From compressed yeast to cream cheese and cornflakes: one man’s search for the world’s greatest sandwich

Barry Enderwick has recreated more than 700 sandwich recipes from history, dating from 200BC to the present day. What has he learned – and crucially – which are the tastiest?

Emine Saner

Emine Saner@eminesaner

Wed 1 Nov 2023 01.00 EDT

Barry Enderwick’s adventures in sandwiches began with a filling of chopped raw oysters. It was, he says, “so gross”. Still, his epic sandwich exploration continued with gusto. Since December 2018, Enderwick – a one-man historical re-enaction society, armed with mayonnaise and old cookery books – has recreated recipes for his social media accounts, Sandwiches of History. What began as occasional posts on Instagram, and then TikTok, has now turned into a daily lunchtime creation for hundreds of thousands of followers. Its success has come as something of a surprise.

“This shouldn’t have worked,” he says. “I’m a 55-year-old balding guy on social media; there’s no way I should have had anybody following me. I can speculate that amid all the people dancing, shaking, doing whatever, I’m the guy standing in his kitchen like, ‘Hey, let’s make a sandwich.’ There’s a calmness about it.” But mainly, he says, it’s that “sandwiches have universal appeal. You can put anything in there. You can cross cuisines, and it’s portable. You can make a sandwich really expensive if you want to, but by default, it is not an expensive food item.”

The Up-To-Date Sandwich Book.

Enderwick estimates he has filmed the making of close to 700 sandwiches. It began when a friend sent him a pdf of a little-known 1909 masterpiece called The Up-to-Date Sandwich Book: 400 Ways to Make a Sandwich, featuring such creations as the peanut, banana, lettuce and mayonnaise sandwich, and a sardine and cream cheese monstrosity. From the start, Enderwick planned to make a social media project of it. Since then, he has scoured other recipe books, almost all American and with delightfully straightforward titles, including 500 Tasty Sandwiches (1941). There’s even, for British followers, Ken Dodd’s Butty Book (once a week, he finds an international recipe, and also now includes family recipes from followers). “I love the idea of looking at what people ate in different eras, and seeing if that is something that we would enjoy today. And I do love sandwiches.”

Ken Dodd’s Butty Book. Photograph: Macmillan

He is a relative latecomer to the deliciousness of food. His parents, he says kindly, were not the best cooks. It wasn’t until he met his partner that he realised what things were really supposed to taste like. “Since then, I love to cook, to explore,” he says over Zoom from California, wearing one of the floral shirts familiar from his videos. Enderwick’s career, his bread and butter if you will, is in marketing, including 11 years at Netflix, but he was always interested in food on the side – previous social media accounts involved testing crisps and savoury ice-cream. But it’s sandwiches that have taken off; he’s just signed a deal to write a sandwich recipe book.

Sandwiches are, at least in bread-eating countries, “the most universal of all fast food”, writes Bee Wilson in her book Sandwich: A Global History. “They are eaten by schoolchildren and high-court judges, by soldiers and pacifists, by busy call-centre workers and leisurely picnickers.” People in the UK, she writes, each eat an estimated 200 sandwiches a year. The sandwich liberated us “from the constraints and rules of formal meals”.

John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich. Photograph: Bettmann Archive

John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich, gave his name to the creation in the 18th century – eating, one-handed, beef between bread – but, of course, he didn’t invent the sandwich. In cultures all over world, humans had been using bread as a vehicle or envelope for meat and other foods for almost certainly thousands of years.

Enderwick’s sandwiches, which have so far mainly focused on 20th-century recipes, are positively modern, if also unfamiliar. I like the trends in ingredients, such as the regularity with which almonds pop up in sandwiches in his earliest recipe books, and the enthusiasm among American recipe-writers for Worcestershire sauce.

“And tinned fish was big in the early sandwiches as well, and understandably so. You could have that anywhere in the country – you didn’t have to be at a port to get fresh fish. A lot of pimentos were used for a while, and olives were a mainstay in older recipes across many decades.”

He has trained his eye on the trends among modern sandwiches. “For a while it was just bigger, more extravagant, throw everything on it, which I’m not a fan of. First, I want to be able to fit it in my mouth. Second, I want to make sure that the flavours are there for a reason.” It’s true that some of today’s fillings can sound try-hard and gimmicky, but looking at Enderwick’s menu of sandwiches, you realise nothing is really new.

