The history of the protein salad sandwich is threefold because it wasn't invented all at once.
First came mayo, then protein salads, and finally protein salad sandwiches - which are all, fascinatingly, tied to women's history.
Mayo was invented in 1756 by Marie-Antoine Careme. Now don't get ahead of me. In case you aren't familiar with French names, let me tell you we aren't into the women's history yet. Marie-Antoine is a guy. He's an interesting person, often considered the Father of French Cuisine and first celebrity chef. Before it would go on to be smeared on bread (which was not possible until after 1762, when the sandwich was invented), mayo had to make it to the United States. What'scookingAmerica.net claims that mayo was introduced to the United States by French immigrant cooks living in Minnesota.
In the United States, mayo gave birth to dainty cold "salads" in homes throughout the country. These were foods that women made at home for themselves and small children using scraps from the family's last dinner.
At this time, women were experiencing their own mini-Renaissance by applying science and creativity to everyday life; improving cleaning products and techniques, standardizing recipe formats and finding ways to use leftovers.
In the protein salad sandwich, there was usually a protein (chicken, eggs, ham, pork, lake fish, shellfish), vegetables from the relish tray (celery, carrots, pickles, capers, olives) and spices. They were a fast and cheap way to save money and avoid waste, usually served on a green lettuce leaf.
By 1904, these were a popular lunch food, and that's important because this was the year that Mary Lincoln wrote about proper ladies luncheons, according to thetakeout.com. This was the year that women were becoming customers in their own right. Not long before then, wives were rarely seen outside of the home without their husbands present.
Suddenly, not only were wives running errands, shopping and meeting with people in public by themselves, they were getting advanced education! It was no doubt scandalous.
Now that women were "on the town" they took time for long, leisurely lunches with other women. It is worth noting these women were virtually banned from the places where their husbands ate or drank (according to smithsonianmag.com). These women drove a growth in demand for cafes and restaurants that could serve midday lunches catering to the fairer sex.
New businesses were born and both new and old businesses were chomping at the bit for their business, so they built menus to draw in the "lady folk." The menus had items that were somewhat familiar, including protein salads, with one exception.
At home, these ladies used leftovers, including freshwater fish, for their salads. These restaurants instead turned to fresh, chopped ingredients and a cheap, canned alternative to fish leftovers.
This is how tuna salad became a mainstay at homes across the country. The industry exploded thanks to these women and these restaurants, but that wasn't all. These salads were still not on bread. That wouldn't come until women achieved yet another bit of equality. They started to work.
Women working meant many of the women eating at cafes and delis now had a strict time limit. Again, these food establishments responded to the needs of their clients and made protein salads "to-go" by placing them between two slices of bread. Thus was born an American mainstay that hasn't changed much in the last century.
An adaptation of Careme's original recipe from Lobscouse & Spotted Dog by Anne Chotzinoff Grossman and Lisa Grossman Thomas
- ¾ teaspoons white or tarragon vinegar (substitute lime if you use this mayo for the sandwich below)
- 1 egg yolk
- ½ cup olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- 1 ½ teaspoon heavy cream
- 2 tablespoons unflavored calf's foot jelly or jellied white stock (optional, probably exclude)
Beat ¼ teaspoon of vinegar into the egg yolk. Add the olive oil drop by drop, whisking constantly until about half the oil is absorbed. Continue adding the oil in a thin stream, still whisking. When all the oil is absorbed, beat in the remaining vinegar, salt and pepper to taste followed by the cream and jelly or stock if you are using it.
(Make it a sandwich if you want)
- 2 walleye fillets
- 1 stalk celery, diced to small cubes
- ¼ cup caper berries (or diced pickle)
- 1 lime, cut into wedges
- 1/2 teaspoon red pepper, ground (or to taste)
- Napa cabbage leaves (1 per person)
- 2/3-1 cup mayonnaise
- Cilantro, to taste
- Sliced tomato (optional)
- High-quality bread (only if you want a sandwich; I prefer toasted)
On a well greased baking sheet, bake your walleye 45 minutes at 350 degrees or until white and flaky throughout. Remove from the oven and squeeze a lime wedge over each slice, then season with red pepper seasoning. Break this into large flakes with a fork and allow to cool.
Once cooled, combine the celery, mayo, caper berries and cilantro in a bowl. Toss to coat thoroughly. Add the walleye last to avoid breaking it up too much.
For serving, place a crisp napa cabbage leaf on a plate with slices of tomato (if you like that kind of thing) and place a large spoonful of the salad mix on top. You can also serve this like a tuna salad sandwich, only way fancier.