Mystery of the Beef Commercial: Solved(?)

26 Aug

A generally positive review of Minnesota Lunch in the Farmington Independent may lay to rest the question of how the open-faced mashed potatoes and beef sandwich known as a beef commercial got its name.

Some restauranteurs, including my parents, called them “commercials,” but the authors of “Minnesota Lunch” can’t seem to figure out why and spend lots of time debating. I’ll settle the argument:

My father told me that our restaurant called them commercials because it was a favorite order from traveling salesmen, “commercial people.”

And my father wasn’t even a food writer. So there.

Sassy, but fascinating. I guess I’ll call it “sassinating.”

Duluth Universal’s New Sandwich Book of All Nations

28 May

I’m a sucker for antique cookbooks, and this whole Minnesota Lunch project has, I’ll admit, stirred a curiosity on my part of the old-school sandwiches of yesteryear.

So, lo and behold: While poking around a shop in St. Paul, I stumbled across a sandwich cookbook put out in 1942 by the Duluth Universal Flour company.

Written by “Frederic H. Girnau, Culinary Expert” and purporting to share “400 New Ways of Making Delicious Sandwiches,” the Sandwich Book of All Nations takes a nominally international approach to its material. I say “nominal,” because in most cases, the relationship between the sandwich and the supposed nation of origin is not merely thin but actually preposterous (see the “Chinese Oriental” sandwich below, for starters.)

Still, a lot of the sandwiches looked relatively tasty, many were provocatively bizarre, and the whole book is a delightful time capsule of received gastronomic wisdom from 60 years ago.

Here are a few of my favorites from among the 400 recipes provided, with commentary:

Chinese Oriental Sandwich

Mash four bananas; add one-half cup of maraschino cherries, two tablespoonfuls of honey, and two tablespoonfuls of sweet thick cream. Mix and spread on thin slices of lightly buttered white bread, cover with another slice, and garnish top with a cherry.

COMMENTARY: Ah, Chinese cuisine. Well known the world ’round for its liberal use of bananas, maraschino cherries and dairy products. Also: this sandwich is more absurd than a fluffernutter, and that’s saying quite a bit.

English Fig and Roll

Split twelve figs, scrape out the soft portion and rub this to a paste; butter thin slices of fresh white or brown bread, remove the crust, spread on the fig paste and roll the bread carefully; press for a moment, then roll it on a piece of tissue paper, pressing the ends as you would an old-fashioned motto, or it may be tied with a baby ribbon of any color.

COMMENTARY: I quite liked this recipe for its roll-up technique; we’re all pretty well sick of wraps, but the idea of rolling white bread into a tube of tastiness is a pretty interesting one. I could actually see adapting this.

Wisconsin Tomato Jelly Sandwich

One cupful of boil and strained tomatoes, seasoned with salt, pepper, paprika and a little tabasco sauce. Dissolve quarter box of gelatine in one-half cup of water, add to the tomatoes, and mix thoroughly. Cool in forms that will slice in shape of sandwiches to be used. Place between thin slices of lightly buttered white bread.

COMMENTARY: Nothing says “The Badger State” like gelatinous tomatoes. Seriously, though, this sandwich is just crazy.

Italian Banana Sandwich

Place peeled bananas, sliced across, between thin slices of buttered brown bread from which the crusts have been trimmed. Place in the oven and leave until bread is toasted and you will have delicious and nourishing hot sandwiches. Very good for invalids.

COMMENTARY: “Invalid” is a word few of us have probably heard in quite some time, and for good reason. Also: are hot bananas actually supremely nourishing for those on the mend? Not clear.

French Violet Sandwich

Cover the butter with violets over night; slice white bread thin and spread with the butter; put slices together and  cover with the petals of the violets.

COMMENTARY: This sandwich is filled with nothing but butter and tiny purple flowers. Charming and strange.

Dairy Sandwich

On thin slices of Swiss cheese, spread fresh butter and put the two slices together.

COMMENTARY: Uh-oh, somebody let Salvador Dalí make lunch, and he used the cheese… as bread!

Bummers Custard Sandwich

Take a cake of Roquefort cheese and divide in third; moisten one third with brandy, another third with olive oil, and the other third with Worcestershire sauce. Mix all together and place between split water biscuits toasted. Good for a stag lunch.

COMMENTARY: Is a “stag lunch” an archaic event wherein everybody arrives at the meal totally high? Did people ever really consume brandy, olive oil, and Worcestershire sauce-soaked cheese between toasted crackers as a meal? And what, exactly, are bummers? And how does this relate to custard? This recipe raises far more questions than it answers.

We Made METRO’s May 2011 Cultural Survival Kit

26 May

A great recurring feature in METRO picked up on Minnesota Lunch.

Minnesota Lunch and Chef Brent Pilrain on KARE11

23 May

Had a great appearance with Eric Perkins on KARE11 this Saturday — you can see Chef Brent Pilrain above (left), about to demonstrate Roma Restaurant’s meatloaf sandwich from the book. I’m the dude in the tie there in the center. You can watch the video here.

Star Tribune Review

12 May

Here’s Beth Dooley, writing in the Star Tribune:

“…A new book about our state’s sandwiches, ‘Minnesota Lunch,’ is sure to please. Rich in facts and regional flavor, the collection from James Norton and the Heavy Table website team reflects the same insatiable curiosity and shoe-leather reporting as their online magazine.”

It’s a great review — both in terms of being positive, and in terms of being well-written and getting the book. Worth a read.

Isthmus Review

28 Apr

Very nice review of Minnesota Lunch by Linda Falkenstein in The Isthmus, the excellent alt weekly of Madison, WI. Here’s the lede:

What a difference a state makes. Frankly, you’d suppose that what folks eat in Minnesota is not all that different from what we Cheeseheads chow down on, come noontime. But with Minnesota Lunch: From Pasties to Banh Mi (Minnesota Historical Society Press, $19.95), editor James Norton has put a stamp, an identity, on what Minnesotans eat for lunch and come up with a nice volume of regional food history to boot.

Minnesota Lunch on KARE11, Heavy Table

10 Apr

There’s a terrific write-up about Minnesota Lunch over on The Heavy Table by John Garland: you can read it here. Author James Norton also appeared on KARE11 to talk about the book and the booming local restaurant scene.