? No, of course not. But there's the thing: There is no such thing in England as a deli sandwich. Certainly not at Morrison's, but not anywhere else, either. Not even at the otherwise magical Waitrose.

Prepackaged BLT from Waitrose...not bad, but not good

In fact, there is no such thing anywhere except New York City and Long Island. You might include the ubiquitous Subway—and indeed if I wanted to actually enjoy a sandwich bought away from home in England, Subway it would have to be.

In fact, the only good sandwich is a bona fide deli sandwich.

What does that mean?

Simple. It means a long case with a huge variety of meats (ham, roast pork, pastrami, several kinds of salami, bologna, other types of sausages, roast beef, roast chicken, roast turkey and more), meat and fish salads, egg salad, hard-boiled eggs, lettuce, onions, mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup, horseradish, white and rye and whole wheat bread and Kaiser rolls, and four Greek immigrant guys whose spoken English is limited to, “Wha you wan', lady?” and “Peekle?”

Regarding sandwiches, they understand a lot more, such as “no mustard,” and “don't cut it, please,” and of course “no peekle.”

Back east to java Coffee is a bit more difficult. The deli guys really only understand “black” and “ray-goo-lar.” Ray-goo-lar means you get a blue-and-white cardboard cup with a Greek key design at the top and amphora drawings below with a tannish substance inside that, once tasted, will send even those with perfect blood sugar into diabetic shock. So usually, the best thing to do is say, “black” and then ask for a little container of cream and a packet of sugar, if you take those things in your coffee. Aside from that, the coffee is likely to be pretty good, really. It must be; Manhattan works all the hours of the day and night on it.

But back to the sandwiches.

As I ate my soggy facsimile of a sandwich, staring out my greenhouse window at the first hills of Dartmoor across the Tamar, I began to think of the sandwiches I miss, notably the American BLT. You can have it on plain bread...if you must. But standard for the genre is white toast, mayonnaise, crispy bacon, sliced tomato and iceberg lettuce. That's it. It's not a huge sandwich, like the deli monsters: Reuben, roast beef on rye, almost anything you can think of, really, in a NY deli. The only ones I recall having less than an inch of filling are the salami sandwiches. If they were that thick, you couldn't bite through them, so they are thinner. They also generally have butter on them, one of the few NY sandwiches that does. (UK sandwiches almost always have butter, even if they are prawn mayonnaise!) Of course, the deli guys understand all the condiments, so they'll put on it whatever you want on it.

American BLT sandwich.

Photo licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

I recall a particularly good BLT I had in a diner on the way back from Riverhead, NY, to Stony Brook, NY, the summer I got my license to drive. Riverhead was only about 25 miles from Stony Brook, but when the ink isn't dry on your license, a trip of that magnitude seems worth celebrating. So I allowed my boyfriend to buy us lunch on the way back. I had coffee with my BLT that day, as I always did; still do.

The UK strikes back

To be fair, I should remark on a BLT I ordered at the food kiosk at South Milton Sands beach, UK, a few years back. It was good. Which is to say it was unlike most British sandwiches. It had lots of bacon, back bacon instead of streaky (which is like American bacon, while back bacon is more like deli ham, only cooked), tomatoes, lettuce and enough mayonnaise. Repeat: Enough mayonnaise. The very worst part of British sandwiches is that they are under-dressed, making the sand in sandwich even more apropos. The thing is, it was too big, and the crust on the bread was too chewy. It was an impossibility to eat anywhere except a beach where you could drip onto your naked midriff with impunity. Still, it's the only UK sandwich I've had in six years that I recall liking even a little. And I liked it a lot.

Two typical UK sandwiches

Posh Cucumber Sandwiches...Nothing to eat here

Photo licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Salt Beef Bagel. Boring. Food? Maybe. Does the mustard count as a vegetable?

Photo licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -

I can't remember the dozens of NY deli sandwiches I ate my first couple of years of freelancing in Manhattan. It wasn't that I was so flush that I had money to waste on deli food; it was that at least a couple of days a week, I worked as a temporary typist to keep the bill collectors at bay. I never knew where I'd end up the next day, so it wasn't smart to pack something at home and bring it. It was always possible, though, to go out and grab a deli sandwich and eat it in a park in nice weather or a library in winter.

I missed the grab-a-sandwich-and-head-for-the-park routine so much that, years later when I was in NYC getting documents to support my Irish citizenship quest, I decided to grab a deli sandwich and a cup of coffee. I found a tiny, pigeon-filled vest-pocket park in the financial/government district, claimed a bench from the birds, and lunched NY office-worker style. At the time, I had both the time and money to get a swell restaurant meal, but nostalgia—and NY deli sandwiches—won.

Plus there's the nutritional side. A NY deli sandwich is a swell meal. Lots of protein, a little carbohydrate, a bit of greenery if you want it. Wash it down with what you will, or follow it with an egg cream, a lovely drink made with seltzer water, chocolate syrup and milk. No cream, no eggs. Don't ask.

You can actually get NY deli sandwiches wherever there are NY delis. Outside the boundaries of NYC, Long Island is prime. But you can also get them in the Hudson River towns for the simple reason that New Yorkers have moved there. I had some good ones in Poughkeepsie and Glens Falls.

New Jersey? Well, sure, New Yorkers sometimes move to New Jersey if they aren't planning ever to return as the cooties are way different. (Just kidding. No. Not kidding. Well...we all know about the NY/NJ thing. If you haven't got it, you won't get it, so leave it alone.) So, maybe there are some NY deli sandwiches in Jersey; I wouldn't know.

I do absolutely know there are no NY deli sandwiches in the UK. I've often thought of buying a roach coach and introducing NY-sandwich-deprived Brits to the two-fisted sandwich that makes NY what it is. Maybe I will someday.

I should, really. Someone has to help them. When looking up British sandwiches, I found one that is two slices of bread surrounding a slice of toast. Do you really need to know anything more about the sorry state of the British sandwich? No, no photo. It's really too depressing. Find it in the list of sandwiches on Wikipedia if you must.

Meanwhile, here's an example of the famous British potato chip sandwich to tide you over.

A step up from toast between bread--peanut butter, potato "crisps" and pickles on white bread

"Potato chip sandwich" by Original uploader was LinguistAtLarge at en.wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

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