When it comes to cultural histories, there are few topics as storied — and contested — as the origins of some of our favorite sandwich names. The origins of the word “sandwich” aren’t particularly controversial, at least.. John Montagu, the 18th-century 4th Earl of Sandwich, started asking for sliced meat and bread so he could eat it at his gambling table while he played, as the story goes. Though it’s more likely he ate it at his desk while he worked (relatable!), he helped make this food format fashionable in Europe, thus indelibly changing the course of future lunches forever.
In the centuries since, the sandwich genre has really taken off, and now we live in a gastronomic universe populated by concoctions like the “po’boy” and the “hero.” Where did some of the most popular sandwiches get their names? Some of these origin stories might be controversial, but all of them are delicious.
The Origins Of Sandwich Names
Hoagie — basically Philadelphian for “sub sandwich.” There are multiple possible origin stories for this term, including being named after the Italian immigrant Navy Yard workers on what was once known as Hog Island, who were called “hoggies” as a result. Or, potentially, “hoagie” comes from “Hogan,” a common Irish name that became a nickname for the Irish immigrant Navy Yard workers in Philadelphia. Another theory: a man named Al De Palma opened a sub shop during the Great Depression. He had once seen some musicians eating a sub, and said to himself that you “had to be a hog” to eat something that big. He named his sandwiches “hoggies,” and the Philadelphia accent likely took care of the rest.
Hero — a “sub sandwich” in the New York dialect. Though some believe this term derives from the Greek “gyro” sandwich, it’s more likely that it was coined by a writer for the New York Herald Tribune in 1936 who wrote that the sandwich was so large, “you had to be a hero to eat it.” One man’s hog is another man’s hero, the moral of the story goes.
Sub — so-called because they resemble submarines. It’s unclear who came up with the term, however. One popular theory is that an Italian shopkeeper in New London, Connecticut — home to a big Navy submarine base — invented the sandwich during World War II. Originally called a “grinder,” it eventually became associated with the workers at the sub yard. The earliest recorded use of the term was in 1940, however, which calls the timing of this story into question.
Club — not an acronym for “chicken lettuce under bacon,” tempting as this may sound to believe. Though there’s no consensus on where exactly it originated, the word “club” likely refers to a member’s club that first served it. The Saratoga Club House in Saratoga Springs, New York, believes it invented the club in 1894. The Union Club in New York City might have done it first also has a claim, however. “Have you tried a Union Club sandwich yet?” wrote the New York Evening World in November 1889. “Two toasted slices of Graham bread, with a layer of turkey or chicken and ham between them, served warm.”
Bánh mì — Vietnamese for “bread.” What’s maybe worth noting here is that bread, or wheat in general, was never native to Vietnam or Vietnamese cuisine. An escalating French military offensive in Vietnam in the 19th century led to the establishment of the French Colony of Cochinchina. The French attempted to introduce crops and livestock that would allow them to maintain their European diets, but wheat wouldn’t grow there. Because it had to be imported, only the French could afford it, so wheat (and bread) became a status symbol reserved for Europeans. Baguettes (and cold cuts and cheese) eventually became accessible to poorer Vietnamese people during World War I, when German goods seized by the French became abundantly available in Saigon. When the French eventually were defeated in 1954, Vietnamese people adapted French dishes to suit local tastes and ingredients, which turned the bánh mì sandwich into something anyone could afford and enjoy.
Croque monsieur/madame — from the French croquer, “to bite,” and monsieur, “mister” (or “madam”). Basically, it means “gentleman’s sandwich.” The basic construction of the croque monsieur includes bread, cheese and ham. Adding an egg on top makes it a croque madame, so named because the egg resembles a woman’s hat. Other cultures and languages have different names for essentially this same dish: toastie or Welsh Rarebit in England; tosti in the Netherlands; Monte Cristo in the United States; and bikini in Catalonia.
Panini — the plural form of panino, which means “bread roll” in Italian.
Reuben — it really depends on who you ask, but either way, this sandwich is named after some guy named Reuben. One version of the origin story is that a hotel kitchen manager in Nebraska invented this sandwich for a hotel patron named Reuben in the 1920s who would gather with his friends to play poker there. Some maintain that it was Reuben himself who invented the sandwich by arranging ingredients served to him on a deli platter. Still others believe it was invented by sandwich shop owner Arnold Reuben in New York City. The earliest known recorded reference to the Reuben sandwich comes from Nebraska, it seems.
Sloppy Joe — once again, a hotly contested sandwich names origin story that involves some guy the sandwich took its name from. One version of the story is that a cook named Joe working at a Sioux City restaurant invented it in 1930. He essentially upgraded the “loose meat sandwich” that was already popular then in Iowa by adding tomato sauce to it. Another version is that it was first served at a restaurant called Sloppy Joe’s in Key West. A third version says it was invented by José García, bar owner at a different Sloppy Joe’s in Havana, and then popularized in the United States by Ernest Hemingway, who brought it to Key West.
Hot dog — without getting into the semantics of whether a hot dog is even a sandwich, the name “hot dog” probably derives from its earlier coinage as a “dachshund sausage,” most likely a contribution made by German immigrants to the United States. But who was the first to put it in a bun? The most popular theory is that it was a Bavarian baker who needed a handy replacement for the gloves he used to give his customers to eat the sausages with, but historians believe the bread and sausage combination probably popped up independently in multiple places.
Po’boy — short for “poor boy.” According to culinary historian Jessica B. Harris, there are two leading theories about where this came from. The most popular one is that the brothers Bennie and Clovis Martin invented the sandwich in 1929 to give out to striking streetcar workers. Whenever they saw a striking man coming their way, they would say, “Here comes another poor boy.” Another theory is that they handed out these sandwiches for free to young Black boys asking for sandwiches “for a po’ boy.” Still other (albeit less substantiated) theories posit that it may have come from the French term pourboire, or the tip you give a waiter. Another is that restaurants wanted to find a way to sell their stale baguettes, so they turned them into cheap sandwiches that they could sell to “poor boys.”
Muffuletta — muffoletta means “little muffin” in the Sicilian dialect. Another contribution made by Italian immigrants, this sandwich typically comes in a loaf of round bread, hence the name. Central Grocery of New Orleans holds the claim to being the home of the original muffuletta sandwich in 1906. Then-owner Signor Lupo Salvatore started making them for the nearby workers of the wharves and produce stalls, many of whom were Sicilian.