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Old 08-31-08, 07:26 PM   #1
Rex Fenestrarum
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Packaged Sandwiches: US vs. UK

In the US, packaged sandwiches - and by this, I specifically mean those that come in the triangular boxes - are the lowest form of cuisine there is. People typically only eat them if there are no other food options, like if they're stuck in an airport at 4am and all the restaurants are closed, or if their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere and the nearest diner is 50 miles away. The sandwiches always seem half stale, are thin on the ingredients, and usually only come in three or four flavors: ham and cheese, baloney and cheese, tuna or chicken salad (and maybe, if you're in the South, pimento cheese). Honestly, the only people I've seen that eat these poor, sad little sandwiches on a regular basis are construction workers and people on the go all the time, like messengers or delivery people. I'm 37 years-old, and it's always been this way here in the US, at least in my lifetime.

In the UK, on the other hand, people seem to eat these sandwiches all the time. And why not? They usually taste pretty fresh, and they come in a freakin' galaxy of flavors. Here's a short list of just a few of the flavors offered by Marks & Spencer, a single British retailer:

Aromatic Duck, B.L.T., British Ham & Cheddar, Chicken & Bacon, Chicken & Balsamic Roasted Tomatoes, Chicken & Stuffing, Chicken & Sweetcorn, Chicken, Avocado & Bacon, Coronation Chicken, Crayfish & Rocket, Egg & Bacon, King Prawn & Bacon Caesar, Poached Salmon, Red Salmon & Cucumber, Roast Beef & Horseradish, Sausage & Ketchup, Seafood Cocktail, Smoked Salmon & Cream Cheese

I can't speak for the rest of the UK, but in London and Bath you can buy sandwiches just like these almost anywhere. Drug stores (chemists) sell them. Convenience stores (newsagents) sell them. Many department stores (like the aforementioned Marks & Spencer) sell them. And almost any time of the day, you can look around and see someone eating one of these sandwiches.

So, I guess my main question is... why?

How is it that the British get awesome packaged sandwiches, while those of us in the US are stuck with a "sandwich" with one lousy slice of ham and one lousy slice of cheese that tastes like it was made 2 months ago?

Does the American "car culture" lend itself to diners and fast food places, while hungry (but less motorized) Brits just walk over to their nearest newsagent for a snack?

Was there a gap between the "industrialization" of food production and the arrival of US-style fast food in the UK that was taken advantage of by British sandwich makers?

Did WWII rationing and hiding in bomb shelters cause the British to have a need for food that could be prepared quickly and cheaply, and not need reheating, thus leading to a "sandwich culture" of sorts?

Did America once have a large and vibrant "packaged sandwich industry" that fell by the wayside once fast food became commonplace, leading to a few companies a niche market for gas stations and vending machines?

Look, I know that this is probably the silliest thread in the history of DVD Talk, but it's been bothering me since my first trip to the UK in 2000. I was in the M&S on Oxford Street looking at clothes, when I accidentally stumbled across the Food Hall. I saw this giant display cooler - the length of which was similar to the coolers used to store beer in most US grocery stores - that was full of sandwiches in all kinds of flavors. I got a "Beef Wellington" sandwich, which was rare roast beef with paté and chopped mushrooms on top. It was damn delicious, and not just "pretty good for a packaged sandwich", either. Since then I've wondered about the discrepancy.

