The True Story Behind 10 American Sandwiches
From lobster rolls to cheesesteaks, we’re a nation of sandwiches.
“The local special” is often a preferred order by travelers at a deli, restaurant, or café…and that includes sandwiches. The Northeast’s got its lobster rolls and Philly has its cheesesteaks. But did you know that sloppy joes were invented in Iowa and a certain magazine lays claim to the very first mention of PB&J? And the French Dip is a Southern California tradition thousands of miles away from France? Traveling around the U.S. yields a cornucopia of sandwich traditions paired with a history lesson. All of these sandwiches artfully hold locally grown or caught ingredients and have throngs of local fans. And while there may be uncontested claims to their origins, the founder is often whoever documented the sandwiches first. Fun Fact: There’s an actual Earl of Sandwich credited with inventing the term “sandwich.” When one day he decided to eat his meal with one hand, slapping two pieces of bread—with the meat between—the sandwich was born.
WHERE: Kimpton Cottonwood Hotel in Omaha, Nebraska
Now part of Kimpton Hotels & Resorts—and newly open as of November 2020—the 205-room boutique hotel was formerly called Blackstone Hotel (named for the surrounding neighborhood) and dates back to 1916. As reported in Saveur in 2016 by Elizabeth Weil, the Reuben founder’s granddaughter, poker players who met regularly at the hotel were hungry. Weil’s grandfather, who worked in the hotel’s kitchen, whipped up a sandwich for Reuben Kulakofsky, one of the players. The rest is history.
Ingredients: Corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, and Russian dressing pressed into rye bread.
Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich
WHERE: The Pages of Boston Cooking School’s Magazine
You may have thought a frustrated parent trying to appease their picky children’s eating habits birthed PB&J. Not so. Just after the turn of the 20th century, the editors at a magazine published by Boston Cooking School (operating from 1879 to the 1950s) included a feature written by Julia Davis Chandler in which she advised, according to the National Peanut Board, not only this new-to-most recipe but using either crab-apple or currant jelly, predominant in the Northeast.
Ingredients: Peanut butter and jelly spread on the insides of two slices of bread and pressed together.
WHERE: Pat’s King of Steaks in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Most restaurants that were around 90 years ago aren’t around to visit today. But the doors of Pat’s King of Steaks are wide open. If you’re not in or near Philly, the restaurant can ship a cheesesteak to you. During the 1930s, hot dog vendor Pat Olivieri was working at Italian Market when he spontaneously tossed some beef on the grill. As the story goes, a cab driver ate it, loved it, and the contract was sealed (so to speak).
Ingredients: Thinly-sliced beefsteak and melted cheese stuffed into a hoagie roll.
WHERE: Perry’s in Milford, Connecticut
Surprise! The lobster roll was not invented in Maine. While most of the lobster featured in lobster rolls sold in the U.S. does come from Maine, the concept dates back to coastal Connecticut when Perry’s served it for the first time. A side of potato chips (old-school plain) or crisp French fries often joins a lobster-roll order.
Ingredients: Fresh lobster-meat mixed with butter, lemon juice, and diced celery, wedged into a grilled hot-dog bun.
WHERE: Possibly in "Good Housekeeping"
Is there anyone who doesn’t love a gooey grilled cheese sandwich? The comfort-food staple may have its preferred tweaks (One cheese or three? Mayonnaise or butter?) but it remains one of the easiest meals to cook at home and included on many restaurant menus. While the origin of its invention isn’t crystal-clear, among the first reports of the sandwich, sometimes called a “cheese dream,” was in a 1918 Good Housekeeping article, according to the Farmer’s Almanac.
When: The late 1910s to early 1920s
Ingredients: Slices of cheese, often cheddar, grilled between two slices of buttered bread.
WHERE: Martin Brothers’ French Market Restaurant and Coffee Stand, New Orleans, Louisiana
From Popeyes (R.I.P. Chicken Po’Boy) to indie eateries, it’s never been difficult to find a po’boy no matter where you live—because there’s a lot of variance in the recipe. Named for the New Orleans streetcar strikers who would drop by Martin Brothers’ French Market Restaurant for free sandwiches, the typical po’boy has fried shrimp, but you’ll also find sandwiches with oysters or crawfish. Roast beef is another common ingredient, particularly in land-locked areas, although New Orleans chef Emeril Lagasse’s recipe for roast-beef po’boy has its fans. Order a po’boy in Louisiana and it will probably feature hot sauce.
Ingredients: Roast beef or fried shrimp on crusty French bread with lettuce, tomatoes, mayonnaise, and pickles.
WHERE: Union Club in New York City
The key to this sandwich is in the presentation: cut into halves or quarters and skewered on cocktail sticks. You can still order a club sandwich at its alleged place of origin because Union Club, dating back to 1836 and New York City’s oldest private social club, is still in business. Note: Another theory is that the sandwich was first created at a Sarasota Springs, New York, gambling club around 1890. Regardless, it’s safe to say the club sandwich has roots in New York.
Ingredients: Sliced turkey, ham, or bacon, along with mayonnaise, lettuce, and tomato.
WHERE: Sioux City, Iowa
While some believe the Sloppy Joe was created in Havana, Cuba, when José Abeal Otero put his own twist on ropa vieja (and Ernest Hemingway later brought it to Key West, Florida, to his friend Joe Russell’s bar), another theory links back to Iowa. Ye Olde Tavern owner Dave Heglin apparently served during the 1930s what he called “tavern burgers” filled with ground beef. While the tavern closed in 1974, a sandwich shop later popped up in its place, only to close during the pandemic.
Ingredients: Pork or ground beef, onions, and tomato sauce or Worcestershire sauce tucked into a hamburger bun.
WHERE: Cole's Pacific Electric Buffet and Philippe the Original, both in Los Angeles, California
Also called a Beef Dip, this messy, delicious sandwich is thought to have been invented in Los Angeles—and two restaurants (Philippe’s and Cole’s Pacific Electric Buffet) are still fighting over who made it first. They both insist that in 1908 they rolled the French Dip. Taste for yourself who does it better, as both are still in business in downtown L.A.
Ingredients: Thinly sliced roast beef on a baguette served hot with plenty of au jus .
WHERE: Primanti Bros. in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Sure, you can now visit 38 Primanti Bros. eateries in seven states, but the original one in Pittsburgh’s Strip District (a neighborhood founded by Italian immigrants) is worth the trek. This quirky but also no-nonsense sandwich (fries inside the sandwich is genius, right?) debuted when Joe Primanti fried potatoes on the grill and spontaneously stuffed them into a sandwich. Truckers and delivery drivers loved it because they could eat lunch with one hand and have the other hand on the steering wheel.
Ingredients: Grilled steak, Italian beef, coleslaw, sliced tomatoes, melted Provolone cheese, and French fries stuffed between two Italian-bread slices.
Adam Milliron and Primanti Bros