It may not be our city's sandwich, but the Southern serves a mean Philly cheesesteak
Philadelphia has its cheesesteaks, and New Orleans has po' boys. When in Baltimore, you must try a pit beef sandwich topped with tiger sauce, and no trip to Chicago would be complete without an Italian beef. So why is it that Charleston, one of the greatest culinary cities in the country, so beloved by tourists that Travel + Leisure not only named us Best American City four years running but this time around declared us the Best City in the whole damn world . . . how can it be that Charleston has no signature sandwich to call its own?
It's not just a handful of cities that have a distinctive local sandwich, either. Los Angeles lays claim to the French dip, Boston the lobster roll. There are Cuban sandwiches in Tampa, beef-on-weck up in Buffalo, loose meat sandwiches in Des Moines. The Hot Brown in Louisville. The half-smoke in Washington D.C. (Yes, I know that last one is a hot dog, or at least a sausage dog, and I'm not going to delve into the whole "is a hot dog a sandwich?" silliness, but we can at least agree it is a form of meat served between bread.)
Philadelphia and New Orleans, ever the strivers, even have backup signature sandwiches: the roast pork with broccoli rabe in the Friendly City and the muffaletta — a big round loaf stuffed with sliced deli meats, cheese, and olive salad — down in the Big Easy.
Hell, even Columbia has its own hallmark sandwich: the pimento burger. It was most likely created at the now-departed Dairy Bar on Main Street, and it can still be had around the city at wonderful old-school burger joints like Rosewood Dairy Bar, Rockaway Athletic Club, and the Kingsman.
At this point, it would be tempting for us to play the game "let's make up a signature sandwich for our city." It goes like this: for what foods is Charleston known? Let's take one or two of them, put them between two pieces of bread, and see what happens. Maybe . . . a shrimp and grits sandwich! Fry the grits into a patty, top them with shrimp, and layer them on a seeded kaiser roll.
No. That's stupid. Let's try again. We have a lot of fresh fish around here. Maybe a blackened triggerfish sandwich? Put it on a benne seed bun and slather it with mustard-based barbecue sauce! Genius.
And we only sold two of them in the first week.
Let's face it. Signature sandwiches can't be created on demand by committee, and any effort that goes down that route will be about as successful as those city slogans created by local tourists boards. (Really, Columbia — "Famously Hot?")
Perhaps we can find some clues by studying how other cities' signature sandwiches came about.
First, the cheesesteak. Around 1930, Harry and Pat Olivieri were running a hot dog stand in South Philly, a neighborhood of Italian immigrants. One of the brothers came up with a sandwich made of sliced beef and grilled onions on a roll. It proved popular with customers, but its rise to city-wide fame was slow and evolutionary. In 1940 the brothers opened Pat's King of Steaks at the intersection of East Passyunk Avenue and 9th Street, and they added cheese to their sandwich sometime in the 1950s.
The cheesesteak didn't truly arrive as a civic specialty until after 1966, when Joe Venot opened a competing stand called Geno's Steaks diagonally across the intersection from Pat's. People have been arguing ever since about which of the two stands has the city's best steaks. (The proper answer, of course, is "neither," since the best are found downtown at Jim's.)
The New Orleans po' boy gained its national reputation a little faster than the cheesesteak, but the process was still measured in years, not months. In 1922, Bennie and Clovis Martin opened Martin Brothers' Coffee Stand and Restaurant at the corner of Ursuline and North Peters streets. Seven years later, the local streetcar workers went on strike, and the Martin brothers, who were former streetcar conductors themselves, offered free meals to all union members to help tie them over until they had wages again.
They concocted for the strikers a hearty roast beef sandwich on French bread, but the narrow ends of the traditional loaf created a lot of waste. So, the Martins asked local baker John Gendusa to create a new type of loaf, 40 inches long and rectangular from end to end, which made it easier to slice into big, evenly-sized sandwiches.
The massive Buffalo Wild Wings chain, which now has more than 1,000 restaurants and over $1 billion in revenue, started out as "Buffalo Wild Wings and Weck," or "BW3" for short. No one outside of New York knew what the heck weck was and the young chain soon excised the name from its signs and the sandwich from its menu.
When asked where the sandwich's name came from, Bennie Martin recalled, "We fed those men free of charge until the strike ended. Whenever we saw one of the striking men coming, one of us would say, 'Here comes another poor boy.'"
Both the style and the name stuck. By 1931, the city was dotted with shops and stands — including Tony's Poor Boy Sandwich Shop and the Poor Boy Sandwich Stand — offering the oversized creations. Two years later, one city resident, worried about the negative impression visitors would get seeing "poor boy" signs everywhere, wrote a letter to the editor of the Times-Picayune arguing the name should be changed to "big boy." It didn't happen.
