The generally accepted view is that the club sandwich is an American invention. Indeed, Wallis Simpson - “that American woman” for whom King Edward VIII gave up the throne – claimed to have introduced it to England. A more specific, and oft-repeated point of history about the club sandwich is that it was invented at the Saratoga Club House in New York in about 1894.
The truth is of course that the club sandwich was not “invented” at a specific moment in time nor a specific location nor by a single individual. As with all recipes, the club sandwich evolved from existing ideas. This is no less interesting a process, of course, to those of us who love unravelling these things, but it does not provide the single-sentence ‘bite’ so convenient for quickie-writers – hence the perpetuation of many of the myth-tories of food history. My particular favourite myth-tory in relation to the sandwich is one that I am sure you all know – that it was “invented” by the Earl of Sandwich himself one night when he was reluctant to leave the gaming table for a proper meal, and called for a bit of meat wrapped in bread that he could eat in his hand.
Firstly, let us go to our first port of call in this sort of investigation: what does the Oxford English Dictionary says about the club sandwich?
club sandwich n. (orig U.S.) a thick sandwich containing several ingredients, as chicken or turkey, lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise, etc.; also fig.
What I find a little odd, and rather disappointing, about this entry is that it makes no mention of what I feel sure most of us would agree are the key features of a club sandwich – that it is made up from three slices of toast (not bread) and two (not one) layers of filling.
The earliest reference I have found so far (after an admittedly very brief search) to the club sandwich pre-dates that in the OED, and comes from a British newspaper, which hints at British roots:
Sandwiches. …. The well-made sandwich is of inestimable value. … The use of lettuce as a filling for sandwiches is comparatively new, and has met with unqualified favour. Dressed with mayonnaise, and laid with bits of chicken or beef or any other kind of meat between thin slices of toast, it makes claim to the title of club sandwich.
Westminster Budget of October 16, 1896
Note however, that although this description specifies toast, it not assume multiple layers.
Here is a rather interesting and amusing Englishman’s view of Americans and of sandwiches eaten in gentlemen’s clubs (and the “formulators” of such things,) which may also point to the ancestry of our dish of the day:
Speaking of Americans, reminds me that I read in a New York newspaper the other day a long account of a Mr. E. Ely Goddard, who seems to have been outrunning the constable out there. According to the newspaper, Mr. Goddard “holds a rather picturesquely pro-eminent position in the local gallery of social celebrities,” whatever that means, and rests his claim to social recognition upon having become one of the founders of the Tenderloin Club and “the formulator of the equally famous Union Club sandwich of toasted bread and sliced chicken.” What a giddy eminence Mr. Ely. Goddard has fallen from! And what a very young people the Americans are. They were serving chicken sandwiches on toast at Pratt’s, Limmer’s and Long’s long before Mr. Goddard was born, but no one troubled to know the name of the “formulator.”
London Man Of The World (London, England) of July 29, 1891
So, another hint that the idea of a sandwich made from toasted bread may have been a popular offering at the English gentleman’s club.
The investigation of the evolution of multi-layered sandwiches is taking a little more time, and will probably provide fodder for another post in the future. They were certainly common in the first decade of the twentieth century, but I feel sure that their existence can be pushed back a little further.
As for the American connection, I give you a couple of mentions from the early twentieth century:
Lawmakers at Lunch: What Statesmen eat in the Capitol Cafes.
…. while Vreeland, of New York, finds no other luncheon quite so satisfactory as a club sandwich.
The Washington Post of 27 May 1900.
And from The Washington Post of 12 August 1905, an article taken from the Baltimore News about a self-styled expert in the art of making a club-sandwich, who includes his own personal recipe:
Dr. George D. Cromwell, of St. Paul, lifted off the top piece of toast, in the café of Joyce’s.
“They say there is nothing in which a man with a good stomach is so fastidious as sandwiches and coffee,” he remarked. And by the way he imports coffee, and says it is all a mistake that there isn’t a pound of genuine Java or Mocha in this country, and that its all used up in England. There’s loads of it, he says.
“But speaking of sandwiches,” he continued, cutting into a choice chunk of chicken, “I think I make the best club sandwich and the best oyster stew in the world. It’s like carrying coals to Newcastle to talk about my oyster stew in Maryland, but the sandwich – listen: People, as a rule, don’t know how to toast bread. Bread should be just browned, not toasted in the oven or in an ordinary toaster. The best way is to cut your slice medium thick from a fresh and close-kneaded loaf. Have ready some slices of mealy chicken, without a grain of toughness in it some broiled ham, some crisp bacon, some fresh and young lettuce, some mayonnaise dressing, and a hot pot of coffee. If you like them, some thin slices of tomato, or better still, the tomato pulp crushed. Now, throw your bread on the lid of a hot stove, and the minute it starts to smoke, turn it quickly. When it is browned, but not hardened, take off and butter generously. Lay on a cover of lettuce, next a piece of bacon, then your chicken, then your mayonnaise, then another piece of toast, piping hot. Then another piece of lettuce, a slice pf ham, a layer of tomato, chicken again, mayonnaise again, plenty of lettuce, and your third slice of toast. A club sandwich, to be right, should always be three stories high, with bacon in one slice and ham in the other. This sounds thick and clumsy, but it depends upon how you make it. And a club sandwich without coffee isn’t worth eating.”
Recipe books are known to lag behind common practice, sometimes by several years, and sometimes much more. I was therefore delighted to find a genuine toasted bread, multi-layered, pretty traditionally-filled and well-mayonnaised club sandwich in a cookery book of 1899. An American cookery book, I might add.
(Steamer Priscilla style.)
Have ready four triangular pieces of toasted bread spread with mayonnaise dressing; cover two of these with lettuce, lay thin slices of cold chicken (white meat) upon the lettuce, over this arrange slices of broiled breakfast bacon, then lettuce, and cover with the other triangles of toast spread with mayonnaise. Trim neatly, arrange on a plate, and garnish with heart leaves of lettuce dipped in mayonnaise.
Salads, sandwiches and chafing-dish dainties, by Janet McKenzie (Boston, 1899)