In The Up-to-Date Sandwich Book, one is made from popcorn, cayenne pepper, sardines, ketchup and parmesan. Mushrooms are paired with ground lobster and ketchup (from the 1902 book 101 Sandwiches), cream cheese is mixed with cornflakes (from 1936’s 1001 Sandwiches), and there’s even a banana and salmon creation from 1967. Bow down before the not-entirely-appetisingly named Bummers Custard “sandwich” (from 1909, it’s served on crackers), with its filling of roquefort, brandy, olive oil and Worcestershire sauce. Onion juice features in a cheese sandwich from 1936.

We may scoff at the modern idea of a “breadless” sandwich, one that someone in mortal fear of carbs might pull out of a lunch bag, but The Up-to-Date Sandwich Book got there first – its “dairy sandwich” is simply two slices of Swiss cheese, with butter between.

For all that the modern sandwich is supposed to be quick and easy – the ultimate capitalist foodstuff gets people fed and back to work, or better still feeds them while they’re still at work – many older recipes are ridiculously time-consuming or complex. “Some recipes turn out to be pretty tasty, but some of them are overly complex for no reason,” says Enderwick. Imagine soaking a chopped hotdog, grated cheese and cream cheese sandwich in a milk and egg mixture overnight, as one recipe has it, then baking it in the oven. Some sandwiches need special dressings to be mixed. Egg yolks are common in Enderwick’s earlier recipe books, he says, “and many of them call for the yolk of hard-boiled eggs, pushed through a sieve”.

Through the medium of bread and fillings, you can also trace societal and cultural shifts. “It’s interesting because there’s a book, 1001 Sandwiches, from 1936, right in the Great Depression. Sure enough, they have sandwiches that are kind of bare bones, but the book also has a caviar sandwich.”

In post-second world war America, “there are definitely more processed ingredients, like cheese”. Later, sandwiches become sweeter, Enderwick says, with sugar added to bread and sauces. “That was part of the plan by companies to sell more.” Portion sizes began to swell around then, too. “Definitely towards the mid-century, sandwich sizes started to grow. The earlier sandwiches are thin fillings. One of the things that used to happen a lot in the old sandwiches is they would grind ingredients together – grind the ham and nuts, mix with butter. I think part of the reason for that is to make the protein, which would be expensive, go further. As you get towards modern times, you start to see slices of ham.”

A closeup of Enderwick’s pan bagnat. Photograph: Winni Wintermeyer/The Guardian

He is fascinated, he says, “to see there’s sandwiches in just about every cuisine”. He regularly tries recipes from all over the world: the Vietnamese bánh mì is one of his favourites, while the oldest recipe he has tried is the rou jia mo, originating in the Shaanxi province in China, thought to be from about 200BC, featuring spiced meat. “It is delicious, one of my favourite sandwiches that I’ve done.”

What other sandwich discoveries has he made? The many uses of peanut butter, he says, though he perhaps shouldn’t be surprised when he grew up eating peanut butter and dill pickle sandwiches.

“There’s a lot of opportunities for peanut butter to be used as a savoury ingredient in a sandwich. My grandmother used to make a sandwich with peanut butter and a fried egg.” Enderwick added hot sauce and coriander, “and that is a tasty combination”.

A classic peanut butter and jelly sandwich from a 1901 recipe in the Boston Cooking School magazine. Photograph: Winni Wintermeyer/The Guardian

The concept of a “dessert sandwich” is something he hadn’t really considered before. The nostalgic comfort of a jam or marmalade sandwich is familiar, but I like the sound of one 1909 recipe he tried, featuring thin lemon slices, rinds cut off, and sprinkled with sugar, between buttered bread. “There’s a chocolate sandwich from 1908,” says Enderwick – it involved melting chocolate and sugar with wine. “It brought out the wine-y notes of the chocolate and it was really good.”

Enderwick is unafraid to wade into sandwich controversy – a hotdog, he would argue, is a sandwich. Burgers are too, he says. He also features open sandwiches, (in my view an oxymoron; this is where he and I part ways). As for cutting sandwiches, “I’m of the opinion that diagonally is great because it fits in your mouth better, you get more surface area, and more ingredients in there. But that doesn’t mean that I’m going to be hardline about it. This is a sandwich. Have fun, enjoy it.”

