The Case For The Sub As The Most American Sandwich

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

The sandwich was officially invented sometime in the early 1760s by an Englishman, John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich, who requested his servants bring him food between two slices of bread instead of on a plate so he could hold his meal in one hand and continue either gambling or working very hard as Britain's first lord of the admiralty (depending on which version of the story you choose to believe). Sandwich's sandwich was salt beef on toast. It is unrecorded whether any condiments were involved or if he just ate it plain and dry and sad.

It's likely it didn't take an aristocrat to figure out that you could put meat between slices of bread and have a quick, decent, and portable meal, but of course the earl got the credit. That's England for you.

In America, we do things differently. We have reinvented the sandwich in our own image. Our sandwiches are so full of meat and cheese and vegetables and condiments that we need two hands to hold them—and still we often dribble their contents onto our shirts. They are big and expansive, like our Manifest Destiny. Some of them are so expansive, we sell them by the foot.

We are also fiercely territorial about our sandwiches. We argue incessantly about what it should contain, claiming that our version is the absolute best way to make a sandwich. We can't even agree on the name of what Bert Vaux and Scott Golder, the creators of the 2003 Harvard Dialect Survey, tentatively called "a long sandwich that contains cold cuts, lettuce, and so on." We feel the need to stake our claim, to mark our territory, to show off our ingenuity and, incidentally, do a little self-promotion. What is more American than that?

The Harvard Dialect Survey and its successor, the Cambridge Online Survey of World Englishes, determined that what you call such a sandwich reveals a lot about you. Is it a sub sandwich? Or maybe a hoagie, a grinder, or a hero? A wedge? A spukie? An Italian sandwich? A blimpie, a bomber, a torpedo, a battleship, a destroyer, a baguette, a Garibaldi, a zeppelin? A deli sandwich, maybe?

It's true that more than three quarters of us—77.15 percent of those who responded to the survey, to be precise—refer to such a sandwich as a sub. According to one legend, it got its name in 1927 when Dominic Conti, who had been selling overstuffed sandwiches on long Italian rolls in Paterson, New Jersey, since 1910, saw the hull of a submarine and said, "Hey, that looks like my sandwich!" According to another, Benedetto Capaldo, who ran the commissary at the Naval Sub Base in New London, Connecticut, during World War II made enormous salami sandwiches for sailors on the sub crews, who carried the name across the U.S. when they dispersed after the war. That may explain why, for some people, the term "submarine" seems dissatisfying. Generic even. The world of long American sandwiches contains multitudes.

If you live in southern New England, a sandwich is only a sub if it contains cold meat and cheese. If it's hot, it's a grinder, so called because the earliest specimens were made on bread so tough, you had to grind your teeth through it. Unless you live in certain parts of Boston. Then you'd call your sandwich a "spukie," short for spucadella, an Italian word for "long roll" that apparently is no longer used by anyone who actually lives in Italy. The rolls used to make spukies are pointier than those for subs. So is a spukie really a sub?

What about an Italian sandwich, a specialty of Maine? Or is a sub only an Italian sandwich if it contains ham, American cheese, tomato, green pepper, onions, and olives, finished with olive oil and served on a split-top bun?

A hero, by contrast, contains just about anything; it allegedly got its name when the New York Herald-Tribune food columnist Clementine Paddleford wrote in 1936 that you had to be a hero to try to eat one. A 1937 Lexicon of Trade Jargon published by the WPA claimed that "hero" was the term for sandwich preferred by armored car guards. However, just north of the city, in Westchester County, the sandwich is known as a "wedge," which seems like just another reason for New Yorkers to mock suburbanites.

(Paddleford, by the way, played a crucial role in the codifying of the sub sandwich in the August 7, 1949, edition of her syndicated "How America Eats" column. She reported that the sub sandwich "nosed into site along the East Coast late in the war" and provided a recipe for a ham and "provoloni cheese" version that she specified should be served on a nine-inch roll, although an earlier mention in a 1946 story in the Washington Evening Star about the Intercollegiate Broadcasting Network—the origins of college radio!—defined a submarine sandwich as "a 10-inch roll filled with meat and cheese.")

And then there is the hoagie—which evolved completely independently of the sub and is totally different because hoagies do not have mayo. Heaven forbid the official sandwich of the city of Philadelphia originate anywhere else! The actual circumstances of the hoagie's birth, though, are murky. Most versions involve Hog Island, an area of the city near what is now the airport that was, during the early 20th century, a shipyard where Italian immigrants worked and ate enormous homemade sandwiches for lunch. The sandwiches became known as "hoggies," either in honor of Hog Island or because, in the words of Al DePalma, an enterprising jazz musician-turned-sandwich shop owner, you had to be a hog to eat a sandwich that big; sometime after World War I, the name mutated to hoagie. DePalma, who cornered the Hog Island sandwich market by opening a stand there in the late 30s, gets the credit for instituting the eight-inch roll, which has become a Philly standard, not just for hoagies but for cheesesteak sandwiches as well.

(Another sandwich philosophy question: why is a cheesesteak a cheesesteak and not a hoagie? Is it a subset, much like whether a hot dog is a sandwich?)

Many of the terms the Harvard Dialect Survey uncovered for "a long sandwich that contains cold cuts, lettuce, and so on" are extremely local, usually the product of a marketing effort by one particular sandwich shop, such as the gondola of Peoria, Illinois; the Garibaldi of Madison, Wisconsin; or the zep of Norristown, Pennsylvania. Then there's the sarnie, which appears in three isolated locations in southern California, the Texas panhandle, and Washington State and is likely the result of a few stray Brits who decided to answer the survey or people who did a junior year abroad and retain a fondness for British slang. (Across the ocean, they have their own lively debate over what to call a sandwich: sarnie or butty?)

But there is one more term that is widespread over a particular region: the po'boy, or poor boy, of New Orleans and the surrounding Gulf coast. There is some debate over whether a po'boy should even be considered in the same category as a sub sandwich since many specimens come stuffed with fried seafood, not meat. This version of the po'boy has its origins in the oyster loaf, a concoction that goes back to at least 1838 when Mary Randolph first published a recipe for it in her cookbook The Virginia Housewife or Methodical Cook (incidentally considered the first American cookbook). Randolph's oyster loaf consisted of oysters stewed with breadcrumbs, butter, and cream served inside a hollowed-out loaf of bread.

However! There are also po'boys made with beef and gravy. These po'boys got their name during the 1929 streetcar strike which put 1,100 conductors and motormen out of work. It was not a peaceful strike: When the city tried to run a streetcar operated by scabs, the strikers set it on fire. During this period, Benny and Clovis Martin, a pair of brothers and union sympathizers who owned a sandwich shop, vowed to give out free sandwiches to strikers. Originally, these were served on French baguettes, but there was so much demand, the Martins arranged for an Italian baker to supply them with more rectangular loaves. According to legend, whenever anybody came in for a free sandwich, one Martin brother would turn to the other and say, "Here comes another poor boy." They must have said that a lot, which may explain why it got shortened to po'boy.

Maybe it's not surprising that a large and varied nation such as ours can't decide what to call a big-ass sandwich. It is also delightful that in an age of national chains (looking at you, Subway) some regional-specific terms still remain that we can still argue over. Even though the sub sandwich/hoagie/hero/grinder is infinite in its varieties and combinations, expanding to include imports like the banh mi ("banh mi hoagie" in Philly). No matter who you are—even if you only eat vegetables or can't eat gluten—there's a big, fat overloaded sandwich for you, whatever you choose to call it.