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James Beard on Making Super Sandwiches

Elena North-Kelly

September 27, 2016

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In his iconic tome, Beard on Food, which was first published in 1974, our namesake wrote prolific prose on a vast landscape of culinary topics, from the pleasures of oxtails to a lesson in chicken anatomy to a sandwich manifesto, which we share with you today. Humorous, erudite, and timeless, this collection of essays remains an indispensable resource for the home cook. Stay tuned for more! 

James Beard's Super Sandwiches 

One of the great American arts, which varies from being a triumph to being a disaster, is the art of sandwichmaking. There’s more to this than meets the eye. First, the all-important foundation. You must have good, firm bread and sweet butter. Next, the filling. This should be fresh, tasty, pleasing to the palate, and above all, of an elegant but not excessive sufficiency, for an overstuffed sandwich is vulgar, messy, and difficult to eat. It doesn’t matter if the filling is nothing more than peanut butter and jelly. Provided it is the best peanut butter and the best jelly, it can be just as satisfactory as some magnificent fancy of foie gras, truffles, and breast of pheasant.

I love good sandwiches. They may be the tiny, tempting tea sandwiches the English do so well, made of paper-thin slices of buttered bread, and chicken, ham, pâté, cucumber, tomato, or radish; hearty fried-egg sandwiches on thick slabs of bread with salt, pepper, and maybe a bit of bacon, or any of the lusty combinations that have gone down in American gastronomic history, such as the Reuben and the club.

The Reuben, of course, was named for New York’s famous delicatessen deluxe, which I first remember when it was at Madison Avenue and 59th Street. It stayed open practically all night and served really extraordinarily good food. You can find the Reuben all over the country, either as a meal-in-itself sandwich or in a miniature cocktail version, and it varies in quality from excellent to awful. I’m not sure who has the right formula. As I recall, the first ones were not toasted. They were made with corned beef, Swiss cheese, cole slaw, and Russian dressing on pumpernickel, and I think sometimes there was a slice of turkey breast, too. Now the standard version seems to be a toasted sandwich of corned beef, sauerkraut, and Swiss cheese. This is an extremely good sandwich combination, but sometime you might try the other version and compare the results.

The club sandwich also used to be rather different. In the last thirty years or so it has evolved into a triple decker, but as I remember, it was originally made with just two slices of toast, thinly sliced chicken, tomato, and mayonnaise. Order a club sandwich today, and you’ll get chicken or turkey, tomato, bacon, mayonnaise, and lettuce or not, as you wish. Provided the toast and bacon are crisp and hot and the other ingredients of the highest quality, this can be a divine mixture of flavors and textures.

Not long ago I discovered, right around the corner from my house in New York, a most remarkable little delicatessen-type restaurant that had been there for years and somehow I had neglected to explore. One day when my secretary and I were working through the lunch hour she said, “I’ll just run up to Igor’s and get us a sandwich,” and she brought back from this tiny Arts Food Restaurant, which is run by a couple called Igor and Sonja, a menu that I found startlingly original.

The sandwiches are imaginative, carefully made, and taste as if someone put them together for themselves, not for the assembly line. That day I had a Volga Special #1, thinly sliced smoked salmon, Russian dressing, red caviar, and a tiny touch of onion on pumpernickel, and it was one of the best sandwiches I’ve had in a long time. Another day I picked the Anne G. Special—a really hearty sandwich of cold rare roast beef, cheddar cheese, broiled tomato, and bacon—and once I had the Brevoort, a combination of turkey, ham, hard-boiled egg, tomato, and homemade Russian dressing. Each one was outstanding, and rated high on all points. I wish more people used this kind of imagination in making and presenting sandwiches.

One person who does is my friend Teddy Watson. Teddy runs a superb catering business in Portland, Oregon, called Yours Truly, and when she has an order for finger sandwiches for a tea or cocktail party, she scoops out a huge round pumpernickel loaf, fills it with neat layers of the little rye bread sandwiches, puts back the top as a lid, and ties it with a gigantic bow- and the sandwiches stay beautifully inside until eaten. You might try this cocktail loaf for your next party.

Another good idea if you are entertaining a lot of people is to have a sandwich buffet. Put out a variety of good rye and pumpernickel breads and crunchy French rolls (plus one or two homemade breads if you like to bake), sweet butter, relishes, cole slaw, homemade mayonnaise, and all kinds of fixings—thinly sliced ham, roast and corned beef, lobster, shrimp, pates, and meat loaf, and a batch of cheeses. Then let your friends run riot and make their own combinations.

Get the recipe for James Beard's Croque Monsieur (pictured above).