Food & Drink

The Sandwiches That Truly Changed America

peanut butter and jelly
Cole Saladino/Thrillist

Apple pie? Baseball? A Toby Keith fan in cutoff jorts and a "Back-to-back World War Champs" tank top? Please.

No thing, person, or symbol exemplifies America quite like the sandwich. Although an Englishman owns the name, and the first recorded instance (allegedly) belongs to a Middle Eastern rabbi, no culture has embraced food placed on or between slices of bread as zealously as the US of A. We canonize our heroes with heroes, and send our kids to kindergarten packing only PB&J’s. It's simultaneously the workingman's one-handed lunch break, and a guilty pleasure of once and (maybe) future presidents.

Look, all sandwiches are important, but some are simply more important than the rest. These are the sandwiches that changed the way Americans eat, as determined by a panel of food historians and top-shelf chefs.

Po-boys fueled public transit reform

On the shores of New Orleans at the turn of the 20th century, working-class bakeries combined local seafood staples and Italian meats -- made popular by a wave of Sicilian immigrants -- to make a distinctly Bayou sandwich that has since gained nationwide fame.

"The po-boy is indicative of the food of the lower class at the time (approx. 1920) -- it was certainly a workingman's food," Amy Bentley, author and NYU food studies professor, said. Legend states the sandwiches were created by local bread makers, who gave free sandwiches to streetcar workers on strike to show their support. The bread-makers nicknamed the starving strikers "poor boys," which inevitably become "po-boys," styled after the local accent. 

The po-boy is notable for two reasons: it's likely the most commonly known seafood sandwich, outside the austere fried fish or tuna salad, and it escaped its hometown to find national fame -- which is the American dream, after all. "The po-boy went from a regional, lower-class staple, to being offered on nationwide menus for $17," said sandwich expert and author Joel Jensen

Breakfast Sandwich
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The breakfast sandwich became the OG shift meal

It's likely people have put bacon, eggs, and sausage between bread since the advent of bread and common sense -- but the modern breakfast sandwich definitely changed the way we eat breakfast. "We can trace our modern idea of the breakfast sandwich back to lunch counters, 'night owls' (early diners), and little stands outside factories in the early parts of the 20th century," food historian and author Megan Elias said. "Workers would grab one before -- or after -- a shift and eat it on the go."

The breakfast sandwich brought to breakfast what traditional sandwiches brought to lunch: an efficient way to get a decent meal, right in the palm of your hand.

"Then McDonald's came out with the McMuffinin the early '70s, and it became a known and available commodity all over the country," Jensen said. 

As Nation's Restaurant News reports, the breakfast sandwich has never been more popular. We can only assume a large percentage of millennials are starting their mornings with a smartphone in one hand, and an egg sandwich in the other. Sorry, cereal.

meatball sub
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Meatball subs brought cultures together

"In World War II, Italian-Americans earned a new degree of respect and recognition of their countrymen by serving alongside them. So, post-war, as Italian culture became more widely accepted, Italian cuisine really began to infiltrate what Americans ate," Elias said. "This is when these sandwiches gained popularity."

Like pizza, the meatball sub (as well as the chicken Parmesan sub) is an American take on a traditional export, it's taking something great from the old world, and transposing it into a staple of the great cultural melting pot. As immigrants from Italy began to pour into cities like New York, they brought their food with them. Naturally, they found their way into sandwiches.

"It's hard to get more American than this. We took something from Italy, combined it with the idea of the sub -- something totally American -- and made a meal of our own. In my opinion, this makes it more American."

The Philly cheesesteak brought hedonistic eating to the working class

One of the few things from Philadelphia worth paying attention to (aside from this stirring rendition of "Dayman"), the cheesesteak is a small-town sandwich that hit the big time.

"The cheesesteak was 'invented,' in the early decades of the 20th century, and it shows how food morphed into a particularly American style. Putting all this meat and cheese -- an Italian immigrant staple -- onto this kind of grandiose sandwich... but making it for a blue-collar customer. It was the type of food working-class people could afford to eat, out of the house," Jensen said. 

