The Club

My first exposure to a club sandwich was at the Rexall drug store next to the supermarket, where I worked after school and weekends. One Saturday the lunch counter waitress (yes, back then drug stores had lunch counters), a young hottie with whom I was totally infatuated suggested I buy the “daily special” to help her win the weekly sales contest. That, my friends, was the day I enjoyed my first Turkey Club Sandwich–four wedges of triple-decker sandwich, pinned together with fancy frilled toothpicks, and neatly arranged in a circle on my plate with potato chips piled high in the middle.

I’m not sure what, at the time, gave me the most pleasure: knowing my purchase scored points for me with the cute waitress, or the deliciousness of my first club sandwich. I like to think it was the sandwich because it is still one of my all-time favorites. But as much as I enjoyed eating them, my distain for making club sandwiches is equally strong. In fact it’s this love/hate relationship that has, in over thirty years as a professional chef, prevented me from adding this classic to any of my menus.

One of my first culinary assignments was “pantry chef” (formally called garde manger), the position responsible for salads and cold sandwiches. It was there that I learned to loath everything about making club sandwiches–spreading mayo edge-to-edge on three pieces of freshly toasted bread, slicing the turkey, slicing the tomatoes, making sure the iceberg lettuce was dry but crisp, and of course the bacon. OMG, the bacon! It had to be crisp, but not too crisp or customers complained, and my head chef at the time hated complaints. But I believe the worst part was assembling the sandwich. Not only was it the most time consuming sandwich on the menu (especially when there were ten or twelve other orders at the same time), but if not properly stacked, cutting it into four neat, equally sized quarters was all but impossible and led to ugly plate presentations. And ugly plate presentations brought–you guessed it–customer complaints! So after my fourth month as pantry chef, I guess the chef got tired of hearing complaints and told me to “pack my knives and go.”

“Too few people understand a really good sandwich.” – James Beard

As with many of our foods, there are generally several versions of who, how, and where the dish was created, and the club sandwich is no exception. According to one legend, the sandwich was created in 1894 at the famous Saratoga Club House, a gentlemen’s club in upstate Saratoga Springs, New York. It should be pointed out that the original version of the club sandwich consisted of two slices of buttered white toast, thin slices of chicken, bacon, tomato slices, leaves of iceberg lettuce, and mayonnaise. That’s right, it was not the triple-decker, turkey sandwich we think of today when someone mentions a club sandwich. Those versions came a few years later.

Another popular story about the origin of the club sandwich first appeared in the 1916 book Salads, Sandwiches, and Chafing Dish Recipes, by Marion H. Neil. It goes like this: One night a man arrived home very late after an evening of gambling at his club. Being very hungry, but with servants gone and his family tucked in for the night, he decided to prepare something himself. In checking the pantry and ice box he found some bread, butter, and mayonnaise. He also found a few strips of cold broiled bacon, some slices of leftover chicken, and a tomato. So he toasted the bread, added butter, mayonnaise, the bacon, chicken, a slice or two of tomato, topped it with another slice of buttered toast, ate his snack and went to bed. The next evening, he told friends at the club about his new sandwich, they in turn had the club’s cook prepare one for them. They enjoyed it so much it was added to the menu as the Club Sandwich.

The earliest published recipe I can find for “A Club Sandwich” appeared in 1903, on page 224 of the Good Housekeeping Everyday Cook Book originally compiled by the Good Housekeeping staff.

A Club Sandwich
Toast a slice of bread evenly and lightly and butter it. On one half put, first, a thin slice of bacon which has been broiled till dry and tender, next a slice of the white meat of either turkey or chicken. Over on half of this place a circle cut from a ripe tomato and over the other half a tender leaf of lettuce. Cover these with a generous layer of mayonnaise, and complete this delicious ‘whole meal’ sandwich with the remaining piece of toast. –A. W.

The initials A. W. at the end of the recipe suggests it was submitted to the magazine by one of their readers and helps explain the confusion it imparts to those who try to follow its origin. Still, it demonstrates accurately the components of the sandwich.

At the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, the club sandwich gained world-wide popularity with no less than four restaurants including it on their menus–Mrs. McCready’s Restaurant, American Inn, The Old Parliament House, and the Japanese Restaurant within Fair Japan.

