There Has Never Been a Better Time to Eat a Club Sandwich
Building one should be regarded as an art form, however
At the start of quarantine, back when we thought the bars and restaurants were going to open up by summer and the idea that we wouldn’t all be around our loved ones at the Thanksgiving table was hardly a possibility we could grasp, I found myself digging through as many old magazine articles as I could possibly find about the experience of eating in public. Trains, planes, hotels: the older, the better. I just wanted to hold onto the feeling of eating around other people until it was safe to do the real thing.
One great place for these kinds of articles is the archives of The New Yorker that any subscriber has access to. I found myself going pretty far back, deep into the late-1930s, reading an article by Jack Alexander where he finds himself eating alongside the “most fussy and fastidious” dining society in New York City, Les Amis d’Escoffier, a group of wealthy, FDR-era food fans who got together at the Pierre, where women were not allowed and cocktails were not served. The next few pages, as I recall, find the writer going into detail about the meal that was to be prepared in the style of the famed French chef the society was named after. The whole affair sounds stuffy and boring; the only part of the article that really appealed to me was the last paragraph:
On leaving the Pierre, I walked down Fifth Avenue aglow with the bland feeling of a man who has dined wisely and well, and turned west on Fifty-second Street. As I was passing Leon & Eddie’s, two men in evening dress rolled out of the place […] Here, I felt, was the old America, full of hot liquor, potato chips, and club sandwiches; and here was I, a herald of the new America envisioned by Les Amis d’Escoffier.
Interesting, I thought, that even though the article I was reading was published over 80 years earlier, I found myself drawn more to the “old America” Alexander was describing. What I wouldn’t give to find myself drinking a beer while I feasted on a meal of potato chips and a club sandwich. Forget the “mold of sole and lobster” Alexander ate with the bigwigs; I wanted a triple-decker!
The club sandwich is, in my mind, the classiest meal you can have between bread. Its origins, while disputed, harken back to late-19th century New York City, to the Union Club. Considered the first men’s social club in NYC and boasting Astors, Rockefellers and presidents among its ranks through the years, the club is the sort of thing you could see a younger character in an Edith Wharton novel eating and all the old-money men being aghast. But, like just about anything else in American food history, there are disputes as to the origin of the sandwich. And that seems fair to me. Its very construction feels like a happy accident, like some new money type wandered into the kitchen at a party at some great big house on 5th Avenue in 1887. Unhappy with the fare, he took a few slices of bread, whatever white meat was around, slapped some ham on it, and voilà — the club sandwich was made by accident. That’s my theory. It’s a somewhat uncouth sandwich, laughing in the face of convention, flaunting its triple slices of bread, the triangle cut, the double meat and, of course, the way it’s served, stabbed with toothpicks to hold it all together. I don’t want to be a naysayer, but this whole idea evolved, I believe. I don’t think any one person or place created the club sandwich. It was built over time, a series of edible ideas. Someone, probably at the Union Club, just had the good sense to give it a name.
But enough playing food history detective.
After reading that New Yorker piece from the 1930s, I began to feel the first pangs of missing the old ways. My move when going out of town was always to get the club sandwich when all else failed. When I’d get to a hotel late at night and nothing but room service was available, I’d get the club. Finding myself at a bar needing something in my stomach after a few drinks, the club made me feel a little less bad about myself than the mostly fried options also on the menu. The club is just dependable and sensible, along with almost always being tasty.
For the last seven, eight, however many damn months we’ve been working from home, the club sandwich remained something of a nice memory for me, something that was ordered on the road, always with the bacon omitted (unless they had turkey bacon on hand), and, if I was in Los Angeles, a slice of avocado replacing the middle piece of bread, like they used to do at Schawb’s Pharmacy, where movie stars loved to hang out in the ‘40s and ‘50s. But besides that, I didn’t change a thing. But then something happened that made me get obsessed with creating the perfect club sandwich at home: I saw a pair of slippers.
OK, I should probably rethink that. I saw a pair of Zachary Weiss for Stubbs and Wootton slippers for men with, yes, club sandwiches on them. There was something so playful and stylish about them that I found myself not only wanting to spend big bucks for the footwear, I also suddenly found myself craving a club sandwich. But how does one make a perfect club at home? Part of the beauty of the club — and I know this will come off sounding terrible — is that somebody else makes it for you. Not having to do much work is what makes the club great. In order for me to make a great home club sandwich, I had to make it special. I had to make the Quarantine Club, and it had to be an event. I decided I wasn’t going to just slap something together and eat it. For my club, I was going to put a little work into it.
