The Sandwich Century — #9: The BLT

The classics, it is said, are classics for a reason.  Thus far in the Sandwich Century, that’s been proven true; the classic sandwiches have panned out as being pure gold as a rule.  But for every Roger Ebertian sandwich, defended by all as an exemplar of the for, along comes an Armond Whiteish concoction that creates divisiveness, bitterness, and hurt feelings all around.  Yes, the BLT is a disputed classic, a sandwich by Lars Von Trier, a thing that creates division instead of unity.  Once the most common of comestibles, it has fallen out of favor with the American public for the mere fact of its simplicity:  as sandwiches have become more super-sized, more overstuffed with ingredients, more, to steal the name of a mid-tier country act, big and rich, the BLT seems more like an appetizer to the contemporary palate than a meal.  And so we must forge forward, showing a spirit of independent inquiry and hunger that drives this project, to make a decision that befits the status of this toasty little argument-starter.

The BLT has always been a queer bird for me, as far as sandwiches are concerned.  Although it is certainly impossible that I did not do so, I have no memory of having eaten one before I prepared the sample used for this entry.  Its simplicity makes it easy to ignore, and its ubiquity makes it easy to avoid; going to a sandwich shop and ordering a BLT is like going to an ice cream parlor and ordering vanilla, or getting a large ice water with your Extra Value Meal — it’s not that they’re bad choices, they just leave you feeling you didn’t get your money’s worth.  It also suffers, or benefits, depending on your view of truth in advertising, from having its name reflect its ingredients.  This seems like a cop-out, somehow, as if its creators couldn’t think of anything better.  Still, it conjures up a certain something, right?  A simpler era of the American sandwich, a signature I-don’t-know-what that assures its status as a classic no matter what its actual quality.

THE SANDWICH: With its origin in the British tea sandwich tradition, it’s no surprise that the BLT, despite its American sassy-waitress-jargon diner associations, is originally from the Isles.  In fact, it’s still the most popular sandwich over there, as Americans have largely shifted over to wicked excess in its sandwich choices.  Few sandwiches lend themselves as easily to variations (especially ones with would-be clever names) as the BLT; some of them will be covered later in this project.  The BLT is also likely the only sandwich that inspired a statue by Claes Oldenburg, unless you favor the slightly more obscure lipstick-binoculars-and-clothespin sandwich.  Its origins in the world of finger-sandwichery, along with the trend towards super-sizing in American cuisine, likely accounts for the fact that it’s hard to imagine eating one by itself; at the very least, it calls for a potato-based side, a pickle, or a half-gallon of butter brickle ice cream.

THE INGREDIENTS: The makers of this sandwich put it all out there, gang.  Bacon, lettuce and tomato.  Add some bread and a little mayonnaise, and you’re good to go.  It’s a curious combination of ingredients, more of a salad than a sandwich; it’s really just a bacon butty with a little garnish.  And yet something about that combination has given it a unique appeal, making it one of the most durable sandwiches of the last century.  Add too much and it becomes a different sandwich; take away anything and it becomes disappointingly dull.   For this entry, I went almost entirely traditional:  white bread (though see below), Duke’s salad dressing (slightly sweeter than regular mayo, but not into sickly Miracle Whip territory), bacon (I’m not going to get into the whole American/Canadian/British bacon clusterfuck; take my word for it that this was good ol’ American bacon, the kind that gets fetishized on the Internet); sliced salad tomatoes; and Romaine lettuce, the golden mean between the bland crispiness of iceberg and the distracting bitterness of field greens.

I have never quite understood the deep hatred of mayonnaise held in some quarters.  It is made of natural, healthful ingredients, and while it is not for every occasion, it provides a pleasant, tangy taste to appropriate foods.  Globbing it on in Great Flood-like proportions is a mistake, but a thin, smooth, creamy layer certainly adds dimension to what is otherwise a pretty boring combination of ingredients.  Some people get clever and substitute spinach for the lettuce, but I find this to be a bit showy, as well as adding a somewhat unwelcome flavor.  The tomato you use should really be dictated by the size of the sandwich, with the Roma being perfect for a tea sandwich and the beefsteak being fine for a big double-fister.  The size I opted for lent itself easily to the salad tomato. (NOTE:  As you may have suspected, I had to resort to stock photography for the above BLT.  My digital camera cable is futzed, and I wanted to get this post up in a timely manner before replacing it.  Rest assured that the one I made was practically identical, save for the classy bamboo accoutrements.)

THE TASTE TEST: Unfortunately for the classicists among you, I have to come down on the ‘nay’ side of this one.  It’s not that it’s a bad sandwich; it’s just sort of unremarkable.  The ingredients mesh well at times, but texturally, it’s a bit odd; it’s not for nothing that some people opt for softer lettuces or spinach, or avoid the whole argument altogether and throw in an avocado instead.  The crunch of the lettuce doesn’t provide enough contrast to that of the bacon — I suppose this could be avoided by opting for soft bacon, but to use a term I learned in culinary school, yukky.  I also made the mistake of toasting the bread; I usually avoid such fripperies, but I decided to get fancy this time, and I paid the price.  Combined with the crisp lettuce and crunchy bacon, it left no softness in the texture profile and made the whole thing seem like more of an effort.  It was fine, honestly, but eminently forgettable; mostly it just made me want to eat a salted tomato.  In the end, the BLT is the car insurance of sandwiches:  it’s comforting to know that it’s there, but you don’t want to spend too much time thinking about it.

2 SHOTS LICKED so far.

  1. Djur
    05/04/2011 at 2:06 PM

    I think the BLT, as a simple sandwich, varies a lot due to even small differences in quality or kind of the ingredients. In the past, the approach I’ve taken has always been: lightly toasted bread, crispy but not shattering bacon, thinly sliced and salt-and-peppered tomato, butter lettuce. And mayonnaise, obviously. None of it in great overwhelming quantity, more bacon than anything else. I prefer a heartier seeded/whole-wheat type bread to white bread.

    And you need a side or two, of course. This isn’t a lunch on a bun like a lot of American sandwiches.

    I think I agree with you to an extent — the BLT isn’t a star sandwich. It does have the advantage of being easy to rassle up while being a little more balanced and adult than a PB&J. The main issue, I think, is that so much relies on the quality of the tomato — and most tomatoes sold in grocery stores are mushy trash, while most home-grown tomatoes are too small for the traditional sandwich. And heirloom tomatoes are prohibitively expensive for such a modest sandwich.

    If I still ate meat, I’d be interested in trying some variants. A jam made from good home-grown tomatoes would be interesting, as well as making it on a crusty roll.

  2. colorblind
    05/04/2011 at 6:04 PM

    I like the tomato jam idea flavorwise, but the texture would be altered considerably. The tomato is really the soul of the sandwich, the soft firmness and the juiciness providing the “meat” of the experience. The bacon promarily serves to bring the salt and smoke flavors, making it partly a condiment, IMHO. Maybe keep the tomato and add the jam as a second layer over the mayo.

    Also, I’d be hesitant to sub a crusty roll I think the roll would throw the meat & filling:bread balance off when the meat & filling side of that ratio is already slight.

    Once the end of the century is reached, I’d like to see Leonard go back and review some of the nay sandwiches and try to improve them to Yeah status.

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