And lastly, I'm aware that many convenience stores here in the US have "gone upmarket" and now offer subs and panini. But not every place sells these. Every convenience store, on the other hand, seems to sell the triangular boxed sandwiches, though, even if they also sell the upmarket stuff.
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Old 08-31-08, 08:13 PM   #2
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It's all about the average American being unwilling to explore things beyond Cheeseburgers and Fries. How is it that Japan gets cool flavors of products such as Kit Kats and stuff like Cheetos? I just don't get it. Today while we were in Boston i bought Brown Sugar Cheetos, Garlic Doritos, and Red Bean Kit Kats from a Japanese grocery store. When my wife went to France she brought back some awesome Pringles that were to die for. Other countries just do different things and more and more I am starting to become jealous. I guess it's Joe-Six-Pack who keeps the adventurous stuff out of the border.
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Old 08-31-08, 08:34 PM   #3
mike45
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Rex Fenestrarum View Post
In the US, packaged sandwiches - and by this, I specifically mean those that come in the triangular boxes - are the lowest form of cuisine there is. People typically only eat them if there are no other food options, like if they're stuck in an airport at 4am and all the restaurants are closed, or if their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere and the nearest diner is 50 miles away. The sandwiches always seem half stale, are thin on the ingredients, and usually only come in three or four flavors: ham and cheese, baloney and cheese, tuna or chicken salad (and maybe, if you're in the South, pimento cheese). Honestly, the only people I've seen that eat these poor, sad little sandwiches on a regular basis are construction workers and people on the go all the time, like messengers or delivery people. I'm 37 years-old, and it's always been this way here in the US, at least in my lifetime.

In the UK, on the other hand, people seem to eat these sandwiches all the time. And why not? They usually taste pretty fresh, and they come in a freakin' galaxy of flavors. Here's a short list of just a few of the flavors offered by Marks & Spencer, a single British retailer:

Aromatic Duck, B.L.T., British Ham & Cheddar, Chicken & Bacon, Chicken & Balsamic Roasted Tomatoes, Chicken & Stuffing, Chicken & Sweetcorn, Chicken, Avocado & Bacon, Coronation Chicken, Crayfish & Rocket, Egg & Bacon, King Prawn & Bacon Caesar, Poached Salmon, Red Salmon & Cucumber, Roast Beef & Horseradish, Sausage & Ketchup, Seafood Cocktail, Smoked Salmon & Cream Cheese
I can't speak for the rest of the UK, but in London and Bath you can buy sandwiches just like these almost anywhere. Drug stores (chemists) sell them. Convenience stores (newsagents) sell them. Many department stores (like the aforementioned Marks & Spencer) sell them. And almost any time of the day, you can look around and see someone eating one of these sandwiches.

So, I guess my main question is... why?

How is it that the British get awesome packaged sandwiches, while those of us in the US are stuck with a "sandwich" with one lousy slice of ham and one lousy slice of cheese that tastes like it was made 2 months ago?

Does the American "car culture" lend itself to diners and fast food places, while hungry (but less motorized) Brits just walk over to their nearest newsagent for a snack?

Was there a gap between the "industrialization" of food production and the arrival of US-style fast food in the UK that was taken advantage of by British sandwich makers?

Did WWII rationing and hiding in bomb shelters cause the British to have a need for food that could be prepared quickly and cheaply, and not need reheating, thus leading to a "sandwich culture" of sorts?

Did America once have a large and vibrant "packaged sandwich industry" that fell by the wayside once fast food became commonplace, leading to a few companies a niche market for gas stations and vending machines?

Look, I know that this is probably the silliest thread in the history of DVD Talk, but it's been bothering me since my first trip to the UK in 2000. I was in the M&S on Oxford Street looking at clothes, when I accidentally stumbled across the Food Hall. I saw this giant display cooler - the length of which was similar to the coolers used to store beer in most US grocery stores - that was full of sandwiches in all kinds of flavors. I got a "Beef Wellington" sandwich, which was rare roast beef with paté and chopped mushrooms on top. It was damn delicious, and not just "pretty good for a packaged sandwich", either. Since then I've wondered about the discrepancy.

And lastly, I'm aware that many convenience stores here in the US have "gone upmarket" and now offer subs and panini. But not every place sells these. Every convenience store, on the other hand, seems to sell the triangular boxed sandwiches, though, even if they also sell the upmarket stuff.

Wow, that is a great selection. I wish I had a place near with that kind of variety.
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Old 08-31-08, 08:42 PM   #4
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Um, Sausage and KETCHUP? Ick.