While the classic triple-decker club sandwich still maintains a strong foothold within the world of sandwiches, it’s not without its distracters. Today, there are vegetarian clubs, California clubs with avocado, fish clubs with salmon or tuna, roast beef clubs, and even breakfast clubs with eggs. It seems though any sandwich that incorporates bacon qualifies as a club sandwich, even a PB&J.

As a culinarian, I’m totally into naming my sandwiches and other fare names that I feel will set them apart from similar dishes. But for me personally, a club sandwich is three slices of toasted white bread, lots of mayo, thinly sliced turkey breast, crisp bacon, iceberg lettuce leaves, and tomato slices, neatly stacked and cut into four equal pieces skewered with a frilly toothpick. Those other so called clubs are simply sandwiches with added bacon.

That’s the beauty of living in this great country of ours–you are free to make your sandwich any way you like it, and you can even call it a club if that’s what your into.

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Jell-O! The Jiggly, Wiggly American Icon.

Growing up, I was exposed to Jell-O in just about any way and every way one can imagine–molded, sliced, cubed up, chopped up, plain or mixed with fruit, cottage cheese, and all sorts of vegetables. It seems that every grandmother, mother, and daughter had their favorite Jell-O dish and an extreme compulsion to bring it to each family gathering, church supper, funeral repast, or self-catered wedding reception they attended.

While certainly not the shiniest spoon of the culinary world, my granny used to make a green Jell-O salad that I absolutely loved. It was made with lime Jell-O that was chilled until almost set and into which cottage cheese, Cool Whip, crushed pineapple, and chopped pecans were mixed. Granny said she got the recipe from a lady that worked at the local Piccadilly Cafeteria, where it was served every day. I once asked her if the salad had a name, and without the slightest hesitation she replied, “Green Jell-O salad.” I suppose keeping it simple is the best policy.

This fruit-flavored gelatin-based product most of us know as Jell-O has been an integral part of American culture for over a century. But to understand its development, one must start in the 15th century when producing the elaborate molded gelatin centerpieces so popular in medieval Europe was reserved for only the wealthy. The reason for its exclusivity was due to the arduous, time-consuming ordeal it took to render the collagen from which gelatin, a tasteless, colorless, odorless protein, is made. To best describe the lengthy process we can go to this excerpt from The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy (London, 1747) by Hannah Glasse.

Take out the great Bones of four Calves Feet, and put the Feet into a Pot with ten Quarts of Water, three Ounces of Hartshorn, three Ounces of Isinglass, a Nutmeg quarter’d, four Blades of Mace; then boil this till it comes to two Quarts, and strain it through a Flannel-Bag, let it stand twenty-four Hours, then scrape all the Fat from the Top very clean, then slice it, and put to it the Whites of six Eggs beaten to Froth, boil it a little, and strain it again through a Flannel-Bag, then run the Jelly into little high Glasses…You must colour Red with Cochincal, Green with Spinage, Yellow with Saffron, Blue with Syrup of Violets, White with thick Cream, and sometimes the felly by itself. You may add Orange-flower Water, or Wine and Sugar, and Lemon if you please, but this is all Fancy.

As in Europe, gelatin delicacies were also used by elite American colonists to make social statements and impress dinner guests with the size of their kitchen staffs. Thomas Jefferson, whose culinary tastes were influenced by his time in France, often served guests wine gelatin at his Monticello estate.

JELL-O TRIVIA & FUN FACTS

  • The original Jell-O flavors developed by Pearle and May Wait were strawberry, raspberry, orange, and lemon. Strawberry remains today’s best seller. Lime was introduced in 1930.
  • In the early 1900s immigrants passing through Ellis Island were often served a bowl of Jell-O as a “Welcome to America” treat.
  • In the 1923 Cecil B. DeMille’s silent film The Ten Commandments, Jell-O was used to create the effect of parting the Red Sea so the Israelites could escape Egypt.
  • On January 6, 1925 Jell-O was issued a patent for a sugarless gelatin dessert named D-Zerta.
  • In 1927 Chocolate Jell-O was introduced. It was discontinued the same year.
  • In 1934 General Foods, a pioneer in radio marketing, signed Jack Benny to sing the “J-E-L-L-O” song, making it a world-wide household name.
  • In the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz, the horse that changed colors was actually six horses sponged down with Jell-O.
  • Jell-O continued to be made in Le Roy, New York until 1964 when it was moved to Dover, Delaware.
  • In 1997 the Jell-O Museum opened in Le Roy, New York. The museum showcases more than 100 years of brand history including Jell-O artwork by Max Parrish, Norman Rockwell, and other famous artists.
  • In 1974 Dr. Adrian Upton attached an EEG machine to a dome of lime Jell-O in an effort to prove the machine should not be the only method used to determine if a person is alive or not. The EEG machine showed Jell-O produces alpha waves much the same as a human. And we all know Jell-O is not alive.
  • Also in 1974, with Jell-O sales on the decline, an advertising campaign was launched to introduce Jigglers, Jell-O snacks molded into fun shapes that could be eaten as finger food. The campaign helped sales rise back.
  • In 2001 Utah State Representative Lenard Blackham introduced legislation declaring “Jell-O brand gelatin be recognized as the favorite snack of Utah.” With only two dissenting votes, Jell-O became the official Utah state snack food.
  • In the 1960s Jell-O introduced several savory flavors such as celery, cabbage, green pepper, and cooked pasta. They were all discontinued.
  • In 1996, astronaut Shannon Lucid took Jell-O on her 140-day mission aboard the Russian space station. She served the Russian crewmates their very first Jell-O on Easter Sunday.

