John Montagu, aka the Earl of Sandwich, was onto something. The sandwich is revered worldwide for its practicality and portability.
John Montagu, 18th-century English aristocrat and avid cribbage player, was onto something. Montagu, aka the Earl of Sandwich, developed a deep fondness for a particular food item — bits of cold meat served between pieces of bread — because it allowed him to enjoy a meal without getting his cards greasy, disrupting his game. Centuries later, Montagu’s fondness has become legend; “the sandwich” is an international food icon.
Easily and quickly assembled by layering just a few simple ingredients, the sandwich is revered worldwide for its practicality and portability. Yet rarely do people give a second thought to their “daily bread.” They’d likely be surprised to know that simple sandwiches can speak to more complicated matters — from Colonialism to immigration and the collision of cultures.
Before French occupying forces arrived in 1862, Mexico was doing just fine in the practical/portable snack department (see, for example, the taco and the burrito). Mexicans fought hard to drive the French army out in 1867, but they kept the French baguette, leavened bread that soon took its place in Mexican cuisine alongside its unleavened counterpart, the tortilla. Locals turned the baguette into softer, smaller, more oblong rolls called bolillo or telera, and filled them with traditional meats and cheese, as well as lettuce, tomato, onion, refried beans and avocado. The result was the torta: the Mexican sandwich, now Mexico’s most popular fast food.
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Today, there’s a torta shop on nearly every street in every city in Mexico — especially in Mexico City, home of the nation’s annual Torta Festival and an abundance of street carts peddling “Vitamin T” to citizens on the go. Local torta shop Barriga Llena pays homage to Mexico City with a menu that looks like the city’s subway map and a broad selection of fillings to rival those of the vendors back home.
Along with traditional components such as chorizo (spicy sausage), carnitas (tender, fried pork) and milanesa (breaded fried steak), Barriga Llena offers a bonus cross-cultural component: combinations of fillings inspired and named after other countries and far-flung places. There’s the Española, which, with chorizo and eggs, gives an appreciative nod to the Spanish tortilla, and the Hawaiiana, filled with ham and a tropical touch of pineapple.
In the mid-19th century, the French (and their army of pristine baguettes) journeyed to Southeast Asia, occupying Vietnam for almost 100 years and leaving an indelible influence on Vietnamese cuisine. Traditional baguettes — crunchy crust, fluffy insides — have been absorbed into Vietnamese culture and are a staple. In France, baguettes were the base of the countryside “salad sandwich” (simply tomatoes, lettuce, vegetables and mayonnaise on bread). But abroad, the “salad sandwich” was subject to the influence of native Vietnamese ingredients: crisp pickled carrots and daikon radish, cucumber, fiery chili peppers, fresh cilantro and meats such as pork and chicken marinated in pungent fish sauce, then grilled. The wondrous result: the Vietnamese sandwich banh mi (which translates, appropriately, to “bread”). The decidedly French elements of mayonnaise and pâté remain integral to banh mi, making it a true East-meets-West food to which modern-day “fusion” can only aspire.
At banh mi carts and stalls throughout Vietnam, even more fillings abound: fish, tofu, pork floss (preserved sweet, dried shredded pork), fried eggs and head cheese. Here in Seattle (specifically, the intersection of Jackson Street and 12th Avenue South), there’s no dearth of banh mi joints, but stalwart Seattle Deli remains a consistent favorite, likely because of its house-baked baguettes, homemade mayonnaise and thrifty service.
The true origin of the popular Cuban sandwich remains a hotly contested subject. What most people can agree on is that the sandwich, stuffed with the seemingly improbable combination of roasted pork, ham, Swiss cheese, mustard and pickles on a piece of “Cuban bread” (more on that later), was created and popularized in the early 1900s by Cuban cigar-factory and sugar-mill workers craving a simple meal they could eat while on the job. But what’s still debated is whether they crafted the sandwich in Cuba or in Florida, specifically Ybor City, the Latin Quarter of Tampa, the hub of Florida’s thriving immigrant community. (At the time, travel between Florida was as easy as it was common.)
Ybor City clings fiercely to its claim as the birthplace of the Cuban sandwich, and La Joven Francesca Bakery (owned by a Sicilian) is touted as the first bakery ever to make Cuban bread (with lard instead of oil) in the United States. The Cuban sandwich can trace some if its roots to Colonialism, as the ingredients jamon y queso were introduced to Cuba by the Spanish who “settled” Cuba in 1511.
Here in 21st-century Seattle, the center of the Cuban sandwich universe is Fremont’s Paseo, where the focus is on moist, sublimely seasoned roasted pork. Every day, as smoke billows from the top of this plain, metal building, a line forms out front, full of people concerned with nothing more than enjoying a great sandwich.
In the torta, banh mi and Cuban sandwich, the layers of stories are as varied and colorful as the ingredients. And the sandwiches we enjoy today are brought to us by immigrants, people who continue to add to a rich history the Earl could never have imagined over a game of cards.
Angela Garbes is a Seattle freelance writer. Tom Reese is a former Seattle Times photographer.