The Rise and Fall of the American Club Sandwich

I’ve noticed a disturbing trend among American restaurants: the club sandwich has been downsized from three slices of bread to two, which in my mind makes it just another sandwich. I suppose it may be a return to authenticity, as this quote from food diety James Beard suggests:

[the club sandwich] is one of the great sandwiches of all time and has swept its way around the world after an American beginning. Nowdays the sandwich is bastardized because it is usually made as a three-decker, which is not authentic (whoever started that horror should be forced to eat three-deckers three times a day the rest of his life), and nowadays practically everyone uses turkey and there’s a vast difference between turkey and chicken where sandwiches are concerned.

I was all set to complain about how restaurants like “Ruby Tuesday” and “Bugaboo Creek”, two institutions which serve a particularly disappointing club sandwich, seem to be spearheading a move away from the three-slice stack of bread, bacon, tomato and turkey of my childhood. Authenticity be damned!

I first encountered the club sandwich as a displaced American kid in Taiwan. This was the late 70s, when the island was under martial law. This was well before any American franchises were allowed into the country; imagine a place without McDonalds, and that was Taiwan. In other words, a horrible place to live when you’re a kid: no TV, no nice stores, no ice cream…nothing! Maybe it was actually good for me in some unspecified way, but it was rather depressing at the time. Our mom, sensing that we needed regular injections of Americana to bolster our spirits, took us to the only nearby Western restaurant, Foremost on (I think) Chung Hua Bei Lu in Shihlin, a suburb of Taipei. Foremost Foods was one of the only places that actually sold cows milk and western ice cream. The dairy was obviously reconstituted, watery, and a little funny tasting, but they also served burgers and club sandwiches. I don’t actually remember eating many of them (sis might remember), but they anchored my sense of identity in some weird gastronomic fashion.

I often wondered how Foremost had come to be in Taiwan in the first place, a country not known for its love of dairy in any form; milk usually means “goat” or “soybean” (yuck). Well, the Internet is here today, so I found that the post-WWII US military presence in Taiwan probably had something to do with it; Foremost Dairies supplied milk to US forces abroad from 1932 onwards. Particularly interesting is this excerpt:

During World War 11, the U.S. military sparked Foremost’s international growth and the creamery opened additional plants nationwide. Foremost Dairies became known as “the longest milk route in the world.” […] Wherever it set up a facility, the organization wanted to teach local people how to operate it and then share in its success.

While searching the Internet, I came across Foremost in places like Vietnam and Hawaii, the logo largely untouched. Taiwan itself benefited from the facilities and training Foremost introduced, creating a sustainable local business in a fashion similar to the Singer Corporation…or so I imagine. I find the remnants of foreign cultures fascinating, especially when they’ve established a foothold in a place where the original influence has disappeared. Asia is littered with this: Vietnamese cuisine, forks and spoons in Thailand, master sushi chefs in Taiwan…you get the idea. Then there’s interesting ideas backwashing into the former colonial powers, like Cobra Beer importing Indian beer to go with curry served in the U.K.

Where was I? Oh yes, club sandwiches…I guess it wasn’t about the number of slices of bread after all.