I think most Americans would think most of those flavors in that post would be nasty. I think a lot of them sound interesting though. I'm intrigued by Crayfish and Rocket. What's the rocket?..
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Old 08-31-08, 08:47 PM   #5
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Yeah I have nothing to add except that selection of sandwiches is making me

Oh and to Dragon Fly - Chinese Pringles and Lays flavors are nothing special to me and frankly taste kind of gross. Prawn flavor, Pork flavor, Ketchup/Tomato flavor . . . eh, but the Japanese Cheetos and Doritos sound pretty awesome.

And to Shady12 - You can get Sausage and ketchup (with or without an egg) sandwich at McDonalds for Breakfast here in China. I think it's tasty! They put it on the normal hamburger bun which seems fluffier than the what we get in the U.S. Only other breakfast sandwich is an Egg McMuffin. Other than the larger western hotel chains, this is about the only choice for a Western style breakfast.
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Old 08-31-08, 08:48 PM   #6
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Prawn and mayo I always found reasonably good. Strange.
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Old 08-31-08, 08:59 PM   #7
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I'm not a ketchup fan though.. I love the good sausage you can get from small companies in TX..and I'm thinking smoked sausage not the breakfast sausage..that's what I pictured on the sandwich. And wouldn't put ketchup on it. Not big on fries but I eat ketchup with that..but not on anything else..well cept meatloaf.
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Old 08-31-08, 09:53 PM   #8
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What's the rocket?..
Rocket is the British term for arugula (a kind of salad green).
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Old 08-31-08, 09:56 PM   #9
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When I'm in the U.K. I can't get enough pasties. Some are better than others but a whole lot better than a plain old sandwich or burger.
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Old 08-31-08, 10:37 PM   #10
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well its about time this subject was compared and contrasted
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Old 08-31-08, 11:22 PM   #11
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It's all about the average American being unwilling to explore things beyond Cheeseburgers and Fries..
I don't think that's it. Subway is the world's 3rd largest fast food operator, so we obviously love us some sandwiches.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subway_(restaurant)

There's probably some sort of arcane history behind why pre-packaged sandwiches took off in Britain and not here, but for idle speculation:

Americans like individualized food and food made right then and there more. Pre-packaged food doesn't allow for much customization, which we Americans really like. It doesn't matter how easy it is to remove tomato slices from a sandwich, we prefer that there never was a tomato on the sandwich at all. As part of this, we like our food "fresh," in that it was made as close to when we ordered it as possible. This is why delis are more popular places for ordering sandwiches than getting one that was pre-made at a deli. Subway markets itself as its sandwiches all being custom made, and even fast food burger restaurants have switched to custom making nearly all sandwiches.

Or, standard sandwiches remind us too much of home-brought lunches, and thus of being more of a kid food. If we're going to buy a sandwich, we're going to have something we couldn't have made at home and brought with us. Hence the popularity of Submarine sandwiches and places like Subway that offer them, since most people don't keep a loaf of French bread around to make the occasional sandwich from, especially since it'd only last for two sandwiches.

Or, Americans like lettuce on their sandwiches, and lettuce gets soggy on a pre-made sandwich fast. There's only one British sandwich listed that specifically mentions lettuce (BLT), and some of the others don't sound like likely to have lettuce on them. Maybe I'm totally off on this though.

Or, geographical and logistical reasons. The Marks & Spencer mentioned above appears to make the sandwiches themselves, from what I can see on the website. In contrast, in the US the convenience stores that stock pre-packaged sandwiches don't typically make them, and thus they get delivered to them from a supplier, probably at most once a day. Since most convenience stores are chains, there may be specific large-scale sandwich suppliers that make and deliver to a large area, thus necessitating them to be made far in advance and cheaply, thus not so fresh and lower quality. Especially when you consider middle America, where convenience stores are attached to gas stations and are sometimes placed in the middle of nowhere (but next to the highway), and the idea of freshness becomes less and less likely.

