If you slap a bunch of meat and cheese between a roll, it must be a submarine sandwich, right? Well, maybe, but probably not.
This diary may appeal mostly to those on the East Coast, where nomenclature matters, but the sandwich matters more. I'm from the Midwest, where we appropriated a lot of food terms from the East, without doing much to improve upon them...with the possible exception being White Castle Hamburgers.
White Castle's sliders may be the only great American food to originate in Kansas. But this diary isn't about burgers...it's about real sandwiches. And the Italians who introduced them to us.
I have not a drop of Italian blood in me...But like you, I can't imagine eating without the contributions of Italians. The Fiat was an undisputed piece of shit...but sink your teeth into a great grinder...and Hell's Belles...you will fall to your knees and worship a wave of immigrants who brought us this and so much more.
But there is a nagging question...what, exactly, is a "grinder." What, for that matter, is a "Hoagie"? A Hero? Is there any difference? Or is it merely regional vernacular.
Living, as I do, in Portland, Oregon...it sometimes occurs to me that I am at least 3400 miles away from the cradle of sandwich civilization. That's not to say that you can't get a good sandwich in Oregon...you can. But the great sandwiches are a little harder to come by. I am a denizen of of a great pub that makes a fantastic Reuben Sandwich...but it's also a sports bar, and it caters to Philadelphia fans. The sandwiches are great, and the fans are loud. But it isn't exactly a West Coast inclined watering hole.
I grew up eating Grinders. I was lucky.
I grew up in a part of the country that didn't give birth to Grinders, but nonetheless had a family that came from New Jersey and opened up a sandwich/pizza shop. Their pizzas sucked. And when I say that their pizzas sucked, I say that as a small town resident who has to also admit that every other pizza in town sucked, as well. Believe it or not, there are places in this country where you cannot get a decent pizza.
But sandwiches? That's another story.
A Grinder Sandwich is hard to distinguish from what many of you would simply call a sub. Or a Hoagie. Or a hero.
I start with the bread. It is a homemade roll with a crisp crust. How crisp? When you bite into it, you have crumbs all over your lap. It shatters. But it is tender inside. It absorbs all, but not quite, of the olive oil and other "topical ingredients." It is a messy sandwich.
All of these sandwiches originated with Italians...no matter what you call them. Hoagies...Subs...you name it. But there are regional differences.
We have largely forgotten it, but the East Coast used to be a hugely important Shipbuilding site. In the early decades, up through the middle of the 20th century, Ship building was a major industry in the New England States. Those workers needed a lunch.
And Italian Americans, more than anyone, provided that lunch. They set up sandwich stands, catering to the thousands of ship workers who passed by...and sold them sandwiches.
The reason we call these sandwiches, to this day, "Subs"...is because that is what those workers were building. Submarines. The sandwiches that Italian immigrants sold them became immensely popular, and became known not by those who made and sold them, but by the workers who ate them..."submariners."
That, in a nutshell, is the history of these sandwiches....but the subsequent genealogy of submarine sandwiches becomes more foggy.
How did a sub become a grinder? Or a Hoagie? A Hero?
The link between a sub and a grinder is much easier to make. Both were dockworkers. A Sub was named after men who worked making subs, A Grinder was, too. The grinders were also submarine and ship builders...they ground down the rivets and welds on a ship before it was commissioned to go to sea. And it was hungry work.
I don't know, to be honest, if there is a real difference between a Philladelphia hoagie and a Connecticut Grinder, or a New York Hero. But I'm pretty sure there is.
I grew up in the Midwest...far removed from each of those regions. In my mind's eye, a Grinder starts with great bread, and the sandwich is toasted...pressed. It is a hot sandwich. There are, at least as I came to know them, hot peppers on the sandwich. (okay...banana peppers...that's what people from Ohio consider hot) The bread did shatter when you bit into it. And it oozed olive oil.
I THINK...but I can't be sure, that my small town was blessed with a family who which moved from the East and knew how to make a great Grinder sandwich. If they were imposters, they were successful imposters. Because on any given night, almost everyone in town congregated at their store, bought a sandwich, and drank beer in the parking lot of the much larger shopping center. It was a ritual.
Only partly because there wasn't much else to do. The Grinders were to die for.