It was during the 19th century Industrial Revolution that America also began to witness a number of major changes in its food production, including an easier solution for gelatin-based applications than boiling and straining animal hoofs. In the early 1800s, Peter Cooper, inventor of America’s first steam locomotive, was searching for a new glue when he developed the process for making dried gelatin sheets. Then by 1845, he patented (U.S. Patent 4084) a powdered version he called “Portable Gelatin.” But because Cooper was interested in glue, not gelatin, he did little or nothing to commercialize his find.

In the small town of Le Roy, New York, Pearle Bixby Wait and his wife May operated a struggling cough syrup and laxative business. In search for something that would provide them a more successful business opportunity, they purchased Cooper’s gelatin patent and began flavoring the tasteless powder with sugary fruit syrups they used in making their cough medicine. In 1895 the Waits trademarked their great tasting new dessert as “Jell-O,” combining both the words gelatin and jelly (from the Latin “gelare,” meaning to congeal or freeze). Adding the “O” at the end was just a popular practice at the time–a means of taking a common word and making it easy to trademark.

By 1899, Pearle and May had exhausted the capital needed to successfully market their new product, so on September 8 they sold the formula, patent, and name to a local business, Genesee Pure Food Company, for $450 (about $13,000 in today’s money), owned by Orator Francis Woodward.

In spite of the Genesee Company’s knowledge and experience in successful food marketing, Jell-O’s sagging sales frustrated Woodward. So much so, that he reportedly offered to sell the Jell-O business to his plant superintendent, Andrew S. Nico, for $35. Nico turned down the offer. Finally in 1902, Woodward’s efforts started paying off when he sent an army of well-dressed salesmen to communities, fairs, and church socials to pass out samples. Jell-O sales that year were over $250,000.

In 1904, Genesee’s advertising director William E. Humelbaugh convinced Woodward to take some of the profits from Grain-O, one of the company’s steady income producers, and spend it to market Jell-O. Three-inch ads were placed in Ladies Home Journal at $365 each, proclaiming Jell-O to be “America’s Most Famous Dessert.” Free Jell-O recipe booklets were printed sporting cover illustrations by such noted artists as Rose O’Neill, Maxfield Parrish, and Norman Rockwell. Later that year, Genesee introduced the Jell-O Girl, four-year old Elizabeth King, whose likeness appeared in ads holding a teakettle and a package of Jell-O with the tag line, “You can’t be a kid without it.” The efforts quickly paid off as sales and national brand recognition began to soar.

In 1923, Genesee Pure Foods Company officially became the Jell-O Company and in 1925 merged with Postum Cereal, Inc. This union eventually became General Foods Corporation. Today Jell-O is owned by Kraft/General Foods.

So there you have it, the story of Jell-O’s development and how it grew from an obscure product with sales of just $250,000 in 1902, to today’s cultural icon with a 99% brand recognition and unit sales of over 750,000 boxes each and every day.

I’m going to the kitchen now and throw together granny’s Green Jell-O Salad for my wife to take to the Ladies Club potluck luncheon tomorrow. And just for fun, I’ll make some tequila-strawberry Jell-O shots for myself and the guys. Why not buy a box or two of your favorite Jell-O flavors and make some jiggly fun for yourself and your family tonight.

Make Em:Granny’s Green Jell-O Salad