Also, there's the vicious cyclic nature of US pre-packaged sandwiches. They're no good, so nobody buys them. Since nobody buys them, they don't sell well enough to put much quality in them, and thus aren't that good.
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Old 08-31-08, 11:37 PM   #12
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Yep, it all boils down to freshness and quality. Central London has a Pret A Manger (a chain that sells mostly prepackaged sandwiches) on literally every street corner (sometimes more than one in a given block). But they're constantly making sandwiches and replacing the stock so that they are always fresh. They also give anything left at closing to homeless charities.
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Old 09-01-08, 12:22 AM   #13
Rex Fenestrarum
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It's all about the average American being unwilling to explore things beyond Cheeseburgers and Fries.
I vehemently disagree with this.

As a kid growing up in a small town outside of Atlanta in the 1970s, grocery stores in my area carried two types of spaghetti sauce: Ragu with meat, and Ragu without meat. The "Mexican food" section of the grocery store comprised a row of Old El Paso taco shells and McCormick's Taco seasoning. Likewise, the "Chinese food" section was a few flavors of LaChoy canned dinners. The nearest "Mexican" restaurant - El Chico, which was about as Mexican as I am - was 25 miles away. Thai and Indian restaurants existed only as exotic, "destination" restaurants in downtown Atlanta.

To say that the American palate hasn't expanded incredibly in the past 30 years is farcical. I now live in a small town outside of Charlotte, North Carolina. I can buy fresh bok choy, plantains, lemongrass and starfruit at my local Bi-Lo - hardly an "upscale" grocery chain. Within 5 miles of my house, there are grocery stores where I can buy poppadoms, naan, 13 different types of curry sauces from 3 different brands, 5 types of curry powders, tostones, bacalaitos, empanadas, sofrito, Jamaican beef patties, frozen Pad Thai or Tom Yum soup... and thousands of other products that simply weren't even on the radar when I was a kid.

I know that I consider myself to be a "food enthusiast" (which basically just a "food snob" minus all the pretension)... but still. Come on, you can't deny that America eats very differently in 2008 than it did in 1978. And even though sandwich vendors might "play it safe" by choosing things that most people would eat... I'm still not buy the "because Americans are stupid" angle. It's all played out in my book.
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Old 09-01-08, 02:51 AM   #14
Rex Fenestrarum
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Jay G. View Post
There's probably some sort of arcane history behind why pre-packaged sandwiches took off in Britain and not here
Exactly. That's what I wanna know!

Quote:
Originally Posted by Jay G. View Post
Americans like individualized food and food made right then and there more. Pre-packaged food doesn't allow for much customization, which we Americans really like.
Well, I agree with you there, but I don't think that can be the only reason.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Jay G. View Post
standard sandwiches remind us too much of home-brought lunches, and thus of being more of a kid food. If we're going to buy a sandwich, we're going to have something we couldn't have made at home and brought with us.
Well, OK. But many people seem happy to make their lunch at home every day, using the same old white bread and Oscar Meyer cold cuts. And many delis make sandwiches that are similar to what we'd make at home anyway, so given that there aren't many "exotic" ingredients in most sandwiches, I'm not sure that this is the case.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Jay G. View Post
Americans like lettuce on their sandwiches, and lettuce gets soggy on a pre-made sandwich fast. There's only one British sandwich listed that specifically mentions lettuce (BLT), and some of the others don't sound like likely to have lettuce on them. Maybe I'm totally off on this though.
Yes, most of the British packaged sandwiches come with lettuce and tomato on them, if it fits in the "recipe".

Quote:
Originally Posted by Jay G. View Post
geographical and logistical reasons. The Marks & Spencer mentioned above appears to make the sandwiches themselves, from what I can see on the website. In contrast, in the US the convenience stores that stock pre-packaged sandwiches don't typically make them, and thus they get delivered to them from a supplier, probably at most once a day.
M&S and Boots (Britain's version of Walgreens or CVS) have their own factories where the sandwiches are made daily. Nothing is made in their stores, however.

