If you aren't from St. Louis, you've probably never heard of a St. Paul sandwich. In fact, they haven't even heard of them in St. Paul, which can get a little confusing. But the St. Paul sandwich is a source of pride for many St Louisans, as treasured as toasted ravioli or 7Up, even if it's not as well known to outsiders.
But just what is a St. Paul sandwich and how did it come to get it's name? Follow along as we attempt to trace the history of the most mysterious meal between sliced bread.
For a sandwich with such a complicated history, the St. Paul is actually pretty simple. The classic recipe calls for an egg foo young patty, served between slices of white bread, with lettuce, tomato, sliced pickles, white onion, and mayo. The patty itself should include mung bean sprouts and minced white onion, and can include a choice of meat (beef, chicken, pork), if you choose.
Available at virtually every Chinese restaurant in St. Louis, the Saint Paul sandwich is beloved not for its taste (although it has its fans), nor its mouth-watering appearance (as the photos in this article can attest), but for its insanely cheap price tag: even in 2018, it's rare to find one that costs more than $4, making it one of the most complete meals you can ever hope to buy for under a five-spot.
It's cheap. It's readily available. And it (sort of) tastes good. It's probably even a great hangover cure (we're speculating). It's easy to see why such a humble sandwich could win over the hearts of this city. What's harder to understand is how it ended up here, or why it's named for a city in Minnesota that's never heard of it.
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According to an oft-quoted source (wikipedia), the St. Paul sandwich first began popping up on St. Louis menus sometime between 1940 and 1960, and was invented by Steven Yuen, the owner of a St. Louis restaurant called Park Chop Suey. Legend has it that Yuen named the sandwich after his hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota.
That explanation would be simple enough, but unfortunately it has more holes than Swiss cheese (which you'll never find on a St. Paul sandwich, btw).
For starters, Park Chop Suey opened in the mid-1970s, meaning the sandwich could not have been invented in its (then non-existent) kitchens. Further more, in doing research for a book, St. Louis blues historian Kevin Belford discovered multiple newspaper clippings advertising St. Paul sandwiches in St. Louis as far back as 1916, which means that Yuen is either A) a time-traveling ghost or B) not the inventor of the sandwich.
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To really understand the origins of the St. Louis St. Paul, it helps to consider another 'wich: the Manhattan sandwich, which happened to be invented in Denver.
I know, I know. Stay with me.
Using Belford's found newspaper clippings as a guide, it would appear that the St. Paul sandwiches that St. Louisans enjoyed at the turn of the century differed a bit from the ones served at Chinese establishments today in that they were more simple ham and egg sandwiches made with onion.
The Manhattan sandwich (possibly named after the Manhattan Cafe on California Street) started popping up on Denver menus around the same time, and included the same ingredients. It was also commonly known as a Denver sandwich or western sandwich, and is the precursor to the Denver omelette (but that's a different story).
ANYWAY, this only serves to prove that, apparently, working class Americans were once simply batty for ham-and-egg sandwiches named after cities different from the ones they were being consumed in. It's possible that it made an otherwise kinda boring lunch feel a little more exotic to the working class masses that regularly ate them.
The late 1800s also brought a large influx of Chinese immigrants to major cities like St. Louis, where, thanks to the Chinese Exclusion Act, they were unable to find labor jobs, and instead opened their own businesses, including many, many restaurants. There, they would have been forced to dream up ways to adapt traditional Chinese dishes (like egg foo young) to suit Western tastes.
It's easy to see then, how Chinese restaurateurs could have easily re-branded a dish like egg foo young and made it more familiar to American customers by putting it between bread and calling it a "St. Paul". Over time, it's possible that people forgot about the original ham-and-egg St. Paul sandwiches as it disappeared from American restaurant menus, replaced by more popular items like hamburgers and hot dogs.
While this potential history is murky at best, one thing is certain: the St. Louis St. Paul sandwich represents one of the earliest and best examples of fusion cuisine in this country and is as uniquely American as baked Alaska.
Which, for the record, was invented in New Orleans. Maybe.