While John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich is probably given more credit than history can justify for the invention which has been with us ever since some ancient village baker decided to put something tasty between two pieces of sun-baked flatbread, we can pinpoint some later developments worth celebrating. For one thing, we are pretty sure it was Reuben Arnold, presiding over a delicatessen on New York City’s Broadway who, in 1914, assembled a combination made up of stacks of thin-sliced kosher corned beef, cheese and a special mayonnaise between book-ends of rye bread we call the Reuben to this day. (Don’t forget a healthy slather of horseradish and mustard!)
We also know that Los Angeles lays claim to the first French Dip combo early in the 20th Century, and that the “Saratoga Clubhouse” gave us the so-called Club sandwich in 1894. And as for the ubiquitous Peanut butter and jelly standby, sandwich detectives tell us that back in the day when peanut butter was new and hard-to-find, the good old PB&J was a mainstay of New York City’s high society tea rooms more than 100 years ago! As for the “submarine/hoagie/grinder/po’boy”, there are so many competing versions of a birthing story we lack space to do them justice today.
Enough for plebian culinary trivia when we have a REAL piece of sandwich glory to explore; one which began to pique my interest after a visit to a New Orleans eating establishment a couple of months ago; one that is not on a list of great monuments to the culinary arts one just can’t pass up.
The folks who operate the “World War II Museum” there have cut no corners in anything they have done to make that unique “institute of national pride” a destination worthy of my wish that every American could experience it. I should not have been surprised therefore to sit down to what I expected to be a quick and simple lunch in the 1940s style “Bistro” conveniently situated on the premises, to have one of the most memorable dining experiences – even though a mere lunch – of the much broader food adventures of that three-day sojourn. Knowing that a renowned chef was in charge of the kitchen, I ordered a “Monte Cristo” sandwich, expecting something like an old fashion toasted cheese affair, maybe with some French adornment on the top. What came to me was a two-inch-thick, toasty-crisp casing of batter-fried sourdough slices crammed full of Tasso ham and locally-smoked turkey slices amid melting layers of fondue-type cheese, served with a side of citrus-rich marmalade.
Knowing I would have to make do without the spicy Cajun Tasso and would be substituting a more-available stand-in from Boar’s Head, I decided to compensate by curing, then home-smoking a tied turkey breast in my strategy for perfecting my own approach to the fabled Monte Cristo, which first appeared in Paris cafés around 1910 as a Coque-monsieur (or “crispy mister”).
After curing the turkey breast in a spicy salt rub in the refrigerator for 24 hours, I placed it in my smoker over apple wood for two hours for a cool smoke, then another four hours of a hot smoke until it reached an appropriate internal temperature.
Using two thick slices of bread with a tight crumb structure which I filled with a stack of thinly-sliced turkey, ham and cheese, I dipped the sealed package in a beaten egg before placing it in a pre-heated, thinly oiled skillet to sauté quickly and evenly on both sides. In place of the marmalade, I served it up with my favorite home-made corn relish.
Bingo! I think I have come up with the consummate Monte Cristo.