THE Virginia Sandwich
By Dan Gill
In 2002, WQED in Pittsburgh aired a PBS special and offered a companion cookbook and sandwich history entitled “Sandwiches That You Will Like”, featuring famous sandwiches from around the country. Like it or not, the pedestrian sandwich dominates American foodways: it is quick and easy to make (and eat), portable and delicious: it is often a meal in one package for folks in the fast lane. We Americans eat almost 200 per person or more than 45 billion per year.
Sandwiches are not only popular; they are also personal and deeply ingrained in regional culture; reflecting the diversity in tastes and ethnic backgrounds across the country. The program was an instant success and Gibbs Smith, Publishers, decided to go national with a cookbook featuring one signature sandwich and eatery from each state. Becky Mercuri, the travel and food author from New York, who had written the PBS program’s companion book, was asked to write American Sandwich. Many state sandwiches were obvious candidates: Examples include the Reuben from New York, the Philly Cheese Steak from Pennsylvania and the Muffaletta from Louisiana. Virginia is not noted for a specific sandwich, but the state is well known for country-cured hams and has a significant turkey industry. In searching the Internet for information, Becky came across a web page that I had written a few years earlier about curing hams, bacon and sausage the old way. Intrigued she then roamed around our site until she found the “Something Different Country Store and Deli” pages featuring custom sandwiches made to order. She also recalled that she had seen some of my posts on food history and cookbook forums and realized that we had mutual friends in the business. She e-mailed me right away and asked if I had a signature sandwich, representative of Virginia, incorporating country ham. “Of course we do”, I replied and promised to send her a recipe. Then I set about creating it.
We already had a very good smoked turkey salad, so I asked one of the girls working for us to make a batch and include finely chopped country ham. She was also required to measure, at least this once. Turkey and country ham are complementary; I often put a few slices of country ham on a traditional turkey sandwich; white bread, mayonnaise, thinly sliced turkey, salt and pepper and lettuce and that’s all (not only was I raised on a major turkey farm, but I actually have an advanced degree in turkey science – really - so I know how to make a turkey sandwich!). The result was a winner on the first try and the recipe was sent off to Becky for testing.
She and her neighbors (testers) loved it, and we were “in”. The book was published in October 2004 for national distribution. Now, when new customers visit “Something Different”, they are shown the book and offered a taste of our signature spread. This frequently results in the sale of the sandwich, the book, or a take-home container – or all three! Sometimes, our otherwise conscientious staff gets busy or forgets who’s been in. So if you don’t get the offer, just ask! While it makes a great sandwich, our Smoked Turkey and Country Ham combination is even more popular as a really special hors d’oeuvre to spread on crackers.
It is difficult to believe that I actually created something original, especially in such a crowded field as cookery, but I looked in all of the vintage cookbooks and found nothing close. Therefore, pending evidence to the contrary, I hereby plant my flag firmly in the “Jello” of culinary history and lay claim to THE Virginia Sandwich!