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Slice of History: What About the Butter?

March 16, 2011 7:06 am · Posted by Nancy Einhart

I love getting questions from readers, especially when they pertain to sandwich history. This one comes from loyal reader BettyPuff:

"Dear sandwich lady, Can you tell me what the origins of putting butter on a ham sandwich are? I always wonder about the butter."

This is a tough one, since there isn't one definitive reason that almost all early American and British sandwiches feature butter. But butter is undeniably the condiment of choice in 19th century sandwich recipes, such as Eliza Leslie's ham sandwich from 1836.

I don't know what old-timey sandwich makers had against mustard, but I have my theories about the butter. Before they were called sandwiches, these meals were simply referred to as "bread and cheese" or "bread and meat," so butter was a logical addition to what was really a souped-up version of toast.

Also, consider the bread. Before the advent of presliced bread and enzymes added to make it fluffier, sandwich bread was too delicate and crumbly to contain anything but cold, tidy ingredients. Presumably the butter helped soften the bread without making the sandwiches soggy.

Since sandwiches of this era were more of a polite snack for wealthy indulgers than an everyday convenience food, they were designed to be as easy to eat as possible. Most were delicate, crustless, and involved mixing cheese or egg with other ingredients to make a tidy paste. The softer and easier to bite, the better, and in this case, butter made the sliced ham and bread better — that is, softer to the teeth.

Flickr User Robert S. Donovan

posted by

I wonder how far and wide was mustard spread back in the day? Has it always been a current condiment of varied spice and part-time emulsifier? Outside of other sandwich softener availability, it is also often said that most things are better with butter and I have to agree. Why even question what works so well together? You may as well ask why Tango with Cash?

So sayeth The Andrew

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