Cooking with the (Silent) Stars: The Lillian Gish Sandwich

Welcome back! I’m cooking my way through the 1929 Photoplay cookbook but I’m taking a detour today to try something a little older. In 1916, Photoplay magazine published a collection of sandwich recipes that were said to be based on the screen personalities of the biggest female stars. This time around, we will be tasting the Lillian Gish sandwich.

Lillian Gish really needs no introduction. Famous for her films with D.W. Griffith, Gish actually did her best work after she left his team and joined up with MGM. Granted a considerable amount of creative control (at least at first) Gish scored hits by filming the unfilmable (The Scarlet Letter) and dying stylishly on occasion, though she also enjoyed the odd happy ending.

She spent the sound years dividing her time between stage and screen, most memorably taking a shotgun to Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter. She also kept busy charming historians with her colorful (and quite often fictional) memories of the silent era.

This recipe is from the early years of stardom for Gish. She debuted in 1912 alongside her sister Dorothy to middling reviews (“charming but not actresses”) but both Gish girls soon found their way and were hot property in 1916. Lillian as the top leading lady of D.W. Griffith’s troupe and Dorothy as the star of a series of comedy features for Triangle.

lillian-gish-2

So, how would Photoplay capture her personality in sandwich form?

lillian-gish-sandwich

Dear little Lillian Gish? Giffith’s prize? Harumph! Can we be a bit more condescending, Photoplay?

This is a variation on the egg salad sandwich, one of my personal favorites. I love hard-boiled eggs in general and prepare them with the whites cooked through but a slightly gelatinous center of the yolk. I poke a hole in the larger end of the egg and drop them into boiling water with a few tablespoons of baking soda. I cook them for exactly 12 minutes and then put them on ice to stop the cooking process. Voila! Perfect eggs! (Cooking times will vary based on your elevation.)

Here is the sandwich assembly:

Bread is a good place to start.
Bread is a good place to start.
I used butter lettuce.
I used butter lettuce.
Eggs sliced on a vintage contraption. Note the jelly centers. Yum!
Eggs sliced on a vintage contraption. Note the jelly centers. Yum!
Mayo. Blech.
Mayo. Blech.
Ta-da!
Ta-da!
Very civilized.
Very civilized.
Pretty from every angle.
Pretty from every angle.

The resulting sandwich was as pretty as could be. But how would it taste?

Taste Test Video:

Score: 2 out of 5. This sandwich is just kind of boring. A thin slice of pickle, beet, onion, pepper, ham, anything could have saved it but just eggs, mayo and lettuce do not an interesting sandwich make. None of the flavors are bad but there isn’t much in the way of flavor.

Now we could stop here but this is where things get interesting. You see, unlike many of the performers we have covered in this series, Gish actually wrote about the sandwiches she ate while making movies. In her memoirs, she describes the box lunches that were delivered to the shooting location of Judith of Bethulia:

They cost a quarter apiece, and each contained a sandwich– thick white bread with only a sliver of filling, cheese mostly; perhaps a hard-boiled egg; a piece of fruit, and a half-pint of milk. I lived for so many years on those box lunches that to this day I cannot eat a sandwich.

This sort of lunch is not worth testing as Gish makes it plain that she found it tiresome. Nothing is worse than a sandwich with skimpy filling. The bread to filling ratio must be carefully considered and such was not the case with these twenty-five cent lunches. (That’s almost six bucks in modern currency. You’d think they would be a little more generous with the cheese.)

Gish clearly changed her mind about sandwiches once she got back to civilization and returned to the cult of sliced bread. Four years and ninety pages later The Greatest Thing in Life entered production:

When the film was completed, Mr. Griffith needed a title for it. One day I was lunching on cheese sandwiches and a malted milk with Mr. Griffith and Harry Carr, who was then the head of our “idea” department. As the theme of the film was love, I suggested The Greatest Thing in Life as the title.

“That’s it!” they both agreed.

In the future, whenever they were stymied about any problem, they would say, “Order her a malted and a cheese sandwich.”

A sandwich and beverage combination that was playfully referred to as Gish’s brain-food? This is too good an opportunity to pass up! I shall be taste testing Lillian Gish’s combination of a cheese sandwich and malted milk.

I am assuming that the cheese sandwich was toasted because who in their right mind would pay for a restaurant cheese sandwich and not ask for it to be toasted? Wikipedia claims that the grilled cheese sandwich was invented in the 1920s but that’s with American cheese and I would rather eat the box than eat American cheese. In any case, there are recipes from 1902 to 1916 that describe cheese sandwiches browned in butter so I am on solid historical ground. American cheese indeed!

