When it comes to sandwiches, she's the upper crust

"The Encyclopedia of Sandwiches" author Susan Russo does a tell-all interview over turkey on rye.

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    Author Susan Russo calls the sandwich "one of the most democratic foods available."
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Tuna salad on rye with extra mustard. (Yes, mustard!) Canadian bacon, radicchio, and genetically modified sun-dried tomato. Or a simple grilled cheese on sourdough.

Whatever your favorite sandwich is, food writer Susan Russo has got a tale to tell.

In her new book The Encyclopedia of Sandwiches, the San Diego-based Russo takes a bite out of time and offers a slice of culinary history.

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In an in-person interview over a turkey sandwich, Russo and I chewed the non-saturated fat about a food staple that's found a home everywhere from the kitchen counter to the ritziest restaurants on earth.

Q: What makes sandwiches so fascinating?

Sandwiches are one of the most democratic foods available. Anyone can make a sandwich: you can make it pretty much anywhere, you can eat it anywhere you like, at a table or literally on the run or over the kitchen sink. It's portable, it's inexpensive, it's filling, and there's something for everyone. They're endlessly adaptable. A sandwich is whatever you want it to be.

Q: Do sandwiches get enough respect?

I don't think they did in the past. It was just something that was considered so simple that anyone could do it. Why would you respect something as simple as putting meat or vegetables between two slices of bread?

They are getting a lot of respect now. It's something that people think can be something unusual and unique. There are these new restaurants popping up: one in New York that just serves porchetta sandwiches and one in San Francisco that just serves grilled cheese.

Q: What do sandwiches tell us about women's roles?

If you look at the early 1900s through the 1930s, the sandwiches are these hefty muscular sandwiches like hoagies, muffulettas, po' boys. They were all created in these Italian towns in the East like Philadelphia, Boston, and New York. "Grinders" referred to guys who worked on the shipyards and need an inexpensive, filling, meaty lunch. Shop owners would make these hefty Italian sandwiches and started calling them grinders because they reminded them of the guys who worked there.

And then in the 1940s and 1950s and into the 1960s, you saw many more feminine dainty sandwiches being introduced. There's a real change.

Q: How did sandwiches evolve?

In the 1920s and 1930s, we saw many changes in the sandwich's history. In the 1920s, Wonder Bread was introduced, and they introduced sliced bread around 1930. That really revolutionized sandwiches. Now lunch counters and diners could really churn out sandwiches much more quickly because they didn't have to slice the bread.

And Velveeta was introduced in the 1920s. It made a grilled cheese sandwich so much easier, and it made it easier to add cheese to a sandwich, more convenient. Sliced cheese, American cheese, was introduced much later and moms loved it.

Q: Are there any sandwiches that you roll your eyes at?

At the risk of alienating any Hawaiians, I have to say the spamwich. Hawaiians love the spamwich; they eat an average of six cans of Spam a year. But I think I'm in the majority. I just don't see the appeal. Something about the texture and color doesn't appeal to me.

Q. Can you think of a sandwich that people think must be made in a certain way, no exceptions?

Philly cheesesteak. It's the one sandwich that you can guarantee you're going to get yelled at while ordering. They're really rigid, and you can't ask for anything different – a special side or hold a certain ingredient or add a certain ingredient. They pretty much say this is the way it's going to be, you have a certain number of options, and that's it. They feel like there's a right way to do it.

Q: I'm glad you told me. I would have said something like, "Could you put some mayo on that?"

No, no. They'll just yell at you. They really do!

Q: One of the most famous sandwiches in popular culture is the Dagwood. What's its story?

It must be supremely high and as full of as many ingredients as you can squeeze into it. The story of the Dagwood is related to the character of Dagwood in "Blondie." In the 1930s, one of the comic strips shows Dagwood at home alone, so he thinks, in the kitchen. He decides he'll make this monstrous sandwich and he'll put everything he can find into the kitchen into it. It's so huge that he can't even pick it up to put it in his mouth, so he takes a large hot dog and spears the sandwich. Just as he turns to bite into it, he sees his wife and she catches him.

Now today, there's even a sandwich chain called the Dagwood. They say they provide sandwiches for heavy sandwich users.

Q: I'm a heavy sandwich user myself, but I don't think my weight is what they're talking about. Anyway, how have sandwiches evolved recently?

Over the last 10 years, we've seen an embrace of international sandwiches. The Vietnamese bahn mi has become wildly popular, the Cubano, the Mexican torta that we know well here in San Diego. We're really trying to expand our palates beyond our American combinations.

Q: What has the impact of Subway been?

Subway made getting a sandwich on the run, for lunch or dinner, it made it pretty much accessible to anyone. It made it available for everyone: It's a meal. It used to be that sandwiches were considered a snack. Nowadays, a sandwich can be a bona-fide meal.

Q. So how do you make a good sandwich?

You want to have good bread that's going to maintain its shape and not get all soggy when you put toppings on it. It's a good idea to put the cheese directly on the bread because it acts as a barrier, and if you have any hot ingredients on top, it helps melt the cheese. Then put small condiments like peppers or pickles, then your meat, and, if you want, squirt mustard or mayo on top. Save your greens and tomatoes for last so they won't get crushed when you put your bread on.

Q: This might be the biggest question in the world of sandwiches: What do you think about Miracle Whip?

(Laughs.) I don't like Miracle Whip.

Bless your heart.

Randy Dotinga is a regular contributor to the Monitor's book section.

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