Reflection on a delicacy: the curried egg sandwich
An offering to relish: home-baked bread and curried egg, the ultimate sandwich
I attend a weekly gym session for geriatrics, cheerfully conducted under the watchful eye of an attractive young phsysio. She puts us through our paces, lifting weights, pedalling the stationary bicycle, marching on the treadmill, stretching stiff old sinews and working tired old muscles, balancing on one leg while reciting the alphabet backwards ... and so on. It's easy enough, a good discipline and at once a week it is not too physically demanding.
Geriatric gymnasts … and physio
However, the part I like best is that our little group of old codgers always likes to discuss things, to comment on current affairs or sports results, share reminiscences from our youth, or explore the chances of our football team next weekend. Food is a big subject, as all of us like to eat, and most of us regularly cook, and there is nearly always a review of a local restaurant or café that one of us has recently reconnoitred.
The other day the subject turned to sandwiches. It was a subject on which everyone had experience, and there was plenty to talk about. Subjects included Great Sandwiches of the Past, school lunches of the 1940s, Sandwiches My Mothers Made … even Terrible Sandwiches. On this subject I drew on my memory of the cardboard-like consistency of Kraft Cheese sandwiches taken from a hot crib box on a midsummer day somewhere out in the jarrah forest.
I also recalled the baked bean sandwiches that I had almost every day in my school lunch for about six straight years ... not because my mother was incapable of variation, but because these were my favourites and my mother was grateful that there was a lunch that demanded no imagination, was easy to make and that I really enjoyed. But there came a day when suddenly, out of nowhere, I could not look a baked bean sandwich in the eye, and I have not eaten another in my whole life since.
The doorstop sandwiches made for my crib by the cook at the Pemberton Boarding House back in my batching days in the karri country were especially memorable. These were invariably either cheese and pickled onions, or cold mutton and chutney. The bread slices would have given new meaning to the modern expression "thick cut", and came from loaves baked that morning. I loved them, and usually could not wait until the official lunch hour before I started in on them.
As our discussions warmed up, the preferred taste of white or wholemeal bread arose, along with the the role of the toasted sandwich, and that of the bread roll. A good roll, we agreed, requires three constituents, for example cheese-plus-tomato-plus-onion, or corned beef-plus-pickles-plus-lettuce. The so-called “conti roll” as sold in modern cafes and coffee shops ,was seen as an effete sophistication – you would not have been seen dead with one of these concoctions back in our day.
The “Conti”, or Continental Roll, with cos lettuce, tomato, cheese, ham, salami, onion, avocado, olives and pickles plus a ‘Thousand Islands’ sauce.
A fair bit of debate arose surrounding the subject "my favourite sandwich". There was a 'ham and hot English mustard' faction, a vote for tinned tuna, and another for corned beef and chutney.
Eventually, consensus was reached. Top vote went to the curried egg sandwich, which we agreed was superior to all others.
Yet even here there was some variation around the theme. I mentioned that my wife Ellen always mixes a little milk into the curried egg, so that it becomes less crumbly and more of a paste, and she likes to add a pinch of pepper. Another said he likes a shred or two of lettuce with his curried egg, while a third mentioned that his mother had always added a dob of mayonnaise to the curried egg. My experience (with café-bought, rather than home-made curried egg sandwiches) is that while mayonnaise adds to the flavour, it can make the mixture too runny, and messy to eat while driving.
On the subject of sandwiches made by our mothers, one of us recalled that, seventy years or so ago, his mother specialised in school lunch sandwiches with a filling known as 'mock chicken'. We all remembered mock chicken, but none of us actually knew what it was, so when I got home later that afternoon, I looked it up in the CWA Cookbook.
Excuse a slight digression here. I am a devotee of the Country Women’s Association Cookbook. We have three editions in our house. One of these is an original, a first edition, the 1937 version, originally the property of Ellen's grandmother and eventually passed down to Ellen via her mother. The second one is a late 1940s edition that belonged originally to my mother. She gave it to me when I left home as a 17-year-old to work in the bush, and had to do my own cooking for the first time in my life. It proved indispensable. Finally, we have a brand new 2019 edition - a very handsome book, and full of good recipes, but lacking the folksy interest of the earlier versions.