How to Build the Perfect Club Sandwich
- 3 tablespoons good mayonnaise. Benedicta or Kewpie work
- 1 tomato, preferably Beefsteaks
- Romaine lettuce
- 3 slices of white bread, toasted
- 6 ounces smoked turkey breast
- 4 ounces turkey leg rillettes
- 4 slices duck bacon
The trickiest part of my endeavor was always going to be the turkey. The meat has to be the star of the show, because I’m not one of those weirdos that puts cheese on a club. My options were I either go to the store and get some Boar’s Head or I go big. Now, I went into this trying my hardest to make something resembling a club like I’d have at a hotel or an Irish pub, but I also wanted to elevate it a little, since it was something I was spending my Saturday putting some work into. I didn’t think I had so much time as to smoke a turkey leg, though, so I found one at my local speciality grocery store. No big deal since I’m using it to make rillettes, which ends up really being the toughest part of the whole endeavor, about two hours of my time following this New York Times recipe.
I was really inspired by the turkey sandwich at Mile End Delicatessen in Brooklyn, a place people go to for the smoked meat and Montreal-style bagels, but where I go for the Grandpa: smoked turkey and mustard on rye. Nothing fancy. But the meat is so peppered and juicy, you can forgive how much sodium you’re probably putting in your body. I’m going for that sort of deal, a good Jewish deli sort of turkey. I’ve never smoked a turkey breast and I know it’s the kind of meat that can go dry super fast, so, again, I consider getting something that’s already done to go along with the leg. But then I remember I bought a damn smoker for a reason, so the leg is fine, but the breast, I had do that myself. I got three breasts, dressed them in salt and pepper, then smoked them for a little over two hours. I liked what I read on this blog about taking them off the grill then putting some butter on them before wrapping them and letting them smoke a little longer, so I did that as I make my rillettes in my kitchen. Once the meat was done, I took it off the smoker and let it sit about 20 minutes before slicing it. It’s moments like this that I think “Man, it would be baller to have my own deli slicer,” but I hand carve it and things turn out fine. I let the turkey sit and bring out the secret weapon: duck bacon.
So, I won’t tell everybody to use duck bacon. If you like pork, by all means go with the classic, but, like Jules Winnfield, I don’t dig on swine, and turkey bacon is good and all, but this is my sandwich, so I picked up some duck bacon at the farmers market. It also crisps up better than turkey bacon, so that’s a big plus. I fry the bacon up, save the fat, and let that cool off. An important thing is that the club isn’t hot. The bacon can be a little warm, but the turkey is usually deli meat, straight out the fridge. I want to keep that consistency.
At the end of the day, I don’t expect everybody to be this weird about the meat. But I will say if you’re not doing your own turkey, find a place that does it in-house. I know you can walk into just about any Whole Foods and usually find pretty decent house smoked turkey. Give it a shot.
What you spread on the bread is something I consider of the utmost importance. It’s pretty evident considering the amount of different bottles of hot sauce and pickles I have in my fridge. And for my club, I went with Benedicta mayo, with its hint of dijon. It has a fresher, tangier taste than American mayo.
Fresh vegetables are super important. Romaine is the lettuce to go with, and I won’t hear anything about it. As for tomatoes, you can play around. I really like Mortgage Lifters, but those aren’t always that easy to find, at least when it’s not the season. You also won’t go wrong with good old Beefsteaks. I don’t love a ton of tomato, so I slice off two pieces pretty thin, put them on a paper towel because I also don’t want to add a ton of moisture and destroy the integrity of the finished sandwich. I kick a little pepper and let them sit for a minute or two as I prep the final part.
People love to trash white bread and, I get it. It’s bland. It’s … white bread. BUT! What I will say for the club is that if you’re doing everything else right, you want a bread that serves mostly as a vehicle. The bread on a club should not steal the show, and I say that as a big time fan of getting snooty as hell about my bread. I will say there are some cases, like when you’re eating BBQ in Kansas City, when white bread does the trick. For the club, I toast it just enough so the bread hardens up, but has a little bit of give. Now you’re prepared to stack.
Repeat after me: Bread, mayo, lettuce, tomato, bacon, turkey breast, bread (slathered on each side with the rillettes), repeat. Pile it up, but I warn you to try and not get too nuts. This is a sandwich you really have to build. It relies on structural integrity or it all falls apart, and then what’s the point? You have a bunch of parts of a sandwich all over the place. Put it all together, use a serrated knife to cut diagonally into four triangles, grab your toothpicks and stake those bad boys like you would a vampire sleeping in its coffin. Serve it on a plate with some chips and a pickle. I go for ridged potato chips and a kosher dill on the side, but you do you. Enjoy this however you see fit.
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