authentic stories from the frontlines of grass-fed
Image via Flickr by Colin Bartlett (Image size has been changed) History of the best meaty sandwiches – Cheesesteak, chicken parm, barbecue sandwich, and Cubano

If you didn’t know, our headquarters is based in Cambridge, Massachusetts — pretty much across the Charles River from the Citgo sign and Fenway Park. A lot of our company was born and bred in New England, and, as such, we are hardcore Red Sox fans — although there are a few Yankees fans mixed in, but they are just weirdos.

Yesterday, the streets of Boston were filled with Sox fans celebrating the recent achievement of the team winning the World Series. 

Why do I mention this when talking about sandwiches? Well, one of the simple delights of attending a Red Sox game is the culinary traditions that go along with the experience. Ice cream bars, Harpoon beer, and Jersey Street pizza slices are all part of a typical trip to Fenway. However, nothing is as habitual as the consumption of a Fenway Frank or a pre-game sausage. 

(As a quick aside, it must be noted that a large swath of the company staff spent some time working either in Fenway as vendors or in one of the surrounding restaurants — including the CEO!)

I won’t dive into the debate over whether a hot dog is a sandwich or not at the moment, but the thought of Fenway Franks makes me think of all the ways we enjoy one of the greatest food combos there is: Meat and bread.

According to legend, John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, wanted a way to eat without getting his hands greasy while playing cards and asked one of his house staff to put some meat between bread. The year was 1792, and, supposedly, Sandwich was in the midst of a 24-hour game, was hungry, and didn’t want to leave the table. However, many cultures had some sort of sandwich like meals for ions. 

Other innovators followed Montagu: Elizabeth Leslie wrote about the ham sandwich in her Directions for Cookery in 1840 with hand-cut sliced bread, and Otto Frederick Rohwedde helped make the world of Wonderbread a reality with his invention of the automatic bread slicer in 1920.

Sandwiches have become integral to our current food culture. Eaten on the run, widely available across the globe, and predominantly featured at lunch (or dinner depending on your terminology for a midday meal) they are prevalent for their ease to put together and to consume.

And while a cold cut sub or a chicken salad sandwich might satiate our hunger on an average day, true joy can be attained through any number of hot, meat-filled sandwiches.

Here are some of our favorites. Like the Red Sox and Yankees, there are some heated sandwich rivalries when it comes to all these delicious treats. 

Cheesesteak

This sandwich goes by many names, including steak and cheese or Philly cheesesteak, and most commonly consists of thinly sliced steak or shaved steak, American or provolone cheese, and some combination of onions and peppers. Its roots can be traced back to Philadelphia, where, according to The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink:

“According to legend, the cheesesteak sandwich was created in 1930 by Pat Olivieri, operator of a hot dog stand at the Italian Market in South Philadelphia. Tired of hot dogs, Olivieri cooked up some thinly sliced beef and onions on his grill and piled it all into a crusty roll. As he was eating his sandwich, a cab driver and longtime customer arrived and asked for one too. Upon tasting it, the cabbie advised Olivieri to forget hot dogs and sell the new beef sandwich instead.”

Pat’s King of Steaks is still run by the Olivieri family in Philadelphia, right across the street from the also legendary Geno’s Steaks. And while you might need to know the right terminology to get a cheesesteak with Cheez Whiz and onions in Philly, you don’t need to understand a specific lexicon to make your own steak and cheese at home.

Image of Pat's Steaks via Charlene McBride (Flickr). Image has been modified from original.
Image of Pat’s Steaks via Charlene McBride (Flickr). Image has been modified from original.

There are also regional variations on the cheesesteak, or sandwiches quite similar. One is the French dip sandwich — roast beef on French bread with “au jus” for dipping — which was either invented at Cole’s Pacific Electric Buffet or Philippe the Original in Los Angeles. Another sandwich using beef “juice” is the Chicago Italian beef sandwich. Unlike the French dip, the Chicago beef sandwich is usually dipped — bread and all — into “juice.” And then there is the New Orleans po’ boy, which is either a roast beef sandwich with gravy or a fried seafood sandwich.

Chicken Parmesan Sub 

Both “Chicken Parm” and “Meatball Parm” sandwiches are quite popular in sub or grinder shops and Italian grocers in the Northeast  — Philly, New York, Boston — as well as Chicago. Like many famous “Italian” cuisines that have gained popularity in areas that were settled by European immigrants in the 1800’s and early 1900’s, Chicken Parmesan is a purely American creation. 