The cheesesteak might be the first and most well-known example of a decked-out, almost hedonistic sandwich that Americans love to indulge in. Like New Orleans' po-boy, it brought the food of a region and a symbol of a city's culture to the furthest reaches of country. And today, local establishments like Geno's, Pat's, and Tony Luke's continue to duke it out in the City of Brotherly love.

"The ability to feign authenticity kind of made the cheesesteak a 'viral' thing, so to speak," said chef, author, and television personality Justin Warner. "It's simple, and you can trust to get this delicious sandwich almost everywhere, and you know exactly what you are going to get. It's the beauty of the cheesesteak. Also, it's just delicious, right?"

club sandwich
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The club sandwich liberated women's lunchtime

At one point, the toasted bread, sliced cooked poultry, fried bacon, lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise cut into triangles was a delicacy, a snack of the upper echelon. Obviously, this was a dark, dark, moment in our nation's history. The club was the lodestar of the fancy-pants sandwich world, and the first (and maybe last?) sandwich aimed at women, in particular. "Like most of these sandwiches, it's hard to pinpoint the exact origin of the club," Bentley said. "But it's recognized they became popular in ladies' clubs, or card clubs, as finger foods in the late 1800s. It elevated the idea of the sandwich."

"The club sandwich was very much a sandwich designed for ladies," Elias said. "These were served in department stores and at team rooms, basically through the 1920s. It was a fancy thing to eat."

The sandwich became a street food and lunchroom staple -- and not the luxury item it had been (more on that later) -- at the same time women began replacing men who were fighting in WWII. Women who were comfortable eating sandwiches began bringing them into the workplace. The club's influence, cultural appeal, and position as a ubiquitous, decidedly safe-for-work meal only strengthened from there. 

Rosie the Riveter may not have a club sandwich, specifically, in her hand. But she's holding a sandwich, because of the club, and its influence.

grilled cheese
Drew Swantak/Thrillist

The grilled cheese made kids care about lunch

The grilled cheese -- that simple sandwich of grilled bread and a slice of melty cheese -- is a simplistic hallmark of home kitchens and diner counters. It's a simple one-filling sandwich that nearly every kid in America has found on their plate at least once.

"It's a natural progression of the cheese toastie, or even the open-faced cheese sandwiches seen in early diners," Elias said. "It probably began to gain popularity in the 1920s, with pre-sliced bread and American cheese becoming available to consumers."

The grilled cheese isn't an essential American sandwich because of its extravagance or culinary complexity. It's an American classic because of its effortless charm. The invention of the grilled cheese ushered in an era where basic sandwiches, like the PB&J (more on that later), became standard lunchtime meals for kids. It helped bring sandwiches to a new audience. And as those kids grew up, they made grilled cheeses for their own children. 

Grilled cheese is one of the most glaringly sentimental of all American foods. "For me, this is one of the clearest paradigms of a sandwich, and what a sandwich should be," Jensen said. 

The Reuben made America care about delis

Corned beef. Sauerkraut. Swiss cheese. Russian dressing. All sandwiched between two thick pieces of rye bread. The Reuben could basically serve as Plato's ideal form of an NY deli sandwich... despite being (allegedly! Maybe!) invented in Omaha, Nebraska. It's also one of the more complicated and offbeat offerings on this list. 

"The rise of the Reuben came alongside the rise of the diner, and the rise of the deli across the nation, after WWII," said Elias. As delis and diners began to serve pastiches of immigrant food post-war, the Reuben quickly became one of the most recognizable sandwiches in America. 

"It's so unique, and so iconic," Bentley said. "It's probably the best and most well-known example of the speciality deli sandwich. People love and eat Reubens all over the country." It's a sandwich truly greater than the sum of its parts, and the entry on the list that represents the influence of the deli -- one of the major pillars of the US sandwich scene. 

