The Revenge of the Sandwich


It’s only a sandwich: the smoked turkey sandwich (called “grandpa”) at Mile End.

Until recently, it had been nearly a decade since I’d eaten an actual sandwich. I’m not talking about a hero, wrap, or panini, or any of the other sandwich permutations aimed at diners eager for novelty or excess–sure, I ate plenty of those. Instead, I’m talking about an actual sandwich in the traditional sense: two pieces of bread, preferably white or rye, on either side of a modest amount of sandwich filling.

Indeed, sandwiches were once a staple of American life. At one time, mom made two sandwiches every morning, one for dad’s lunchbox and one for the child’s school lunchbox. Folks would grab a sandwich from the deli to eat on the run. A sandwich was the staple of innumerable picnics–if you were hungry you ate two.

The creation of fillings for sandwiches fueled an entire luncheon-meat industry, and refrigerator cases yawned open with sandwich fillings, the names of which have become arcane whispers of the past: olive loaf, boiled ham, braunschweiger, American cheese, Swiss, Muenster, spiced ham, salami, cotto salami, and bologna–which has now been oddly replaced in our affections by its Italian predecessor, mortadella.

As sandwiches became bigger, gloppier, and hotter, we forgot about the original. Now, that seems to be changing. As I stood in line waiting for a sandwich at Mile End recently, I marveled, not that the Brooklynites around me were clamoring for Montreal smoked meat, but that they wanted an actual sandwich in the conventional sense. And these were no behemoth sandwiches, either. They were old-fashioned sandwiches–two pieces of rye and a modest amount of filling, simply dressed with good mustard. What could be more elegant?

Other places have contributed to this budding revival-in-progress, including Williamsburg’s Saltie, which declares that sandwiches are fit for any meal; at Birdbath Bakeries, where half-sandwiches are offered, wrapped in plastic, for immediate consumption; and at newcomer This Little Piggie, which specializes in roast beef sandwiches. And there are many more places that are discovering that the sandwich, with its modest number of calories and ease of consumption, is much closer to what we want to eat for a light meal than any number of goofy wraps, paninis, pockets, banh mis, or heroes.

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