Food for Thought: The Origins of the Hero Sandwich

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Oh, a hero sandwich. Is nothing tastier than a giant, v-shaped piece of bread filled with vegetables, cheese and meat? Nope. It’s about as good as it gets. But, and we’re guessing that you’ve asked this question at least once in your life, why the heck is it called a “hero?” Other than the fact that it comes to the rescue of your hunger, how did this truly inspirational sandwich get its name?

Well, first off, it’s good to remember that the hero sandwich is just one of many names that has been given to the universally known (and fast food brand reinforced) submarine sandwich. You might think it makes sense to call a sandwich that is cylindrical in shape a submarine sandwich, but that’s not the only reason it got that name.

The submarine sandwich got its title during WW2 in New England. Due to a heavy naval presence in Boston (including multiple ports and shipyards), advertisers thought it might be a good idea to name this brand new sandwich after a sea vessel. In other words, if you want to sell your sandwiches to sailors, what do you call it? A boat. Well, that’s not as catchy as “submarine” and there’s nothing about the sandwich itself that resembles a boat whatsoever. Hence, the submarine sandwich was born.

Like with many things, New Yorkers have a different perspective about the whole submarine sandwich issue, and there are many claims that the “hero” might’ve actually been a term that was coined before “submarine.”

The first (and much less fun) theory about how the hero sandwich got its name is that it is simply a bastardization of the word gyro. If you haven’t heard of a gyro (pronounced yur-oh), it’s a Greek sandwich that vaguely resembles a hero. It’s a meat-filled pita with onions, tomatoes and tzatziki sauce, but you know what itÂ’s not? Related to a hero sandwich. Gyros became popular in the US during the 1960s and the first recorded use of the “hero sandwich” was in the late 1930s. Not to mention, who’s going to confuse a Greek sandwich with an Italian sandwich? Nobody.

The real way that the hero sandwich got its name was from a writer named Clementine Paddleworth (no, really). Paddleworth wrote for the New York Herald Tribune in 1936 as a food critic. And after sampling one of those magical sandwiches, he described it by saying, “you had to be a hero to eat it.” And thus a hero was born.

People are still skeptical of this origin story because the Tribune Herald‘s archives are not easily accessible (that’s what happens when your newspaper fails in 1966), but it’s the coolest explanation, so we’re going to stick to it.

And while many things have changed about the hero sandwich in the past 65 years – types of meat, types of bread, types of cheese and peppers – that name has stuck. So I guess the real question is, which hero was good old Clementine referring to when he said that only a hero could eat it?

My guess is Fred Dukes (AKA Blob).