Pittsburgh is not necessarily the food capital of the world. In fact, it’s better known for its football and its steel industry than its cuisine. But to those in the know, Pittsburgh is home to a delicacy that few other cities can compete with.
The Pittsburgh sandwich is a delight of flavors with a story the city rallies around. Legend has it that it was created to support the troops of men working the steel mills. But how much of that is fact, and how much is fiction? Where did the Pittsburgh sandwich come from?
Unless you call western Pennsylvania home, you may be unfamiliar with the Pittsburgh sandwich. Allow us to enlighten you.
The Pittsburgh sandwich consists of two slices of soft, white Italian bread, a spiced beef patty or any sliced meat (dealer’s choice), melted provolone cheese, a healthy heaping of coleslaw, and most importantly, a bunch of french fries. Yes, the icing on the Pittsburgh sandwich cake is french fries.
Recipes vary between the various Pittsburgh eateries, but if you want to find the real thing, you need to go to Primanti Brothers.
Pittsburgh locals are a proud people. They wax poetic about their blue-collar origins, they know every detail of every bridge, they treat the Steelers like a religion, and relevantly, they subscribe to the story of the Pittsburgh sandwich.
The steelworkers of 1930s Pittsburgh were busy. They had a country to build, after all. So when the lunch bell rang, they needed a sandwich that contained all the sides within it. They simply didn’t have the time to eat french fries and coleslaw on the side. The Pittsburgh sandwich stuffed everything together so compactly that it could be brought back to the mill and eaten on the go.
The story checks all the Pittsburgh boxes. It’s got steel, grilled meat, and the mythology of the working class.
Sadly, it may be a small piece of fiction or at least a stretching of the truth.
While most of the city gladly subscribes to it, the inventors of the Pittsburgh sandwich, the Primanti Brothers, remember its early days slightly differently.
Rather than making the sandwich for steelworkers, they say it was meant to feed dockworkers in the early twentieth century. The original location of the now chain restaurant was located next to the city’s produce warehouses, feeding terminal loaders and truck drivers.
It was also only open from 11 PM to 11 AM, so it’s hard to know where the story of “lunch” came from. In fact, the first Pittsburgh sandwiches made were meant to support the late-night workers who needed a healthy dose of french fries to get through the night.
If you squint your eyes, it’s still the same story. Pittsburgh is built on hardworking individuals, whether they were driving trucks or casting steel. If the Pittsburgh sandwich story doesn’t perfectly fit the narrative around the city’s steel industry, it does a better job of showing how dynamic and varied it is.
Pittsburgh is a city of immigrants, with workers arriving from Hungary, Latvia, Poland, Estonia, Armenia, Ireland, Germany, and Italy to find jobs and opportunities. That the Primanti Brothers, Italian immigrants themselves, sought out to feed people from so many European countries and ended up tossing french fries into a white bread sandwich is an American dream.
More likely than not, it didn’t take long for the steelworkers to catch wind of Primanti’s delicious take on the sandwich. If it was created to feed dock workers, it was perfected in feeding steel mill workers.
All things considered, both the truth and the consequent myth are all very Pittsburgh.
Thankfully for our taste buds, that myth caught on like wildfire. Today the sandwich is everywhere, and Primanti Brothers’ various locations stay open 24/7, including, yes, lunch. The location on 18th Street is still a notorious late-night spot and has become sacred ground. College students and transplants will always remember their first Pittsburgh sandwich at Primanti’s. It’s just that kind of experience.
The case of the Pittsburgh sandwich is not an anomaly.
Detroit-style pizza has similarly murky origins, with some people swearing by one story and others claiming something entirely else happened. Tampa Bay locals will swear that the modern Cuban sandwich is a reflection of the mixed immigrant population and have a Thanksgiving-style story to back it up. The myth of the water in New York contributing to the city’s signature bagels is questionable at best. But these stories give cities character. They tell both the people who live there and the tourists that come to visit something about the place.
In the case of Pittsburgh, their signature sandwich tells the story of blue-collar workers in search of a quick, delicious, and warming bite to eat. It tells the story of a city building itself up on the backs of late nights and long drives. And if that all sounds like a little much to you, then it’s just the story of a happy accident in the kitchen, leading to the wonderful discovery that coleslaw and french fries belong in a sandwich, not on the side of it.
Whatever the case is, whether the sandwich was built for an on-the-go lunch or a late-night indulgence, we just feel lucky that it’s here at all. If you ask us, more sandwiches ought to include french fries.
Are you a lifelong advocate of french fries between bread? Do you swear by the steelworkers’ story? Do you not care either way—you just love to stop by Primanti Brothers for some good old-fashioned Pittsburgh comfort food? Then you need to check out our Pittsburgh sandwich vintage tee. Spun on soft, quality cotton, this tee is the most comfortable way to say you’re a proud Yinzer, through and through.