I recently watched a British documentary (Dispatches? Panorama?) about the British sandwich industry, specifically, how the sandwiches are not nearly as healthy for you as you might think, especially when compared to fast food. It also showed some NASTY "secret camera" footage from a factory that supplies sandwiches to convenience stores and other "non-chain" stores. It appears that all British packaged sandwiches come from some type of "factory" environment.

Also, the sandwich cooler at M&S (the one that's as long as a grocery store beer cooler in the US) is filled up once per day. If you go there at 10am, they have a great selection. Go there at 7pm and there's only a handful of picked-over sandwiches left (most of which are the "Sausage and Ketchup" flavor! ). It's filled again by the next morning.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Jay G. View Post
Since most convenience stores are chains, there may be specific large-scale sandwich suppliers that make and deliver to a large area, thus necessitating them to be made far in advance and cheaply, thus not so fresh and lower quality. Especially when you consider middle America, where convenience stores are attached to gas stations and are sometimes placed in the middle of nowhere (but next to the highway), and the idea of freshness becomes less and less likely.
Well, I've been thinking of QuikTrip, a large chain in the Midwest and Atlanta. They used to (and may still) offer a wide variety of microwave sandwiches under their own brand. Stuff like burgers, "Hot Ham and Cheese", Buffalo chicken sandwiches, etc. I wonder if they started selling them because the "regular" packaged sandwiches don't sell, or if that's just always been their "thing".

Quote:
Originally Posted by Jay G. View Post
Also, there's the vicious cyclic nature of US pre-packaged sandwiches. They're no good, so nobody buys them. Since nobody buys them, they don't sell well enough to put much quality in them, and thus aren't that good.
There's the problem right there. The sandwiches DO suck, so nobody buys them.

But it doesn't have to be that way. The Texaco station in my little town just added a large "deli" section that sells "fancy" sandwiches wrapped in shrink wrap. I had one; it tasted like a sandwich you'd buy on an airplane or at a sporting event - decent, but nothing to write home about. Still, it was far better than the crap in a box. The "deli" is usually empty by 5:30 or 6 in the afternoon, so someone is buying the things.

So the demand appears to be there, but no one's exploiting it. Still, I just have to wonder why Brits get such great sandwiches, while we're stuck with garbage.
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Old 09-01-08, 03:22 AM   #15
Rex Fenestrarum
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Yep, it all boils down to freshness and quality. Central London has a Pret A Manger (a chain that sells mostly prepackaged sandwiches) on literally every street corner (sometimes more than one in a given block). But they're constantly making sandwiches and replacing the stock so that they are always fresh. They also give anything left at closing to homeless charities.
Yeah, but that's not quite the same. Pret is like an "upscale Subway" that makes fresh sandwiches all day, but puts them into coolers instead of making each one by hand for the customer. As I recall, you can get a fresh, made to order sandwich at Pret, but most folks just grab one out of the cooler, as it's much faster that way. Then again, I've only been in a Pret twice - once to grab a sandwich, and another time to use the toilet.
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Old 09-01-08, 05:35 AM   #16
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pret a manger is great - big thumbs up for that place.

maybe there's just a difference in the way british and americans view our food. i know british cuisine is something of a joke in america, but that's probably based on an outdated sterotype. it's been a while since i was last in the states, but what stuck out to me (and no offence here) was the, for want of a better word, blandness of much of the food. most meals were massive, but like giant tomatoes seemed to have lost some of their flavour, or had it spread throughout the course. i suspect the levels of salt may have something to do with this, and that is probably also one of the health issues panorama raised regarding british sandwiches.

one of the most interesting things about visiting the us were the all-you-can-eat resturants/buffets. i'd never seen anything like it - the huge overflowing plates, and the even huger overflowing people. quite amazing. the steaks were fantastic! but the notion of more = better, which isn't entirely absent in britain as well, probably doesn't help the promotion of high quality food.

