Shorn of crust, the palest of white or sandy brown, filled with a judicious amount of filling, the party sandwich is perfection in miniature. Humble yet hearty. Simple but immensely satisfying. It's the innocent provocateur that dares you to try, just try, to have just one.
I know it's strange to wax poetic about – of all things, a sandwich – but this staple of every family gathering I can remember, from christenings to funerals, bridal showers to anniversaries, is the apotheosis of finger food.
It seems like apron-clad ladies in church basements have been painstakingly preparing these pint-sized bites for, well, forever. Forget trendy attempts (it's blasphemous, in my books, to come across a party sandwich that's gone multigrain with goat cheese and sesame-crusted crab). People naturally bond over these consummate party pleasers. It's time these pretty sammies were celebrated for their constancy, decorum and taste.
My love affair with the party sandwich started at a young age when I'd sit in our small kitchen in Waterloo, Ont., watching my mom, Betty, and her sister, Marlene, spend hours – laughing, confiding and gossiping.
I'd sit entranced as they'd expertly slice off the crusts and flatten slices with rolling pins, before lightly buttering them and topping it with mayonnaise-laced fillings (my personal favourite: minced ham with relish). Then they'd roll them up in Saran Wrap to rest in the fridge. The next day, they'd gather again to cut them carefully into squares, rectangles or triangles, which would be meticulously arranged on platters, promptly swarmed by guests.
"It's impossible to consume just one," laughs Lesley Byrne, whose company Lesley's Party Sandwiches, based in Thornhill, Ont., has been making and selling them by the thousands for more than 22 years. "I've had customers who have been with me from the very beginning, and they order them for everything from bar mitzvahs, christenings, to wakes. Party sandwiches just go – and fit in – anywhere," she says. Her shop goes through 500 to 600 loaves a day and she sells her wares at some of Toronto's highest-end caterers and food emporiums, including Pusateri's and Summerhill Market.
I've seen middle-aged transit riders popping them on the way home from work. Teens buy them in bagel shops and toddlers gobble dozens of peanut-butter-and-banana pinwheels. Even Queen Elizabeth is a diehard fan, serving 20,000 fancy sandwiches to guests at the garden party for her Diamond Jubilee.
My mother learned the art of making these bite-sized snacks from her mom, who learned, of course, from her mother before her. In countless other parts of this country, the same proud party-sandwich lineage exists. Nancy Phillips, a librarian in Red Lake, Ont., honed the art of party-sandwich making under the capable mentoring of the United Church Women (UCW), "although the groundwork was laid by my mother making snacks for bridge." Although time-consuming, Ms. Phillips says, they're always worth the effort.
"There's something about these sandwiches that speaks to people on an emotional level," muses Ms. Phillips, 64. "They evoke instant memories of simpler times, when people convened to drink tea, or punch, and share a light snack while chatting about the weather, their kids, or the latest scandal."
Party sandwiches have evolved since the Duchess of Bedford reportedly first served cucumber sandwiches to peckish guests in the early 1800s. They now go by many different names including cut, tea and ribbon sandwiches (triple deckers with two fillings), pinwheels (rolled and stuffed with, say, cream cheese and an olive or gherkin) and even Protestant sandwiches (a nod to their white-bread origins).
Over the years, the fillings have become more inventive, too. Ms. Byrne now offers an eclectic range of variations (cheddar with pressed tomato, brie with fig) and also accommodates personal requests. "Probably the most strange one I've had recently was for peanut butter with grated green apple," she says.
On the East Coast, etiquette guru Jay Remer says there's an avant-garde party-sandwich recipe, invented by church ladies and military wives in St. Andrew's, N.B., that tops even that. "It's called the green Jell-O and tuna sandwich," says Mr. Remer, who adds finely minced carrot, Miracle Whip, and a touch of whipped cream. "I know it sounds like a repulsive combination, but it's quite delicious and quite famous in these parts."
On the opposite coast, Victoria's five-star Fairmont Empress Hotel, which has been serving afternoon tea for more than 100 years, is doing the upscale, effete thing. For $59.95, it offers guests bite-sized samplers with such fixings as curried mango and chicken on rye, or crustini with sun-dried tomato pate with bocconcini.
Those may appeal to folks with more refined palates than me, but give me a ribbon with tuna and egg salad anytime. The mere thought makes me smile.
Mr. Remer agrees, adding that his personal fave is a bit of butter, a thin slice of turkey, and a touch of mayo on white bread. "Food is directly connected to our brain, and when we eat certain foods, they tend to bring back points in time that matter to us most. When I see the platter of party sandwiches I just feel better. It makes me think of my grandparents."
Last summer, at my parents' 50th wedding anniversary, the good ladies at the Legion in Port Elgin, Ont., provided the crudités and party sandwiches. They weren't quite as good my mom's, but as usual, they were a massive hit.
As I surveyed the room, watching my parents' friends and relatives balance paper plates, overflowing with egg salad (and a rather foul minced-beef concoction), it struck me why these tasty morsels speak to me so much. It's simple. They're the lightly buttered connection to my past.
Betty MacDonald's Party Sandwich Regimen
Most people grow up convinced their mother's cooking is best. When it comes to party sandwiches, I openly confess to a bias. My mom's outpace the pack.
Buy unsliced loaves of brown and white sandwich bread for both pinwheel and ribbon (triple-stacked) sandwiches. Always cut off the crusts.
Pinwheel sandwiches: Roll two slices of bread horizontally with a rolling pin until quite thin (it will feel firm). Butter bread all the way to the end. Betty's favourites for rolled sandwiches include cream cheese with gherkins, cherries, olives or asparagus in the middle. Add a little bit of cream or milk so that cheese spreads more easily. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate. Slice about half an inch thick when ready to serve.
Ribbon sandwiches: Alternate slices of brown and white bread, with fillings stacked in between. They can be cut in various ways. i.e. one slice vertically, and three horizontally, or diagonally in four if you want to vary the presentation on your sandwich plate.
Betty's picks for fillings:
- Minced ham with mayonnaise hot dog relish
- Egg salad, with green onions, chives and parsley
- Tuna with finely chopped celery, chives or onion salt and mayo