A Brief History of the Western Sandwich
When I was sixteen years old I got my first “big” job working at a place called the Simsbury Pharmacy in Simsbury, Connecticut. It was one of those old fashioned drug stores with a lunch counter and a soda fountain. I was hired to be their new waitress and short-order cook. Under the tutelage of a scary woman named Betty and her side-kick Dottie, I was trained to fry hamburgers, make sandwiches, pour coffee without spilling a drop, and make a real root beer float. Since I was hired as the “closing girl”, I spent most of my evening shift mopping the floors, cleaning the grease trap and scouring the grill. But we had a few evening customers who required food and coffee, so I was able to hone my cooking skills, practice my pancake-flipping and create monstrous ice cream sundaes in the privacy of my own little soda fountain world.
My favorite menu item at the Simsbury Pharmacy was their Western sandwich. A Western, or called a Denver by some who say it originated in Denver, Colorado, is simply a scrambled egg, with green peppers, onions, and chopped ham. All the ingredients are tossed into a bowl, scrambled with a fork, and then poured onto a lightly greased griddle. While you are cooking the egg mixture, you must scrape it as best you can into a square shape the size of your bread. While the Western is on the griddle, toast 2-pieces of white bread, and butter them well. I like to place a piece of Swiss cheese on the egg mixture right before taking it off the griddle, although this is not traditional and is frowned upon by Western Sandwich purists. When the eggs are done, place them between the two slices of buttered toast, cut in half, and there is your perfect Western sandwich. To complete the meal, serve with hot coffee, and maybe a slice of apple pie for dessert.
According to The American Century Cookbook, pioneers invented the Western sandwich. The book notes that it was common for eggs to begin to spoil after a long haul over hot trails. In order to salvage them and mask their bad flavor, the book says pioneer women mixed eggs with onions and any other seasonings on hand and thus was the beginning of the Western sandwich. You can find versions of the Western sandwich at diners around the country, but because people are into more glamorous and complex dishes, they are usually served as giant omelets with toast on the side. But a real Western sandwich is not a gastronomic explosion; it’s a small portion, a satisfying treat, great for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
I visited the Simsbury Pharmacy last summer and found it hadn’t changed as much as I thought, although naturally the soda fountain and lunch counter were gone, replaced by an enormous reach-in beverage refrigerator. But the business still had that old fashioned, small town charm. I chatted with the present owner, who shared some of his memories of the old time lunch counter. Little did I know when I took that job back in 1973 that I would someday open my own lunch establishment and catering business, based on many of the skills I learned from my first, real job.
These days, when I’m hankering for some comfort food, reminiscent of simpler times, I cook up a Western sandwich just for me, served with a piping hot cup of coffee. And it still tastes just as good as I remembered it, so many years ago.