Tag Archives: cheap food

The puzzling St. Paul sandwich

Despite a cloud of confusion surrounding the history of the St. Paul sandwich, I think I can add some interesting dimensions to the story.

For a long time it hasn’t been clear where the sandwich came from or even exactly what it is.

In recent decades St. Louis has claimed the St. Paul as its own, even though most St. Louisans probably never ate one. Supposedly it cannot be found in its namesake city of St. Paul (Minnesota), where it is said no one ever heard of it.

It’s not entirely certain how – or if – it is different from a Denver or a Western sandwich. One thing is certain: It’s an egg sandwich, based either on an omelet or egg foo yong. The sandwich would also have some combination of the following ingredients: chopped onion, chopped green pepper, tomato slice, lettuce, dill pickle chip, parsley, scallions, mushrooms, mayonnaise, chopped beef, chopped ham, deviled ham, sliced chicken, pork, shrimp, or crab.

Whatever goes inside is placed between two pieces of white bread – or double-decked on four pieces of white bread — or a roll.

The St. Louis version, found in unpretentious Chinese chop suey restaurants, consists of egg foo yong with mayonnaise on white bread, with the possible addition of a tomato slice, dill pickle chip, and lettuce. Its unlikely combinations make it ripe for ridicule. And, yet, . . . despite its utter failure to satisfy health or authenticity standards, its critics seem to agree that it tastes quite good.

Accounts of the sandwich’s history often cite Chinese cooks who provided food for Western railroad construction workers in the mid-19th century. The story goes that the cooks improvised the sandwich with what they had on hand, including egg foo yong.

A 2006 story in the St. Louis Riverfront Times attributes the city’s St. Paul sandwich to a St. Louis Chinese restaurant operator of the 1970s who named it for his home town of St. Paul MN.

After a lot of looking, I found the sandwich on a St. Paul MN menu in 1904. In an advertisement it is referred to as “the new and popular St. Paul sandwich.” Along with many other puzzling sandwich names, the Mills Lunch and Sandwich Room offered both a St. Paul sandwich and a Denver sandwich, indicating they were not the same thing as is sometimes argued. That same year lunch wagons in Kansas City MO were selling St. Paul sandwiches described as chopped ham, chopped egg, and onions. They also offered a Minneapolis sandwich made of chopped ham and chopped egg, but without the onions. The St. Paul also turned up in Ottawa KS in 1913 and in 1915 at a restaurant in Columbia MO popular with students at the University of Missouri.

In 1916 and again in 1933 a St. Louis newspaper published recipes for the St. Paul sandwich, which showed no connection with egg foo yong. In both recipes the sandwich was made with scrambled eggs, chopped ham, and onions and parsley.

Evidently the St. Paul was known in the East also. In 1933 a NYC paper ran a short story on how artists were making a living in the Depression. One painter was also a short order cook whose specialty was making St. Paul sandwiches.

The earliest connection with a Chinese restaurant I’ve found was in Minneapolis, run by Woo Yee Sing but popularly referred to as John’s Place. In 1937, a newspaper column recommended the restaurant’s “Egg Foo Yung sandwich” served with French fries, beverage, and dessert for 40c. How long the restaurant, established in 1905, had been serving that sandwich is unknown. The fact that it was not called a St. Paul sandwich is not too surprising since a Denver sandwich was called a Denver in Chicago but a Western in Denver.

By the 1940s and 1950s St. Paul sandwiches could be found in many places, including Seattle WA, Amarillo TX, and Greensboro NC, though exactly what they consisted of is obscure. Finding Chinese restaurants advertising them is harder, though I did find one in Canton OH in 1954 which referred to the sandwich as Egg Foo Yong [Sue Ming, shown above]. I find it interesting that the restaurant also advertised a Chop Suey sandwich. According to Haiming Liu (From Canton Restaurant to Panda Express), its cousin, the Chow Mein sandwich, became popular in Southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island in the 1930s.

If you like stories about odd sandwiches, see the amusing PBS documentary Sandwiches That You Will Like.

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

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Filed under food, menus

Turkeyburgers

If the turkey growing industry had one marketing mission in the early 20th century it was to get consumers to eat more turkey, and to eat it year-round.

So, during the Depression turkeyburgers arrived upon the dining scene.

In the mid-1930s humorists found rich material in California cuisine, notably in the range of burgers found at weird and fanciful roadside eateries. Among them chickenburgers, nutburgers, onionburgers, lobsterburgers, even mysterious huskyburgers. And on Los Feliz Boulevard in Los Angeles a commentator spotted a neon sign advertising “The Snack with a Smack – Our Toasted Turkeyburger.”

The stories that appeared in the press attributed turkeyburgers to California’s bizarre culture. But what they didn’t say was that in the 1930s California was becoming a major turkey producer. Production had moved westward from its East Coast home of origin. In California, dry weather conditions were more favorable for turkey raising. But in 1936 overproduction resulted in a serious drop in prices. This was bad for producers but good for Depression-era drive-ins and roadside stands. And now producers were more interested in increasing turkey consumption than ever before.

Gonzales, Texas, was another important turkey-raising area. A local newspaperman there had a product placement idea about how to stimulate turkey sales. He suggested that since the comic strip character Wimpy was known for his love of hamburgers, it would make sense to introduce turkeyburgers into the strip. Wimpy started eating them in December of 1939.

