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Over the past decade, the bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich has become a hallmark of the casual American restaurant, and has even made inroads—in versions with rich ingredients and stylish tweaks—on fine-dining menus. In the sandwich category, only the burger is more ubiquitous (and shows up with as many variations, high and low). And overall, perhaps only the Caesar salad is as entrenched as the once cheap and homely BLT.
Just as nobody knows the precise origin stream for sandwiches (nice story, fourth earl of Sandwich, but your creation legend smells pretty apocryphal, bro), no one knows exactly when the BLT came to life. Sandwiches became a force in American food in the 19th century, in the years after the Civil War ended. Genteel sandwiches for the rich were buttery, creamy, mayonnaise-y affairs, finger-sized and dainty. For the middle and working classes, though, sandwiches were bigger, more robust, less prone to be filled with salad-like mixtures.
The club sandwich rose to prominence around 1900, and it’s likely that the BLT developed as a simpler, more economical version of the club. Lettuce, mayo, and meats were common fillings, and the BLT, in some form, became common in the first decade of the 20th century.
The BLT as we know it today (or yesterday, before modern restaurant chefs took it on) relies on a major factory development in American food: the mass-produced loaf of sliced white bread, which began rolling off the bakery line in the late 1920s. That, combined with the rise of soda fountains after Prohibition (1920-1933), and—ladies and gentlemen—we give you the BLT as it existed in the premodern era: toasted white bread, commercial mayonnaise, a couple of slices of bacon and beefsteak tomato, and a sheet or two of crunchy iceberg lettuce.
Another development in the popularization of the BLT: the supremacy of the supermarket in the decades after World War II. In the aisles of the Safeway or A and P, sliced bread, jars of mayo, big, pink, tomatoes, bacon, and iceberg lettuce were available year round.
The Modern BLT
Starting in the late 1980s, chefs interested in reviving American food took on the BLT. By the end of the decade, a handful of small farmers in California were growing heirloom tomato varieties and selling them to restaurants. This, coupled with the development of artisan bacon in the 1990s, made the BLT what it is today: A lush, seasonal sandwich, made with grilled artisan bread, homemade mayonnaise, heirloom tomato slices, good bacon, and leaf lettuce. That’s where it starts, anyway.
As chefs claimed the BLT, they gave it creative variations, including the BALT (a BLT with avocado) and the BELT (a BLT with egg, scrambled, fried, or hard-cooked), plus many, many (many) more. We recall having a softshell crab BLT in San Francisco, and all kinds of riffs that aren’t even a sandwich at all! Here, in the spirit of surface-scratching, we offer 4 recipes that pay homage to the homely BLT.
1. Classic BLT Sandwich
A near-perfect balance of sweet, smoky, crusty, and salty, this restaurant-grade BLT is what food dreams are made of. Jump on it now, at the height of tomato season. Get our Classic BLT Sandwich recipe.
2. Cheddar Waffle BLT
The trusty lunch-counter trinity of bacon, lettuce, and tomato takes the form of breakfast here, sandwiched between savory bacon and cheddar waffles and topped by a fried egg with crisp edges and a luxuriously molten yolk. Get our Cheddar Waffle BLT recipe.
3. BLT Scrambled Eggs
Crisp up some bacon, then cook leeks (subbing for the lettuce!) and the mayo-beaten eggs in the bacon fat. Finish by topping the scramble with diced tomatoes and the crispy bacon. Get our BLT Scrambled Eggs recipe.
4. BLT Salad
For this (healthier) adaptation of a BLT, we chopped up the sandwich and added some crisp croutons, for a salad substantial enough to call dinner. Get our BLT Salad recipe.