The sandwich is easy to make:  Bread and pan-fry some chicken breast cutlets, cover in a red sauce like marinara, and smother with an Italian cheese. Cheese selections vary; mozzarella, Romano, or provolone are most often used even though logic would make you think that Parmigiano-Reggiano would be a key ingredient. The sauce-covered chicken is put on any number of different types of bread or rolls; many purveyors of chicken parm differentiate themselves by finding the best rolls or having a unique method to make the sandwich.

Chicken Parm via Eric Savage (Flickr). Image has been modified from original.
Chicken Parm via Eric Savage (Flickr). Image has been modified from original.

Getting back to the exclusion of Parmesan cheese, the name chicken parm, or, more appropriately Chicken Parmigiana — the dish and the sandwich — derives from mixing an Italian specialty with that ingrained American appreciation of meat. Melenzane alla parmigiana (or parmigiana di melanzane) is an Italian specialty made with sauce, cheese, and slices of eggplant which have been fried. There is some debate as to whether the dish gets its name from Parma or whether it comes from a Southern Italian/Sicilian use of the term parmigiana for a fried and stacked eggplant dish.  When Italian immigrants began to open restaurants featuring popular foods from their native country, they often replaced the eggplant with chicken due to the popularity in America of the latter over the former.

Whatever the history, if you can get your hands on a hot chicken parm sandwich — or even make one yourself — you’re going to enjoy the Italian-inspired sandwich.

Pulled Pork 

Carolina Pulled Pork image via onetallchef (Flickr). Image has been modified from original.
Carolina Pulled Pork image via onetallchef (Flickr). Image has been modified from original.

While pulled pork is commonly served as an entrée and not between two pieces of bread (just like chicken parmigiana), there is nothing like a barbecue sandwich featuring slow-cooked pork, a sweet or tangy barbecue sauce, and some coleslaw wedged inside of a hamburger bun. 

Of all our favorite sandwiches, pulled pork, by its nature, runs counter to the logic for combining bread and meat as the great Earl, John Montague, did centuries ago. When it comes down to it, a good pulled or chopped pork sandwich is messy. The best require piles of napkins and often leave the adjoining bread a complete soggy mess — which is kind of the point of the whole endeavor. But, it is all worth it as barbecue sandwiches are a truly delicious treat. 

You can make pulled or chopped pork sandwiches in any number of ways. If you’ve got the time and a smoker, there is nothing quite like cooking a whole hog or slow-roasting pork shoulders over charcoal or an open fire. However, there are many workarounds these days to get pork for a barbecue sandwich, including throwing a pork butt or tenderloin into a slow cooker or Instant Pot. However once you get your pork cooked tenderly enough that it falls apart easily, you add-in your sauce of choice pile on a hamburger bun, and add some coleslaw (vinegar-based of course).

Much like chicken parm and cheesesteaks, controversies surrounding barbecue sandwiches are both intense and long-standing. One issue that is sure to cause strife for some when ordering a pulled or chopped pork sandwich is the type of sauce to use. Depending on where you may be in America, choice may not be an option as regional pride is often on the line when deciding between the sweet Memphis-style, the tangy and vinegar-based Carolina version (North or South, East or West), and others from Kansas City to Texas.

According to lore, the first barbecue pork sandwiches were created at a Memphis BBQ joint called Leonard’s. While most agree on that creation story, there are still some who have quibbles with the historical role of Memphis when it comes to barbecue. 

Much like the cheesesteak, there are variants on the pulled pork sandwich across the U.S., most notably the Sloppy Joe, a Chicago-borne specialty that replaces pork for ground beef.

Cubano

Lastly, let’s dive into a sandwich that has risen in popularity over the last 25 years, the Cuban. Another sandwich that is an American original created by immigrants trying to preserve their culinary traditions, the Cubano, in its current form, originated in Florida. 

Cubano via jeffreyw (Flickr). Image has been modified from original.
Cubano via jeffreyw (Flickr). Image has been modified from original.

A Cuban sandwich is easy to make and includes ham, cheese, roast pork, and pickles, stacked in a roll or on bread and then pressed. Sometimes it includes mustard, and the Tampa version can also have salami. Most often, Italian or French bread is used and grilled on a sandwich press. The original Cubano, however, relies on Cuban bread to make the perfect sandwich. 

While the sandwich was supposedly a staple in Cuba, it first appeared in Key West and Tampa, Florida among cigar factory workers. Today, there are still two cities that seem to be caught in a never-ending battle for Cuban sandwich superiority: Miami and Tampa. While Miami sandwiches are the more common, Tampa — Ybor City in particular — claims to be the original home of the Cubano.

Photo at top via Colin Bartlett/Flickr (Image size has been changed).