Meanwhile, in Corpus Christi, Texas, a drug store was offering a December holiday lunch of sorts, “Something New”: a Turkey-Burger with waffle potatoes and cranberry sherbet, for 19 cents. Also in 1939, someone in Phoenix registered the trade name Turkey-Burger with the Arizona Secretary of State. It’s interesting, too, that the Berkeley, California, menu shown below, possibly from the 1930s, says “copyrighted!” following “Turkeyburger Sandwich.” (Thanks to the reader who sent me a scan of this menu and inspired this post.)

With rationing of beef, pork, veal, and lamb in World War II more restaurants added turkeyburgers and other turkey dishes to their menus. In 1941 the magazine Chain Store Age tested recipes for turkeyburgers and turkey salads on behalf of in-store soda fountains and luncheonettes. It showed that turkeyburgers had high profit potential: if a turkeyburger on a bun was served with cranberry sauce, sliced tomato, and potato salad, the magazine reported, it could be priced at 25 cents while costing only 6.55 cents. A few years later Payless stores in Albany, Oregon, cashed in on the idea, boldly charging 40 cents for their sandwich.

In the 1950s drive-ins served turkeyburgers. In 1950 they were up to 65 cents at Vogel’s Drive-In in Ogden, Oregon, though only 30c a few years later at Moeby’s Hamburger Palace in Eureka, California. A Texas drive-in revived the idea of burger variety, offering sandwiches made of chicken, turkey, rabbit, shrimp, or pork, all for 40 cents. Somewhat surprisingly, in 1969 Ferdinand’s in Honolulu’s Coral Reef Hotel, which specialized in 16 kinds of burgers, offered a Turkey Burger Deluxe on Thanksgiving Day.

Starting in the 1970s and especially in the 1980s – and continuing today — turkeyburgers came to represent a healthier substitute for a hamburger, one with less fat and fewer calories.

Have a delicious Thanksgiving!

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Filed under drive-ins, food, restaurant customs, roadside restaurants

Coffee and cake saloons

When it came to cheap ready-to-eat food that was available around the clock, butter cakes sold in coffee and cake saloons were king. By the mid-19th century they had become food of urban lore. They were said to be favorites of people of the night such as newsboys, newspaper printers, policemen, volunteer firemen, and prostitutes.

Until the 1880s when they widened their menus, coffee and cake saloons served nothing but those two items. Although called saloons, they were not drinking places. Saloon then simply meant a room.

There was no hint of elegance in these places. Many were run by Irish proprietors, at a time when the Irish were pretty much at the bottom of the class order. Usually they were in basements, but those were the more established coffee and cake saloons. Other sellers occupied market stands or peddled butter cakes on the streets with trays strapped over their shoulders.

The lack of niceties in coffee and cake saloons was celebrated in a joke that described a waiter’s shock when asked for a napkin in one of these places. He had a quick comeback, inquiring whether the patron wanted his napkin fringed or unfringed. (Surely there were no tablecloths as in this 1889 illustration.)

Among the well-known proprietors of New York City were George Parker, who opened a place on John street in 1832 and “Butter-cake Dick,” whose full name was Dick Marshall. Oliver Hitchcock took over from Dick, who turned to a life of crime. Pat Dolan, starting business in the 1860s, reputedly invested in real estate and had amassed a quarter of a million by his death in 1889, while a couple of the Meschutt brothers later opened hotels.

Lore surrounding these establishments grew as they became rarer in the late 19th century. By the early 1900s the memory of coffee and cake saloons was tinted with nostalgia. It was often said that proprietors retired with fortunes — an unlikely story in the majority of cases. Another notion was that they were “peculiar to New York.” This, too, is inaccurate. I have found them in St. Louis, Sacramento, New Orleans, San Antonio, and San Francisco. Undoubtedly they could be found in most large cities.

Just what was a butter cake? That isn’t totally clear. They are described differently, to the point where it’s anyone’s guess what they really were. Sometimes they sound like doughnuts, sometimes griddle cakes, sometimes like carnival-style fried dough – but without sugar. In St. Louis waiters referred to them as a “stack of whites.” Often they are referred to as biscuits. Sometimes they are called short cakes, as in the 1850s recipe shown here. I believe that initially they were made of little more than dough and were nearly indigestible, leading to the nickname “sinkers.” After bakers started adding yeast, they became lighter.

An 1890 story in the New York Sun explains that butter cakes could be either “wet” or “dry.” It said that the wet ones “were saturated with lard or grease of some sort, called butter for the purposes of trade.” But possibly some places really did use butter. A San Francisco restaurant advertised in 1856 that they used “none other than California Butter, fresh from the best Petaluma Ranches.” Their menu called them “New York Butter Cakes,” selling for the high price of 12 cents. In New York an order cost 3 cents. Butter-cake Dick was said to make his sinkers on the griddle and to store them in a kettle of melted butter until orders came in. The three Meschutt brothers sampled Dick’s but found a way to lighten them by adding yeast, splitting the cakes (biscuits?), and letting customers add the butter.

Although coffee and cake saloons were just about extinct by the 20th century, Lewis Hine managed to capture a view of newsboys exiting one in 1908. [shown at top]

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Filed under alternative restaurants, food, Offbeat places, patrons, popular restaurants, proprietors & careers