I don’t often read the Boston Globe. There isn’t much of it to read. The paper has been wasting away for years. Apart from a couple of local reporters who burrow into the mound of corruption that is Boston’s all-blue city politics, the Globe is now so debilitated that it sublets most of its news and all of its opinions from the New York Times. There’s nothing sadder than a paper that has the courage of other people’s convictions
This week, however, the Globe reversed its sad decline, and placed itself at the heart of the national debate. Not on border policy or North Korea, but on the really important stuff. The story began a couple of weeks ago, with a remorselessly probing piece of investigative journalism by Devra Furst. As the Globe’s restaurant critic, Furst had been working on the story for years. On June 13th, she broke the news that the club sandwich might be ‘the perfect American food’. In a changing world, the club sandwich’s recipe has been stable since 1902. After extensive research, Furst wiped the mayo from her lips, took an antacid, and confirmed that the club sandwich remains ‘the best choice’ when it comes to room service, a poolside snack, or the consolations of the diner.
Or not. This week, the Globe carried a letter alleging that the club sandwich is ‘rooted in white male privilege’, and that Furst’s encomium proved ‘the power of the patriarchal establishment in the United States’. The author, Anastasia Nicolaou, holds a master of liberal arts in gastronomy from Boston University, with a side order of Professional Certification in Cheese Studies. You can’t argue with an expert.
Anastasiou placed the club sandwich at the intersection of class and race, in its putative origins at the Union Club in New York City. The Union Club, Anastasiou recalled, had excluded Jews in the 1850s, and retained ties to the Confederacy in the Civil War. The club sandwich had appeared on the Union Club’s menu by 1889—a gastronomic reflection of the stifling of Reconstruction and the rise of robber barons, with a slice of bacon to keep out diners of the Mosaic persuasion.
Furst, Anastasiou alleged, had continued this ‘white’ exclusivity, by placing the club sandwich in its modern context, ‘privileged poolside living’. Anastasiou admitted that actually tracing the club sandwich’s origins to the Union Club was, like the sandwich itself, a ‘fruitless endeavor’. Still, the club sandwich remains ‘a symbol of the very top of American society, a place not open to all’.
This is half true. The true half is that the top of American society is increasingly remote from the rest of society. But the One Percent aren’t eating club sandwiches as their Gulfstreams waft them high over the sweaty plebs. They’re eating quinoa and spelt, and other low-carb grains that taste of leather. The club sandwich has long been democratized. As Furst reported, anyone willing to risk a cardiac incident can enjoy three slices of white supremacy and half a pound of processed meats at Knotty Pine Lunch in Auburndale, Mass. The Knotty Pine proprietors, Billy and Nick Kourtis, charge no membership fees, either.
You takes your seat at the counter, and you makes your choice. Either accept the glorious mishmash of American culture, or whip yourself into Puritan blandness. Be warned, though, that America is the least suitable of places to aim for gastro-purity. Apart from pemmican, almost everything on the menu came from somewhere else. Anastasiou warns that we ‘risk reinforcing an unsavory view of society’ if we don’t eat in agonized historical consciousness. As a historian, and an amateur of Cheese Studies, I disagree.
Twenty years ago, the conscious eating of a club sandwich meant denouncing its load of unsaturated fat. Ten years ago, the club sandwich was off the menu unless the bacon had been responsibly sourced from pigs that, after a lifetime of privileged poolside living, had been tickled to death. Today, in an episode that is the political equivalent of binge eating, a conscious club sandwich comes smeared in white privilege and dripping with virtue. Take away simplicity and pleasure, and there are no simple pleasures.
Anyway, whose sandwich is this? The club sandwich is a double-decker variation on the eighteenth-century classic, a cold slice of salt beef between two slices of bread. That little delicacy originated in London, and is named after John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich (1718-1792). A contemporary rumor had it that Sandwich was such a gambler that he couldn’t tear himself away from tables, so he ordered a waiter to bring the sandwich to the Sandwich. But the naval historian, Sandwich biographer and, quite probably, sandwich eater N.A.M Rodger argues that, as Sandwich was running the Royal Navy, which was at that time the biggest industrial unit in the world, he brown-bagged it, and ate a cold lunch at his desk.
That’s right. The sandwich, in all its manifestations, really is soaked in imperialism and all-male white chumminess. We must demand the removal of this Eurocentric snack from college canteens, airplane trolleys, and all public spaces. Or would that be anti-Semitic?
Hold the bacon. The Passover seder includes the korech, known in modern times as the ‘Hillel Sandwich’ after its inventor, the 1st century AD sage Hillel the Elder. ‘Thus did Hillel during the time when the Temple in Jerusalem was standing,’ the gastro-liturgy goes. ‘He would combine the Passover offering [of roast lamb], the matzah and the bitter herbs, and eat them together.’
This may be the oldest historical description of a sandwich. If you want to know what it tasted like, you could do worse than go to the nearest kebab shop. Providing, of course, you can trace your ancestry to the region between Morocco and Afghanistan, known to geographers as the Kebab Belt. If you can’t, then you’ll have nothing left to eat but a plate of cold sanctimony, with a cup of bile and a side of self-regard. Enjoy!