It’s common to credit an 18th-century Earl of Sandwich with inventing his namesake creation. As the story goes, John Montagu was a gambling fanatic who couldn’t step away from the cribbage table for a moment. He ordered a servant to put some cold roast beef between two slices of bread and bring it to him—so he could hold it in one hand and keep playing without besmirching the cards.
Appealing as this story is, it’s hard to believe someone didn’t do it before him. Bread that could be sliced with a knife became common in the Middle Ages, and making it more interesting through application of other ingredients—if you could afford them—must have occurred to someone. Indeed, though the legend emphasizes mobility and daintiness, the more important function of a sandwich is to attenuate expensive ingredients with cheaper ones. While you as a medieval peasant might not have the cash for an all-flesh diet—which is what most wealthy people ate at the time—you might be able to manage a small piece of meat or cheese.
Every schoolkid knows this. When Mom makes a sandwich to put in your lunch box, it’s assembled from two slices of store-bought bread padded with lettuce, with only a slice or two of luncheon meat inside. So, like the Earl of Sandwich, you can hold it in one hand while racing through the homework for your next class with the other. It’s funny, but that kind of thin sandwich now barely exists, as we’ve shifted into an era of culinary opulence. These days, sandwiches are often a foot long, slathered with gloppy condiments, exuding melted cheese, made with weird bread, and heaped with so much meat that trying to eat one with a single hand could result in a strained wrist and the fixin’s flying everywhere.
But the original one-hand version still exists. Witness Pret A Manger (11 West 42nd Street, 212-997-5520, 31 other locations), a British import that tried several times to make a beachhead in Manhattan and finally succeeded. The cooks are in a perpetual (and some might say blissful) state of school lunch-ness. You can get an old-fashioned egg-salad sandwich there, plain and thin—though now it’s cushioned with arugula instead of lettuce. Other retrograde choices run to ham and cheese, roast beef with horseradish dressing, and plain cheese with tomato.
For a slightly thicker version of the same sort of sandwich, head to the West Village’s Ready to Eat (525 Hudson Street, 212-229-1013). There, too, sandwiches are made with sliced bread and easily maneuverable. The best is a turkey club, which comes layered with sliced breast and bacon. But why call it a club? Most sources agree the sandwich—which is of the “double-decker” school, featuring an extra, intermediary slice of bread—was created in Saratoga Springs, New York, the site of the famous racetrack. Does this invention also have a gaming connection, like the earl’s sandwich? Maybe so, because it was first assembled in 1899 by a gambling-club cook named Danny Mears.
If you’re tired of the old turkey-bacon club, try the so-called egg club at Nelson Blue (233 Front Street, 212-346-9090), a New Zealand gastropub in the South Street Seaport that substitutes fried eggs for turkey breast—not a bad idea. Of course, the mother of all antediluvian sandwich shops is Eisenberg’s (174 Fifth Avenue, 212-675-5096), right across the street from the Flatiron Building. Its tuna- and egg-salad sandwiches are legendary, made with just the right amount of mayo. Cognescenti often ask for these to be ramped up with bacon, and the unctuousness of both sandwiches is cut by the puckeringly sour pickle that comes alongside. Even the swivel-stooled interior of this 1929 institution is worth the trek.
One of the hallmarks of the antique one-hand sandwich was the seemingly ho-hum ingredients they were often made with. A favorite filling way back when was meat loaf, a substance brought here by 19th-century German immigrants. Sliced meat loaf makes a nice cold sandwich, and one of the few places you can get it these days is at Dickson’s Farmstand Meats (Chelsea Market, 15th Street and Ninth Avenue, 212-242-2630). The bread comes smeared with both ketchup and mayo, which sets the oniony goodness of the ground beef off nicely. And be assured the meat loaf is much fresher than the one Mom pulled from the fridge a week after it was made.
Oddly, a vegetarian cognate of meat loaf has recently been invented at Birdbath (160 Prince Street, 212-612-3066), located in Soho’s old Vesuvio Bakery. Although most falafel comes in balls, which are then stuffed in a pita—clearly outside the purview of this guide—Birdbath Bakery has started generating sandwiches out of a falafel formed into a rectangular loaf and sliced. Quelle fantastique! With application of lettuce and mayo and good whole-wheat bread, the Middle Eastern smooshed-chickpea formulation might as well be meat loaf.
Birdbath makes plenty of other flat sandwiches, too, including a nice toasted cheese with smoked chicken. For another great toasted cheese, hit Joe Dough (135 First Avenue, 212-780-9222), one of a series of newfangled sandwich shops that have been popping up like adolescent zits on the face of the East Village. Joe Dough devised one specifically aimed at potheads, called Stoner’s Delight. Made on sliced challah bread, it features cheddar plus two Mexican cheeses, and constitutes an oozy, deep-brown tour de force. What? You expected Velveeta?
But for a real trip to childhood, seek out Peanut Butter & Co. (240 Sullivan Street, 212-677-3995), an unusual Greenwich Village spot that specializes in pureed goober sandwiches—chunky or smooth. This substance, which was reputedly invented by 19th-century science superstar George Washington Carver, was probably also known to the ancient Incas. For much of the 20th century, it was the brown-bag standard for kids—often further lubricated with grape jelly—until mass hysteria about peanut allergies saw the sandwich actually banned from many schools. Eating one now feels illicit. Especially if you head for one of the monomaniacal shop’s stranger concoctions, such as the Pregnant Lady (p.b. and dill pickles), PB & J Club (a double-decker), and Peanut Butter BTL (with bacon).
Of course, the five boroughs still have plenty of corner delis that fabricate old-fashioned sandwiches to order, though often supplemented with wraps, paninis, and other newfangled atrocities. Still, if you want something delicious, fast, portable, and low-calorie, you should reach for a thin, one-hand sandwich every time.