"Overall, the Reuben should be considered one of our best sandwiches," Warner said. "If aliens came, and wanted a sandwich, I'd vote to give them a Reuben first." Also, it should be credited with single-handedly keeping rye bread relevant. 

Subway™ mated assembly lines with deli meats

This is kind of an outlier on this list, as it's calling out a brand, and not a sandwich archetype, but the influence of Subway on the sandwich world is undeniable. Even if you are not a personal fan of the mass-produced hoagies, it's impossible to debate their sprawling influence on the American diet. It made hero-style deli sandwiches available in nearly every town in America, for $5 or less. Consider Subway the Ford Model T of sandwiches. 

In 1965, businessman Fred DeLuca bummed $1,000 from his friend Peter to start a little sandwich shack in suburban Connecticut. Fifty years and nearly 44,000 new sandwich shops later, Subway is now a fast-food monolith. "It's basically the McDonald's version of the classic sub or hoagie," Bentley said. "It brought an assembly-line, chain mentality to the traditional sandwich world, and made it possible to get a sub in almost any town in America."

The mass-produced Subway sub particularly exploded in popularity as a "healthy option" as opposed to other deep-fried fast food, and remains one of America's top fast-food options. For better or worse, this is the people's sandwich.

Cheeseburger
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Burgers democratized dining out

"The United States is definitely a country that values convenience and speed, that often values quantity over quality -- these are ubiquitous qualities in the sandwich, and defines why we love them so much. The hamburger is a prime example of that," Bentley said.

Is a hamburger a sandwich? Pretty much, yeah. It's a sandwich so pervasive, we tend to categorize it as its own entity in the culinary world. But the basic tenets of sandwichdom (filling between two slices of bread) are here.

"The hamburger, despite its foreign origins, is undeniably American," Jensen said. "Like so many other sandwiches, this gained fame in the early 20th century, as a quick meal for the working class, at stands outside factories or nearby diners." These diner burgers were the natural progression of early meat sandwiches eaten by immigrants around the turn of the century. 

By the time McDonald's opened its arches in '55, most of America was familiar with the hamburger. And over the next few decades, Mickey D's express burger outposts would only solidify the burger as a food of the masses.

"The hamburger is a meal in one hand," Warner said. "That's a beautiful thing."

"Burgers really represent the democratization of dining out," Elias said. "Its rise in popularity was indicative of a larger food movement. In the '20s, the lower classes started seeking out food, outside their homes. Burgers were a cheap and viable option that immediately captured the people's attention, and became an American staple."

Peanut butter and jelly
Cole Saladino/Thrillist

Peanut butter & jelly ended sandwich classism

Like the grilled cheese, the PB&J isn't remarkable in its physical form. It's important because of what it meant to the world of sandwiches, and food in general. 

"The peanut butter & jelly is particularly important because it marked the end of sandwiches as an upper-class food, and made them something everyone ate," said author and food historian Andrew Smith. "After the invention of sliced bread (1928), sandwiches became something people could make at home, and perhaps most importantly, became something children could make themselves. The PB&J is kind of symbolic, as the first sandwich that truly resonated with kids."

The peanut butter & jelly is quintessentially American ("Even peanut butter is an American invention," Jensen said). Its adoration is heavily fueled by pangs of nostalgia. For most of us, it was our first foray into "cooking." It transcends time, and has largely remained unchanged for more than century. It can even be considered a "gateway sandwich."

"It's the first thing we learn to make as kids," Warner said, "but it's a very complex flavor combination. It's a great step for our developing tongues to get this flavor juxtaposition in one bite, and to pave the way for more complex foods."

Like the sandwich itself, the peanut butter & jelly is a complex culinary stroke, masquerading as a simple dish. And like America, its true power lies not only in what it is, but what it represents. So the next time you bite into a PB&J, salute the stars and stripes, think about your childhood, and just try not to shed a patriotic tear along the way. This is America. And this is our sandwich. 

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Wil Fulton is a staff writer for Thrillist. He would one day like to have a sandwich named after him. But, he'd settle with just eating a sandwich. Follow him: @wilfulton.