I have disappointing news. We don’t really know, for sure, how the club sandwich got its name. You can be sure that the ‘club’ in club sandwich is not an acronym for ‘chicken lettuce under bacon,’ which seems silly on its face as there is no rule that the bacon must be on top of the chicken and lettuce and the sandwich predates such acronyms since it’s been around since at least the late 1800s. However, one interesting thing about the name is that the club sandwich may have been the first, or one of the first sandwiches to not be named by its ingredients, like ham and cheese or peanut butter and jelly.
A recipe for the club sandwich appeared in 1906 in Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking School Cookbook. It does not seem to appear in an earlier 1896 edition I consulted. This recipe is a simple affair, though, not the triple-decker sandwich we enjoy today:
Arrange on slices of bread thin slices of cooked bacon; cover with slices of cold roast chicken, and cover chicken with Mayonnaise Dressing. Cover with slices of bread. 1Farmer, Fannie Merritt. The Boston Cooking School Cookbook. Little, Brown, 1906.
So, a bacon and chicken sandwich with mayonnaise. Not very exciting. This recipe is in line with recipes that existed from the 1890s. Only two slices of bread were used, not three. Sometimes, lettuce and tomato appeared, and sometimes the toasted bread was buttered. Nothing seems all that new and exciting about such a sandwich, except perhaps the fact that it featured both cold and hot ingredients, toast and bacon for the hot and chicken, lettuce, and the rest for the cold. Again, this may seem rather mundane but the 1900 Boston Globe found it ‘rather startling.’
Our quest to define the earliest club sandwich meats a roadblock when we encounter (another?) sandwich called a clubhouse sandwich. This sandwich, unlike early recipes for the club sandwich, did have three slices of toast, if not more.
An early recipe appeared in Sarah Tyler Rorer’s book Sandwiches in 1894 and then another in the 1914 ‘Neighborhood Cook Book’ by the Council of Jewish Women in Portland, Oregon. This one used four slices of bread:
Toast thin slices of white bread, butter them lightly and place on them think slices of crisp fried bacon. Lay on another slice of buttered toast, then slices of chicken, well seasoned, another slice of toast, then cucumbers, pickles sliced crosswise and another slice of toast. 2Wilson, Bee. Sandwich: a Global History. Reaktion, 2010.
It would appear that the club sandwich and the clubhouse sandwich were combined, eventually, to create the club sandwich we know today. During the early 1920s, the club sandwich could be almost anything as long as it had many layers, from one to five! So, the Dagwood sandwich is just a giant club sandwich.
Butter was a prominent feature. In the book Salads, Sandwiches, and Chafing Dish Recipes from 1916, Marion Harris Neil had this to say:
In a club sandwich, which in itself is a very fair luncheon, the chicken should be thin, the bacon very crips, the lettuce fresh, and the mayonnaise and butter plentiful. 3Neil, Marion Harris. Salads, Sandwiches, and Chafing Dish Recipes . D. McKay, 1916.
The clubhouse sandwich ought to at least give us a clue to the origin of the sandwich. It would indeed appear to have something to do with clubs, as many historians attest.
One theory is that the club sandwich was first made in the Saratoga Club casino in New York in 1894. Since recipes were already appearing in books during the 1890s, this may be a bit too specific to be true.
Another theory is that the sandwich was first served on railroad club cars in 1895. A club car was a dining car or lounge car where passengers could purchase food and drink. One suggestion is that it was made to match the ‘two-decker’ club cars.
This sandwich is also subject to the classic ‘someone raided the refrigerator’ origin story. According to this one, some person got home from the ‘club,’ was ravenous, and found butter, mayonnaise, chicken, tomato, and some cold bacon, which he put between some slices of toast. 4Wilson, Bee. Sandwich: a Global History. Reaktion, 2010. In other words, some guy came home and made a sandwich with whatever he could find. The stuff of legends. How this masterwork of the culinary arts found its way into every lunch menu in America is a mystery. Marion Harris Neil gave this story as the origin of the sandwich:
A man, we are told, arrived at his home one night after the family and servants had retired, and being hungry, sought the pantry and the ice chest in search of something to eat. There were remnants of many things in the source of supplies, but no one thing that seemd to be present in sufficient abundance to satisfy his appetite. The man wanted, anyway, some toast. So he toasted a couple of slice of bread. Then he looked for butter, and incidentaly something to accompany the toast as a relish. Beside the butter he found mayonnaise, two or three slices of cold broiled bacon, and some pieces of cold chicken. These he put together on a slice of the toast and found, in a tomato, a complement for all the ingredients at hand. Then he capped his composition with the second slice of toast, ate, and was happy. 5Neil, Marion Harris. Salads, Sandwiches, and Chafing Dish Recipes . D. McKay, 1916.
It not clear whether this man invented the club sandwich or simply the sandwich itself! But, according to the story, the man introduced the sandwich to a club of which he was a member. They made one and liked it so much they referred to it as the club sandwich.
It’s easy to tell that this story is invented or based on a much more vague origin: It’s much too detailed. When such unaccountable details appear in a food origin story it’s a sign that the person writing the story has elaborated to make the story seem more plausible, while inadvertently making it less plausible. It is much easier to believe that the sandwich made its way out of a well-known club or restaurant, or out of railroad club cars than from a random private club.
I would surmise that the railroad club car origin rests on shaky ground, as the first recipes for the club sandwich were not multi-layered or two-deckers, while the ‘clubhouse’ sandwich was. Whether the Saratoga club or some other club, that the sandwich originated in a club seems more plausible.
Club sandwiches can have all sorts of different variations but the basic modern recipe is three slices of bread or toast and two layers of filling, usually chicken, turkey, or both, lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise and bacon. The sandwich is then cut into triangles held together by cocktail sticks and served in a line with the points up.
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