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The Case For "Protein Salads" As The Most American Sandwich

Welcome to American Sandwiches Week, a celebration of the mighty sandwich through the lens of Americana.

It is very sad to admit on day two of American Sandwiches Week that one of our most stalwart categories of sandwich would not exist were it not for the French. This is actually true, unlike the sandwich creation myth that involved the Earl of Sandwich. It doesn't take much vision and culinary skill to shove a piece of meat between two slices of bread. It does, however, require some serious know-how to figure out that an egg yolk mixed with oil added at an excruciatingly slow rate and beaten until emulsification will yield a light and savory sauce that is useful for binding disparate ingredients together. But that is what the great French chef Marie-Antoine Carême did sometime in the early 19th century. Without him, we would not have mayonnaise. And without mayonnaise, we would not have egg salad or chicken salad or tuna salad or whitefish salad or any of the other what we will call, for lack of a better term, protein salads that we use to stuff sandwiches. 

If the sub sandwich is associated with big, strong working men, the protein salad sandwich is usually associated with ladies who lunch. Or luncheon, as it was called at the turn of the 20th century and is still called in parts of the South. Luncheon is not the same as a plain old lunch. As Mary Lincoln, the head of the Boston Cooking School, wrote in 1904, "When we invite our friends to share the meal, we use instinctively the more formal and elegant word 'luncheon.'"

These days luncheons are old-fashioned—think of bridal or baby showers or very boring midday awards ceremonies—and so are protein salad sandwiches. "In the old days," Laurie Colwin wrote in her essay on chicken salad in Home Cooking, "chicken salad was served either to children, or at tea rooms to ladies who had been shopping and wanted a light lunch."

(The one exception is the lobster roll, which is technically a protein salad sandwich in that it contains chunks of lobster—a protein—bound sometimes together with mayonnaise, but because it contains lobster, it is decadent and expensive, and therefore not suitable for a light, quick bite during a shopping expedition.)

The protein salad sandwiches themselves, though, are relics of a very weird era of American feminist and culinary history, the age of the domestic scientists. In Perfection Salad, her excellent book about that time, Laura Shapiro describes the domestic scientists—a formidable crew that included Mary Lincoln—as women who "wanted a career and... needed a cause, but they weren't interested in breaking very many rules, reordering society, or challenging men on their own turf. What they really wanted was access to the modern world, the world of science, technology, and rationality, and they believed the best way for women to gain that access was to re-create man's world in woman's sphere."

Some of these women were actually trained as scientists—one of the pioneers of the movement, Ellen Swallow Richards, was the first woman to graduate from MIT—but they directed their knowledge and energy into teaching American women to cook and clean more efficiently and "scientifically." They made recipes easier to follow by standardizing temperatures and measurements—give a quick thank you to Fannie Merritt Farmer every time you have to measure out a half-teaspoon of salt instead of a dash. They instituted the concepts of balanced meals and calorie counting. And, following in the footsteps of Carême, they devised new and creative ways to use basic pantry items or recycle leftovers. Primarily they focused on salads. They made lots and lots of salads. A salad was the proper food for a lady. It was dainty and decorative, perfect for dainty, ladylike appetites. (They also liked the word "dainty" a lot.)

For the domestic scientists, the term "salad" was a very broad and all-inclusive category. It didn't even need to involve vegetables. As long as you could serve it on a lettuce leaf or toast or between two slices of bread, you were good. In her book, Shapiro describes a series of salads that were, for lack of a better term, absolutely batshit. For instance, the Golf Ball Salad: "hard-boiled egg yolks mashed with mayonnaise, formed into balls and rolled in cottage cheese." After the Knox Gelatin Company began manufacturing fast-dissolving granulated gelatin in 1894, gelatin gradually overtook mayonnaise as the favored means of holding a salad together. The much-beloved "perfection salad" was basically leftovers thrown into a gelatin mold—but in an "artistic" manner. There is something very American about all of that: all that ingenuity and creativity deployed on the technological advancement and improvement of... lunch. Or luncheon.

Of course none of that stuff survived. Here is a picture of a perfection salad. Would you want to eat that?

Protein salads, by contrast, have endured, probably because people actually liked eating them. And many of us still do, even if they are old-fashioned. The ingredients are inexpensive, and a very little bit of protein can go a very long way. Canned tuna, when it made its debut in the early 1900s, was widely celebrated as a cheap substitute for chicken, which is maybe why today it is still sometimes hard to tell tuna and chicken salad apart. These salads tend to stick together and stay put, which is why they lend themselves beautifully to sandwiches, which are so much more portable than lettuce leaves.

Like the sub, the protein salad sandwich is endlessly customizable. In its most perfect form, it has a balance of creamy and crunchy, sweet and savory, with some chewiness in the bread, but what that balance is and how you achieve it is entirely up to you. Do you poach your chicken, roast it, buy a rotisserie bird from the grocery store, or use leftover fried chicken? Do you use mayonnaise or are you one of those people who is utterly grossed out by it and uses plain yogurt as a binding agent instead? Do you mix in celery or toasted almonds? Do you season with salt and pepper, or curry, or mustard, or Sriracha? Like the domestic scientists, the only real limit is your imagination. Banana nut? Lettuce and tomato? Sure, why not. Grapes remain highly controversial, but according to the website of Willow Tree Farm, a purveyor of chicken salad across New England, the first chicken salad was served in 1863 at Town Meats in Wakefield, Rhode Island, by its founder, Liam Gray. It contained chicken, mayonnaise, tarragon, and grapes. So there you have it. At least according to one dubious source.

And yet, a protein salad sandwich somehow feels classier than a few slices of bologna slapped onto some white bread with a squirt of mustard. It requires some effort. Or maybe a lot of effort, depending on how serious you are about poaching your chicken. This would likely please the domestic scientists, even if you fill your sandwich with a very large and undainty scoop of salad and eat it at alone your desk instead of within a polite circle of friends.