Does he ever wish he hadn’t started? Does he wake up in the morning and dread his daily sandwich? “I do not,” he says. “I don’t get sick of sandwiches; I love them. There are times when I’m not shooting a sandwich where I’m like, I’m hungry – I need to eat something.”

An idea pops into his head – something quick, easy, filling and tasty. “I’ll make a sandwich.”

Barry Enderwick’s Top 5 sandwiches

Barry Enderwick prepares The Tomato, from Turkey and the Wolf’s cookbook Flavor Trippin’ in New Orleans. Photograph: Winni Wintermeyer/The Guardian

Tomato (from the 2022 cookbook by New Orleans sandwich shop Turkey and the Wolf): sliced tomato with salt and pepper, salted roasted sunflower seeds, dill, basil, lemon juice, mayonnaise. “Recent history, and easily the most delicious vegetarian sandwich I’ve ever had. I’ve made it three times off-camera. It has no business being that good.”

Reuben sandwich (1930s): corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese with Russian dressing (mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup and other ingredients) on toasted rye bread. “It was created in the midwest and it is just fantastic, delicious and wonderful.”

Pan bagnat (originating in Nice, France): tomato, cucumber, red onion, rocket and radish, with a vinaigrette dressing with oregano and marjoram. Fill a baguette, add sliced egg, tuna and anchovies. Leave overnight, wrapped and weighed down, in the fridge. “It’s like a salade niçoise in bread. Everything soaks into the bread and it’s just so good.”

Rou jia mo (circa 200BC): beef marinated in soy sauce, sesame oil, cumin, fennel seed, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves, and served in a bun with onions and ground ginger. “There are so many different seasonings, and it’s so delicious and flavourful.”

Superb club sandwich (1974): prawns, mayonnaise, condensed mushroom soup, grated cheese, baked until cheese melts. “You feel like it’s not great for you, but it’s tasty.”

And the five worst

Yeast sandwich (1936): a block of compressed fresh yeast, mixed with Worcestershire sauce. “It was not good.”

Oyster sandwich (1909): chopped up raw oysters, olive oil and Worcestershire sauce, with lettuce. “It was a slimy mess, so gross. No.”

Farmer’s egg sandwich (1912): hard boiled eggs, with homemade vinegary mayonnaise. “The reason this was terrible was because it said to boil the egg for 30 minutes. I can’t figure out why, but there are other recipes that call for 30 to 45 minutes to boil an egg. It tastes like sulphur.”

Goblin sandwich (1946): toasted chopped Brazil nuts, devilled ham, avocado, Worcestershire sauce, served in a doughnut. “This was weird.”

Cheese sandwich No 2 (1912): pub cheese (a type of cream cheese), parmesan, salt, pepper, anchovy paste and tarragon vinegar. “It doesn’t sound bad – the problem is the amount of salt made it taste like a salt lick. Just awful.”

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you move on, I was hoping you would consider taking the step of supporting the Guardian’s journalism. 

From Elon Musk to Rupert Murdoch, a small number of billionaire owners have a powerful hold on so much of the information that reaches the public about what’s happening in the world. The Guardian is different. We have no billionaire owner or shareholders to consider. Our journalism is produced to serve the public interest – not profit motives.

And we avoid the trap that befalls much US media – the tendency, born of a desire to please all sides, to engage in false equivalence in the name of neutrality. While fairness guides everything we do, we know there is a right and a wrong position in the fight against racism and for reproductive justice. When we report on issues like the climate crisis, we’re not afraid to name who is responsible. And as a global news organization, we’re able to provide a fresh, outsider perspective on US politics – one so often missing from the insular American media bubble. 

Around the world, readers can access the Guardian’s paywall-free journalism because of our unique reader-supported model. That’s because of people like you. Our readers keep us independent, beholden to no outside influence and accessible to everyone – whether they can afford to pay for news, or not.

If you can, please consider supporting us just once from $1, or better yet, support us every month with a little more. Thank you.

Betsy Reed

Editor, Guardian US

Betsy Reed, Editor Headshot for Guardian US Epic

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Latest Photos
Get notified of the best deals on Lush Wine & Spirits
What they say

Related Posts

Lush Blog

The New Vocabulary of Wine

OCTOBER 15, 2020 story: EMILY TIMBERLAKE illustrations: RYMIE The words we use to talk about wine often say more about us than what’s in the glass. Here, a non-exhaustive guide to determining

Read More