On Wednesday night the Adams Morgan gastropub The Black Squirrel, site of my upcoming launch party and nearest thing I have to a local watering hole, offered a unique special: a free Maker’s Mark bourbon cocktail with any order of a hot brown sandwich. Sounds like a pretty sweet deal; at nearby whiskey bar Bourbon, a Maker’s Mark will set you back $6. Had you been on 18th Street on Wednesday night, you might have been tempted to partake. You probably also would have asked yourself, “What in the hell is a hot brown sandwich?”
The hot brown is a kind of Appalachian shepherd’s pie. Invented at the Brown Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky (thus the bourbon pairing), the dish comprises a piece of toasted white bread covered with sliced turkey, doused in a bechamel sauce, topped with bacon and baked until crispy. Dressed-up versions can include a range of vegetable garnishes. The hot brown is an example of what’s popularly known as an open-faced sandwich.
In other words, it’s not a sandwich at all.
There are countless websites just a Google search away that detail at great lengths the origin of the sandwich, but here’s the five-cent version: A titled 18th century English chap called the Earl of Sandwich wanted to eat his dinner at the cribbage table without greasing up the cards, so he requested his meat stacked between pieces of bread. A couple centuries of creativity and inspiration have wrought a universe of variations on the Earl’s seemingly simple unit of consumption, but its essential characteristics remain. Sandwiches are, by definition, portable and tidy. They consist of meats, vegetables, fruits, cheeses, spreads—more or less anything one’s heart desires—tucked between two slices of bread or within a bun or roll.
Open-faced sandwiches, on the other hand, are stationary meals requiring a fork, knife, plate and table. Structurally they’re more akin to eggs Benedict, biscuits and gravy or even pizza than they are the Earl’s original creation. This is not to diminish these impostor sandwiches. During summer months I’ve been known to subsist for weeks on nothing but sliced tomato and mayo on a piece of toast, and combinations with smoked fish and other meats are popular in continental Europe and Scandinavia. But let’s not do them the disservice of calling them something they’re quite clearly not.
I’m confident the The Black Squirrel’s hot brown is a more than satisfying plate of food, but as this site is dedicated to the enjoyment of actual sandwiches, you won’t be reading about it in these pages anytime soon. If you’d like to find out for yourself, try next Wednesday.