Bacon is as versatile as it is delicious. You can find it in everything from omelettes to muffins to chocolate bars made by hipster quadruplets. But one of my favorite ways to eat bacon is in the classic, dependable bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich. The BLT will never win any awards for “most subversive bacon delivery mechanism,” and that’s fine. It’s timeless and perfect. But what are the BLT’s origins, and why is it so universally appealing?
Wikipedia tersely mutters, “There is little evidence of BLT sandwich recipes prior to 1900,” but that didn’t satisfy me. If only I could find some kind of BLT expert — America’s foremost BLT aficionado, if you will. It turns out such a person exists, and her name is Michele Anna Jordan. She wrote The BLT Cookbook and made a 103-foot-long BLT at the Kendall-Jackson Heirloom Tomato Festival in 2003. That’s commitment.
I asked Jordan about Wikipedia’s suggestion that BLTs might be no older than the NYC subway, and she was quick to point out that the operative phrase was “BLT recipes.”
“Recipes were not as common as they are now. People [just] cooked,” she said. “If you go back into historical cookbooks, you see [BLT-like] sandwiches. In the late 1800s you were seeing them, and I would suspect even earlier in the form of tea sandwiches in England.” Jordan contends BLTs are as old as the very concept of sandwiches, which got started in the 1700s.
BLTs really took off during the postwar supermarket boom, which made the ingredients available to nearly everyone nearly always. But there’s still a prime BLT time each year.
“The bacon, the bread, the lettuce, the mayonnaise: There are no insurmountable hurdles to prevent you from getting the best of each of these,” Jordan writes in The BLT Cookbook. “But that damn tomato. It refuses to submit to human whim or desire. Withholding itself until late June or July or even mid-August, depending on where you live, it keeps the BLT a seasonal creature.”
“Use whatever tomato is absolutely perfect where you live,” Jordan told me, “whether it’s from your garden or the farmer’s market. They should be sliced no thicker than a quarter-inch. I overlap them slightly, and then they have to get a sprinkling of salt, and it needs to be a flake salt.”
As for the bread, that’s up to you, but Jordan prefers sourdough, lightly toasted. And buckle up, mayo haters, because a proper BLT demands the white stuff, and lots of it.
“My operative word for mayonnaise is slather,” she said. “I like a lot of mayonnaise. One of the mistakes that people make is, they rub the mayonnaise into the bread, which makes my head explode. You have a nice rubber spatula, you dig into it, and you spread it once. Slather. Do not rub it into the bread, that’s ridiculous.”
Jordan isn’t quite as dogmatic about the greens — from arugula to iceberg to butter lettuce, she’s used them all — but when it comes to bacon, “It has to be very crisp. Just like one step before it starts to take on too much color. It has to have that snap.”
The final combination is truly divine. Jordan effused, “That mingling of acid, and creamy mayonnaise, and salt, and smoke. When you have that snap in the bacon, it just makes this combination of ingredients soar.”
Damn. I want one now. I don’t even care that it’s the dead of winter — I’m going to break a BLT commandment and get an off-season tomato. You can’t stop me.
Do you have any time-honored BLT wisdom? Share it in the comments. Just don’t forget the mayo.
Tony Carnevale is a senior writer for Studio@Gizmodo.
Illustration by Jake Inferrera.