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Explaining Hoagies & Grinders

The most frequently asked question at Porcellino is “What are Hoagies & Grinders?” Even to those native to the Northeast, local sandwich terms can be bewildering. They can vary from state to state, by county, or even from one town to the next. As with any great food, debating both semantics and execution is part of the fun.

Both terms describe sandwiches that bring Chris and me back to our childhood years on the East Coast. Listing them on the menu in “dialect” is a way of connecting with our past. For clarity’s sake, however, here’s an explanation:

A Working Man’s Lunch

Most people know the legend that the sandwich has its origins in nobility. The Earl of Sandwich supposedly instructed his staff to create a meal between two slices of bread so that he could (depending on whom you believe) pursue his gambling habit or, alternatively, keep up with his busy work schedule.

Here in America, the sandwich has long been a food for the working class. It’s portable, versatile, and can be both nutritious and filling. European immigrants of the late 19th and early 20th centuries helped to re-define the category. More recently, immigrants from Asia and Latin America continue to do so, to our benefit.

The Basics

Both hoagies and grinders are sandwiches served on a long, chewy roll, filled with meat, cheese and condiments. Depending on where in the U.S. you are, you may find them called submarines, torpedoes, heroes, po’ boys, blimpies, bombers, garabaldis, spuckies, wedges, or zeppelins.

Philadelphia, birthplace of my mother (and where I spent a chunk of my early years), may be best known for cheesesteaks. It is also ground zero for hoagies. The term “hoagie” is also commonly used throughout Eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Hoagies can be cold or hot, though most commonly they are thought of as a cold sandwich – and here at Porcellino we use the term to describe our cold sandwiches.

There are several origin stories for the term “hoagie”: some say it started in the 1920s at the Hog Island Navy yard, where Italian-American workers brought Italian-style sandwiches to work and they took on the nickname “Hoggies”. Another story relates it to an Irish immigrant named “Hogan” who was always pestering an Italian co-worker to bring him an extra sandwich for lunch. Yet another story is that a local jazz musician opened a sandwich shop and proclaimed you had to be a hog to eat his sandwich, which eventually led to his shop being called “Hoggies”. The one thing I believe is that the distinct Philadelphia accent led to the term “hoggie” evolving into “hoagie”.

Moving North…

Southern New England, where Chris and I both spent our childhoods, is the land of grinders. As with hoagies, the origins of the name seem to originate around workers in a Naval shipyard, though that is up for debate. Some say it goes back to New London, Connecticut (my city of birth) where the sandwiches were made for Italian-American immigrants working at Electric Boat shipyard as “grinders”, i.e., the folks who would grind the rust off the hulls of ships prior to re-painting. They were thus called “grinders sandwiches” based on the clientele. Others offer a more simple explanation: the term comes from the fact that it’s a hearty sandwich, requiring one to “grind” it between one’s teeth in order to consume it.

Whatever the origin of the name, grinders are defined by many as being a hot sandwich, often toasted open-faced, prior to closing it up and delivering it to the customer. Where we come from, grinders are a staple of the local pizzeria, so the sandwich would be heated in the pizza oven before serving. At Porcellino, we use the term grinder exclusively to describe our hot sandwiches.

Doing the Dip

We offer a variety of hoagies and grinders at Porcellino. One that seems to be garnering quite a loyal following is our meatball grinder, which we call the the “Italian Dip”. The name is meant as a wink to a French Dip sandwich, which is typically served with a cup of jus for dipping. Ours, however, is served with marinara.

The Italian_Dip

Italian Dip

Growing up eating meatball grinders, we have lots of memories of sloppy, soggy buns, from which the meatballs were always escaping as we grasped the sandwich. The Italian Dip solves both these issues. First, rather than using traditional spherical meatballs, we make a single, flattened, oblong meatball that fits the size of our bun perfectly and won’t slide when you squeeze the bun. This meatball is browned on all sides, then braised in our delicious marinara sauce. Second, rather than cover the entire bun in marinara sauce, which leads to a soggy, messy bun, we serve this grinder, hot meatball and melted provolone in the bun, cut into two halves, standing in a bowl of marinara. This prevents the soggy bun scenario; you simply dip the leading edge of the grinder moments before you take your next bite. It works – just ask anyone who’s tried one.

Getting your Hands on a Dip

We offer the Italian Dip six days a week (Porcellino is closed on Tuesdays). Eat it here, or order online for takeout (we package the marinara separately – you apply it as needed), it’s an experience that will probably bring you back again for more.

P.S.
Incidentially “hoagies & grinders” are a featured lyric in Adam Sandler’s “Lunch Lady” song, which you can check out here.