Guys, the “Club” in Club Sandwich Isn’t an Acronym
Okay, before you post that gif of a confused toddler shifting her eyes from side to side or type the word “shook,” just hold on a sec. A few days ago an 18-year-old British guy posted a sandwich fact that he’d just discovered, and several thousand people pressed their hands against the top of their heads trying to keep their minds from being completely blown. But the thing is … that dude is probably wrong.
“No way am I 18 and I’ve only just found out a club sandwich stands for chicken and lettuce under bacon,” Saul J. Henderson wrote.
We can’t dispute his age or the fact that he just learned that club was an acronym like NASA or C.R.E.A.M., but just because he “learned” something doesn’t make it true. Although there doesn’t seem to be an official consensus on where or how the club sandwich originated, in historical literature its name has always been a reference to any number of member’s clubs who claim that they’re the ones who served it first.
The Long and Harried History of the Club Sandwich
The Saratoga Club House (now known as the Canfield Casino) in Saratoga Springs, New York, has long claimed that the sandwich was invented in its own kitchen in 1894 — but that ignores the references to club sandwiches that had been previously printed. The Union Club, then located on Fifth Avenue and 21st Street in New York City, was being celebrated for its sandwich five years before its upstate counterparts even thought to put one on a plate.
“Have you tried a Union Club sandwich yet?” the New York Evening World asked in November 1889. “Two toasted slices of Graham bread, with a layer of turkey or chicken and ham between them, served warm.” (Graham bread was a high-fiber white bread that its inventor claimed was extra-wholesome.)
“A famous institution of the Union Club is what the epicures of the club have proudly christened ‘the Union Club sandwich,'” the Pittsburgh Dispatch wrote, just a day after the Evening World‘s mention. “It differs essentially from any other sandwich made in town, and […] heretofore the composition of this sandwich has been a mystery to the outside world. The club chef toasts well two slices of Graham bread cut thin, and between them places a layer of chicken or turkey and ham, and serves the sandwich warm.”
So there’s no bacon or lettuce, and the chicken is only one of several acceptable protein options, so the sandwich’s origin seems to differ from what that acronym claims. According to The Sandwich Tribunal, one of the earliest published recipes for a Club-House Sandwich was in an 1894 book called Sandwiches: “Club-house sandwiches may be made in a number of different ways, but are served warm as a rule on bread carefully toasted at the last moment. Put on top of a square of toasted bread a thin layer of broiled ham or bacon; on top of this a thin slice of Holland pickle, on top of that a thin slice of cold roasted chicken or turkey, then a leaf of lettuce in the center of which you put a teaspoonful of mayonnaise dressing; cover this with another slice of buttered toast. Press the two together, and cut from one corner to another making two large triangles, and send at once to the table.”
The recipe also suggests that the ham might be swapped for turkey or chicken, but the acronym is totally jumbled here (bacon and chicken under lettuce). This publication also hints that the name “club” might be less about the ingredients and more just lopping off the “house” part of its “club-house” name.
Fast forward a couple of decades, and the recipes for the sandwich start to become a little more free-form. “[The club sandwich] is a meal in itself, and a meal which may have highly diversified component parts, as long as the principal specifications of toast, meat and salad ingredients are adhered to,” Florence Cowles wrote in Seven Hundred Sandwiches in 1929. “Originally it was constructed on the toppling tower plan, but in any other shape it tastes as good and convenience now dictates a more open formation which may be readily attacked.”
But the final word has to come from James Beard, who included essays about sandwiches in James Beard’s Great American Cookery and in Beard on Food, both of which were published in the early 1970s. “In the last thirty years or so [the club] has evolved into a triple decker, but as I remember, it was originally made with just two slices of toast, thinly sliced chicken, tomato, and mayonnaise,” he wrote. “Order a club sandwich today, and you’ll get chicken or turkey, tomato, bacon, mayonnaise, and lettuce or not, as you wish. Provided the toast and bacon are crisp and hot and the other ingredients of the highest quality, this can be a divine mixture of flavors and textures.”
Our Definitive Thoughts on the “Club” Acronym
So there are three things to consider. One, James Beard considers a non-lettuce, non-bacon club like the ones served at the Union Club to be canon; two, he’s OK with swapping turkey for chicken; and three, he says nothing about the order or about that acronym. And guys, if James Beard didn’t consider it, then it’s really not worth being considered, is it?
So yeah, today I’m slightly over 18 and I’ve only just found out a club sandwich has nothing to do with that kid’s tweet.