Mock Chicken (the 2019 CWA edition tells me), is made by combining chopped onion, tomato, cheese, thyme and an egg and cooking the mixture in a saucepan, stirring until thick. It is then cooled in the fridge and stored in a jar with a tight lid, for future use. I am not sure I could be bothered with the manufacture of this stuff, as the taste does not seem sufficiently promising to make it worth the effort. Moreover, these days with real chicken being so readily available, there is little need for a mock version. I might add that I am very partial to a chicken sandwich, using cold chicken left over from the previous night's roast, with extra salt and pepper, on my home-made, freshly baked bread.
In glancing through the old 1937 edition of the CWA Cookbook, by the way, I came across another remarkable recipe: ‘Mock Brains’. Reading this recipe, I could not help but reflect on the unlikelihood of this particular meal being popular with any of my grandchildren:
Mock Brains 1 cup of leftover, cold porridge 1 small onion 1 tbs SR flour 1 egg Pinch of Thyme, salt and pepper Chop the onion very fine, mix with the porridge and flavouring, bind with the beaten egg. Form into rissoles, roll in flour and fry in hot fat.
I think I might try the mock brains one day (the "frying in hot fat" sounds good), but I fancy it would have to be under a new name, for example 'oatmeal patties' if I wanted any of my grandchildren to have a go at them.
As to the history of the sandwich, food historians tell us that the sandwich was invented by John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich, a British profligate and gambler who called for this snack so he did not have to leave the gambling table. In fact, he had seen sandwiches served by Greeks and Turks in the eastern Mediterranean, and had copied them when he returned to England. It does not really matter, of course, as the concept of “something between two slices of bread” has proved so durable and popular over the years.
Of famous sandwiches in literature, my favourite is the cucumber sandwich preferred by Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Ernest - although I recall that unfortunately, cucumber was not always available at the market in those days, "not even for ready money". After reading this play, I once made myself a cucumber sandwich, but to my disappointment found it tasteless. Evidently there must be some other essential ingredient, about which I am ignorant. Pepper and salt perhaps, or watercress or horse radish (whatever that is) . In any case, none of my geriatric colleagues showed any interest or experience with this species of sandwich.
Nor was there in any discussion of the “Shooter’s Sandwich” as described by my favourite food-writer Elizabeth David. She quotes the famous English traveler Walter Pater as saying that no wise traveler is ever without “a flask of whisky and a Shooter’s Sandwich”, and goes on to outline how this is made:
“Take a large, thick, excellent rump steak. Do not season it, as that would cause the juice to run out. In grilling, keep it markedly underdone. Have ready a sandwich loaf, one end of which has been cut off and an adequate portion of the contents removed.
Put the steak, hot from the grill and - but only then - somewhat highly seasoned, into the loaf; add a few grilled mushrooms. Replace the deleted end of the loaf and wrap the loaf in a double sheet of clean white blotting paper.
Tie with twine both ways, superimpose a sheet of grease-proof paper and more twine. Place a moderate weight on top, and after a while add a few more weights. Let the thing endure pressure for at least six hours. Do not carve off [the individual sandwiches] until each is required …”
It sounds to me as if a Shooter’s Sandwich would mostly be the product of a kitchen with a cook and a couple of kitchen maids, rather than that of an elderly codger looking for something quick and easy to make, and then eat in front of the TV while watching the cricket.
The simple sandwich has come a long way. Consider these offerings on the menu of an up-market café near where I live …
… and compare them to the sandwiches beloved by my mate Neil. He told me that he has had vegemite sandwiches (bread, butter and a smear of vegemite) for lunch every day for over thirty-five years, and even after all this time he is still “hanging out for them by about 11 am”.
My final contribution to our memorable discussion that day, was to highlight the 'party sandwiches' made by my sister Jennie. A large platter of these always appears at family functions, and they disappear in a flash. They are triple-deckers, filled with various delicious home-made concoctions (some always with curried egg), cut into small triangles or rectangles, the crusts removed. Adding to the aesthetics, white and brown bread slices ('thin-cut') alternate, and the whole affair is attractively laid out with sprigs of parsley on top.
I prefer them to party pies ... no further word on their excellence is thus needed.