2010-06-03 / News

One sublime sandwich: The BLT

Flotsam and Jetsam
By Donna Drago

I had the best lunch the other day. It was in a restaurant. I don’t know exactly why I ordered it, but it turned out to be the perfect choice.

It was a BLT.

Not many eateries still offer a BLT on the menu. The sandwich has fallen from restaurant popularity, but they can still be found lurking in diners and in the occasional family kitchen.

If you look at the typical menu that includes a BLT, you will usually find it on the very bottom of the page. It might be neighbors with egg salad or ham salad and possibly hot dogs, but it will never be near the top of the menu. That would imply it was one of a restaurant’s specialties versus an afterthought for people, like myself, who sometimes just want ordinary, old-fashioned foods.

BLTs used to be quite popular, but they have been replaced on menus with sandwiches that include such items as roasted red peppers, smoked Gouda, wasabi mayonnaise and micro greens. The more glamorous ingredients lead one to perceive that a higher level of creativity and class abounds at the eatery. There’s nothing wrong with that notion – I love roasted peppers, smoked Gouda and the like.

Last week, the BLT arrived on my plate, accompanied by a few crisp fries and without a shred of pretention. I just looked at it for a moment, taking in its modest form: Perfectly square and cut on the diagonal – they taste best that way.

It was thin, light and easy to hold. Nothing dripped out the sides. It didn’t look like overstuffed modern sandwich creations, which appear on bagels, ciabbatta rolls or wraps.

For my younger readers, a BLT is a plain, old sandwich. It comes on white toast and includes just three main ingredients. The B is for bacon, usually a few very crisp slices. The L is for lettuce – always-crispy iceberg and just enough for a slight crunch. The T is for the very nice, thinly-sliced tomato.

But there is another ingredient, critical to the success of the BLT, but for some reason, it did not become part of the acronym. It is mayonnaise and it should be spread thinly on both slices of toast.

I know it doesn’t sound like much. In fact, it sounds like it is missing ingredients. Shouldn’t there be a pile of roasted turkey in there? How about a burger patty? Sure, all of that would taste good, maybe even great, but the BLT is perfect in its simplicity. I was delighted that I ordered it and even as I write this, I am craving another one.

The BLT has a mysterious history. It doesn’t appear in any of my early 20th century cookbooks. In my 1941 “New American Cookbook,” a sliced bacon sandwich appears unglamorously under the heading “Miscellaneous Meat Sandwiches.” The recipe suggests using day-old bread and topping it with a few slices. It’s merely something to do with stale bread – no tomato, no lettuce…nothing.

“The Joy of Cooking,” which has a recipe for just about everything, includes a peanut butter and bacon sandwich because “peanut butter needs enlivening.” The authors also delve into the world of the club sandwich, which is essentially a pumpedup BLT. The difference is that the club sandwich includes three slices of bread, which allows you to have a BLT between two slices and another type of sandwich stuck on top of it, usually with frilly toothpicks. I have never understood the club sandwich.

If you go back to the 1929 cookbook by Florence A. Cowles called “Seven Hundred Sandwiches,” she touches on bacon as a main ingredient, but doesn’t figure out that tomatoes, along with bacon, provide a tremendous taste sensation. Cowles says under the heading, “Bacon Sandwiches,” that bacon is an ingredient of many of the sandwiches in this book, but in those under this heading it is the principal one. Sandwiches containing bacon are particularly good on hikes or picnics.

Among the recipes Cowles includes in her tome are a bacon and onion sandwich and a bacon salad sandwich. Poor Florence missed a chance to invent something wonderful.

Wikipedia has an entry on the BLT and its history. That the acronym BLT was likely developed as diner slang is attributed to food historian John Mariani, who wrote the reference book “The Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink.”

Mariani says, “Lunch counters have provided etymologists and linguists with one of the richest sources of American slang...usually based on a form of verbal shorthand bandied back and forth between waiters and cooks.” The BLT was likely part of the vernacular of a particular diner, which then spread – as did the popularity of the sandwich.

If you haven’t had a BLT in a long time, get reacquainted. I think you will be pleasantly surprised.

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