how is the organic trade in america? it's grown in to a decent sized niche in britain, with most mainstream producers now trying to cash in on the style with their own product promises about the sourcing of their produce. fish and meat in particular are fought over in this manner. and most supermarkets have a healthy organic veg section.

btw the crayfish and rocket sandwich is amazing - highly recomended.
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Old 09-01-08, 06:17 AM   #17
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When I was in England last year, I had a tuna and sweet corn sandwich on a baggette that I got at the bus station in London. It was delicious! Tuna and corn....yummm.
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Old 09-01-08, 06:32 AM   #18
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Hell, 10 or 15 years ago, AMTRAK had a tuna sandwich to die for. After the train took off we would dash for the club car.
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Old 09-01-08, 08:35 AM   #19
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There's a lot more convenience stores per capita in the U.K. than there is in the U.S.
Also you'll notice that many of the restaurants are closed odd hours there which would decrease the choices one had for food. They may be open 7am to 10 am then reopen at 3pm etc. I haven't been in Scotland in some years but I remember there they had "bank holidays" where most local businesses would close down early that day or not open at all.
The only places that seemed to not have odd hours were the franchise restaurants like McDonalds.
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Old 09-01-08, 11:54 AM   #20
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Originally Posted by Dragon Fly View Post
It's all about the average American being unwilling to explore things beyond Cheeseburgers and Fries.
To be honest, a Cheeseburger and Fries are quite possibly one of the best food combos ever.
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Old 09-01-08, 12:50 PM   #21
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To be honest, a Cheeseburger and Fries are quite possibly one of the best food combos ever.
Oh yeah, not denying that. I merely think that companies try the more unique flavors overseas. Just wish this stuff was universally available!
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Old 09-01-08, 02:07 PM   #22
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I'm not a ketchup fan though.. I love the good sausage you can get from small companies in TX..and I'm thinking smoked sausage not the breakfast sausage..that's what I pictured on the sandwich. And wouldn't put ketchup on it. Not big on fries but I eat ketchup with that..but not on anything else..well cept meatloaf.
No, it's not smoked sausage. I don't know what you mean by "breakfast sausage" - but the ones in the sandwiches look like this...

Regular, British sausages. Usually pork, sometimes beef. Grilled or fried. Sliced lengthways to place in a sandwich. Excellent with ketchup!
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Old 09-01-08, 02:34 PM   #23
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No, it's not smoked sausage. I don't know what you mean by "breakfast sausage" - but the ones in the sandwiches look like this...

Regular, British sausages. Usually pork, sometimes beef. Grilled or fried. Sliced lengthways to place in a sandwich. Excellent with ketchup!

Breakfast sausage would be more like a Lincolnshire sausage, pork with a natural case and sage flavoring. They are usually cut to individual sizes and not a big spiral like a Lincolnshire.

Damn, now I want some bangers and mash.
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Old 09-01-08, 03:34 PM   #24
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It's strange, I was thinking this question a few days ago.

I work in London and we have TONS of stores that sell pre-packaged sandwiches. My problem is they are so cold and chilled in those fridges that they all taste the same. We have just started to get Subway and Quinzos over here (but Quinzos made me puke once so I will not be going back there!).

But when I was in San Francisco last year I loved the fact that my bagel, sandwich or sub was made just for me. Perhaps you guys have the time to wait for what you want. I remember going to Salsalito and getting the best turkey sandwich I have ever had from that deli on the seafront.
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Old 09-01-08, 03:56 PM   #25
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pret a manger is great - big thumbs up for that place.



btw the crayfish and rocket sandwich is amazing - highly recomended.
At Christmas they do a Christmas Turkey special. Turkey with stuffing and lettuce, then a layer of cranberry sauce and mayo on wholegrain bread. Truely great!
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