In 1937, a sportswriter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer visited New Orleans and noted "an original creation known as the poor boy sandwich, which consists of half a loaf of hot French bread, sliced lengthwise and filled with roast beef, roast pork, or fried oysters, generously doused with a highly seasoned tomato sauce." (Back in the mid 20th-century, before there were traveling food writers, sports reporters tended to be ones who introduced national audiences to regional delicacies like hush puppies or chicken mull, which they encountered while covering their assigned teams on the road.)
These and other sandwich origin stories offer a few clues about how a particular item can become a hallmark of a city's cuisine. Some of these might be a little counterintuitive.
For instance, does a city's signature sandwich need to be made with some sort of uniquely local ingredient? The answer is, simply, no. The original po' boy was made not with crawfish or blackened redfish but with roast beef. The Philly cheesesteak? Also beef, though Philly has never been a town known for steak. Baltimore is famous for its blue crabs, but their signature sandwich has nothing to do with the ocean. It's also made from beef (notice a trend here?), in this case a top or bottom round roast cooked over a charcoal fire.
Not every city's signature sandwich is filled with beef, though. The Cuban has ham and pork, the Hot Brown turkey. But apart from the lobster on Boston's lobster roll, the stuff you put in the middle doesn't have much to do with the sandwich's specific local identity.
What really matters, it turns out, is what you put it inside of, which is to say, the bread. The Philly cheesesteak depends upon a specific type of roll: a hearth-baked Amoroso roll that is light and crisp on the outside but soft in the middle. The po' boy, as we saw, rose to fame on its custom 40-inch Gendusa roll.
The second-string signature sandwich of New Orleans takes its very name from the bread that it's on, for a muffaletta is a specific type of Sicilian round, flat loaf. Ditto for Buffalo's beef-on-weck (hey, more roast beef!), which gets its name from kummelweck, a Kaiser-like roll topped with caraway seeds and pretzel salt that, until recently, could only be found in and around Buffalo and Rochester in western New York.
Another important factor is where within each city these sandwiches originated, for few of them came from the kitchens of famous chefs in fine dining restaurants. They tended to arise in working-class neighborhoods, many of them immigrant neighborhoods. They were introduced at modest establishments like hot dog stands, sandwich shops, or bars. They started off as something that diners grabbed for a quick, hearty lunch or to soak up the booze during a night on the town.
Typically, the sandwich's stature grew rather quietly, as restaurateurs noticed a popular item that one of their competitors were serving and created their own version — what we might call the Pat & Geno Effect. But no one outside of the originating city heard about that sandwich for years, so it had time to take root and evolve and become part of the city's distinctive food culture.
Perhaps tellingly, all of these sandwiches originated decades ago. It's hard to imagine something like a beef-on-weck or a Cuban sandwich emerging in these days of hyper-connected digital food media.
Consider Dominique Ansel's Cronut. The French-born pastry chef introduced the hybrid croissant-style doughnut at his New York City bakery in May 2013. A blogger from Grub Street happened to try it and write about it on day one. Within three days there was a line a hundred deep outside the shop waiting to try it. By day nine Ansel had trademarked Cronut, but donut shops across the country still raced out their own knock-off versions with slightly different names. Dunkin' Donuts even launched its own "croissant donut" in 2014. All of this ensured that the Cronut would never become New York's signature donut.
These days, when restaurateurs want to add something new and fresh to their menus, they don't need to look down the block at what their competitors are doing. Food media and inter-connectivity offers them infinite sources of inspiration from all over the country and all over the world, and thus we have Charleston restaurants offering bánh mì and Nashville hot chicken sandwiches and any number of concoctions from all over the place. That's a recipe for sandwich imitation, not sandwich innovation.
So here, I think, is what needs to happen if Charleston is going to someday have its own signature sandwich. First, someone has to come up with a really good sandwich. Roast beef might be a good filling to start with, but having the right roll or bread will be the real key. (We're looking your way, Brown's Court and Normandy Farm.)
Next, a couple of other restaurants need to shamelessly rip it off and start selling their own version. Everyone here in town needs to start eating it all the time so that even more restaurants start offering it. And, finally — and this is the most important part — everybody needs to shut up about it, especially the media and food blogger types, and not let word get out for at least three or four years. No Instagram posts, no publicist tweets, no breathless mentions in "16 Sandwiches from Coast to Coast You Have to Try Before You Die from Obesity."
So, let's get on it Charleston. We can do it. I'll check back in in five years or so and see how it's going.