Thank you (I think), Lord Sandwich

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Today, November 3rd, is the birthday of John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich. He was either an inveterate gambler or a very hard worker; either way, he did not want to step away from his desk or the card table to take the time to eat. So he supposedly commanded his manservant to bring him some sliced meat between 2 slices of bread. Thus, according to legend, the sandwich was invented.

I am skeptical about this, since putting something in between sliced bread seems like such a natural thing to do. Regardless, the sandwich is a wonderful, convenient thing.

To celebrate the Earl's birthday, today is also National Sandwich Day in the U.S. When I was growing up and living in England, my father used to regale us with tales of the amazing sandwiches available in that mythical land that us kids had yet to visit. "In America, they have sandwiches where the filling is three or four times as thick as the bread", he'd tell us. My sister and I shook our heads in disbelief. To us, a sandwich was thinly sliced bread, usually with the crusts off, spread with butter and perhaps a little fish paste. Or a layer of thinly sliced cucumbers. Once in a while we might encounter a ham sandwich, with one thin slice of pink ham. These were the types of sandwiches that we encountered whenever we were invited for tea to our friends' houses. I grew particularly fond of butter-and-Marmite sandwiches, a staple at the weekly teas we partook of at my history teacher's house after Sunday School. (The teacher had somehow taken it upon herself to take us to Sunday School every week, perhaps under the impression that it was her Christian duty to take care of the little Asian girls. My parents welcomed the opportunity to sleep in on Sundays.)

Once we got to the U.S. when I was 10, we found out that our father hadn't been lying to us. American Sandwiches! Big club sandwiches filled with juicy pastrami or sliced turkey or ham, the stack so thick that it had to be held together with cocktail sticks decorated with bits of cellophane. And then there was the hamburger. I had never had a hamburger straight off the grill, plopped onto a soft bun and smeared with ketchup, until it was put on my outstretched plastic plate at a school picnic. My initial impressions of America as the land of abundant food, sunny weather (compared to England anyway) and laughing, friendly people, formed during my first few months here (note: I'm writing to you from the suburbs of New York right now) have never faded away completely.

Once back in Japan, I was re-acquainted with Japanese sandwiches via home economics class. One of the first things we were taught to cook were sandwiches. They had to follow a strict formula: Thinly sliced, bendy white bread (close to English bread), spread with a mixture of softened butter and a tiny bit of mustard, one slice of ham, and one well dried lettuce leaf. 3 or 4 of these sandwiches stacked together, wrapped in a well wrung out tenugui (thin cotton cloth), weighted down on top with a cutting board. Unwrapped after half an hour of 'resting' the bread slightly damp; the crusts cut off, and the sandwiches cut into four triangles, or three rectangles, to be arranged neatly on a plate.

Japanese sandwiches can be a bit strange. Besides the very British-influenced sandwiches described above, there are a lot of double-carb sandwiches: korokke sando (fried potato croquettes in a hotdog type bun); potato salad sandwiches; yakisoba sando (stir fried yakisoba noodles on a bun). There are dessert sandwiches too, like sweetened whipped cream with strawberries and kiwi, between slices of buttered crustless bread.

I think my favorite sandwiches at the moment are the small yet hearty ones made by Confiserie Sprüngli in Zürich. They not only vary the fillings, they have different types of bread for each type of sandwich too. Roast vegetables on a pumpkin seed covered whole wheat bun; softly cooked asparagus and hardboiled eggs with mayonnaise on a multigrain mini-baguette; smoked salmon and cream cheese on a buttery soft roll. They are expensive, but I look forward to grabbing a few whenever I can. (There is a Sprüngli store handily located in the train station concourse that is attached to the airport. A sandwich there is the best snack to grab before continuing your trip by rail or air.)

For sandwiches that I make for my own lunches, I prefer the deconstructed method, as shown here for example: Filling and other food in containers, bread carried separately, to assemble right before eating. This avoids the problem of the bread getting soggy by lunchtime unless there is a fat barrier (butter, cream cheese, peanut butter and so on) between the bread and the filling. But occasionally I do like to indulge in an English-influenced Japanese style crustless sandwich - thin white bread slices slathered with soft butter, filled with ham-and-lettuce, tuna salad, or egg salad. Three triangles of these come to about 600 calories, but they bring back such great memories. (You can buy readymade versions at Japanese bakeries.)

What is your favorite sandwich? Do you have any sandwich related memories?