The sandwich cheese is cheddar because it has long been the beloved cheese of Americans and it is likely what Miss Gish had in her original version, whether or not she opted for the toasted variety. I was generous with the cheese, which I am sure she would have appreciated. The chocolate malted milk is courtesy of Ovaltine, which I’ve had exactly once in my entire life. I know Gish didn’t specify chocolate in her malted but I really don’t like the taste of malt so I needed something else to help choke it down. (Anyway, it is right for the period.)

The two big questions are whether or not this combination is tasty and whether or not I feel a boost in brain power after eating it.

Behold my extremely photogenic grilled cheese sandwich. Yum!

lillian-gish-sandwich-8

lillian-gish-sandwich-9

Gish’s sandwich choice is infinitely superior to what Photoplay invented for her. Who doesn’t like a good cheese sandwich? The Ovaltine was also pretty good, it tasted more like Quick than Whoppers, which was my primary concern. Nothing is worse than thinking you are getting a Milk Dud and it turns out to be a Whopper. Thank goodness the Ovaltine tasted okay and not too malty. Basically, my grocery story only had it in large, extra large and ginormous. The smallest size was still 16 oz. Yipes! A pound of Ovaltine? Those have got to be some loyal customers.

This sandwich-beverage combination has sweet, salty and savory; it’s pure comfort food. However, I am sorry to report that I experienced no epiphanies so we can assume that this lunch’s brain boosting qualities were exclusive to Miss Gish. This is still a tasty lunch, though, especially for colder weather. I give it a solid 4 out of 5.

Oh, and on a final note, my mother (a vegetarian from Ohio just like Gish) has declared that a true daughter of the Buckeye State would likely eat tomato sandwiches. I have been informed that Ohio tomatoes are superior to all others, though I have never tested this theory. (Lifelong California girl here and if you call it “Cali” I will be forced to kill you.)

Here’s how you make a tomato sandwich:

Spread mayonnaise on a slice of bread. Cover with slices of tomato. Salt and pepper to taste. Put a lid on that sucker. Eat.

24 Replies to “Cooking with the (Silent) Stars: The Lillian Gish Sandwich”

  1. Your report is interesting, as always! I am with you on two of your assessments – some pickle would improve the Gish egg sandwich (some salt too, maybe), and yes- I’d rather eat the box than American cheese! Give me cheddar (at least!) any day!

    1. Thank you! Yes, American cheese is the devil. My family calls it “dog cheese” because we had a dog with an extremely sensitive and weird digestive system and cheese slices were among the few treats he could eat without getting sick. We get weird looks in the store sometimes. 😉

      1. That’s funny! We have “dog chicken” in our house and “dog cheese” too! Many a night I am boiling chicken at midnight because if I didn’t, the dog wouldn’t have any breakfast ready. Ah, the things we do for our companion animals with sensitive stomachs! (Our under-age-12 family members love American cheese. I am just “bleccchhh”!)

  2. As a lifelong Jersey girl I will have to say that Jersey tomato sandwiches are where it’s at! No disrespect to your Mom! And I would much rather have a grilled cheese with Ovaltine over hard boiled eggs any day!

  3. I’m a Southerner, and tomato sandwiches are quite popular around here as well, along with—oddly—banana sandwiches. I’m a fan of neither. (Actually I’ve never had a banana sandwich; I don’t understand why a banana needs to be put between slices of bread.) Anyway, I’ll stick with the classic grilled cheese—hard to beat.

  4. Why…why??!!
    White bread? Okay, fine..if you must.
    Hard boiled eggs? OK!
    Lettuce? Even better!
    Mayonnaise? (record scratch) REALLY?!

    I consider mayonnaise (ANY mayonnaise) a sometimes necessary evil. You can’t eat a tuna salad sandwich without the tiniest bit of it–I’ve tried, and I think my salivary glands seized up or something. I know folks “back when” were averse to spice, but plain old mayonnaise without any other spice? No salt and pepper? Ugh.

    Now I’m in the mood for a tomato sandwich. Hmmm…

    1. Yeah, I’m not a mayo fan either. I generally find that I am happier substituting yogurt or sour cream in recipes that call for it.

      The Theda Bara sandwich is still the one to beat. That was some tasty chow!

  5. I love a “sandwich that charms” as much as the next person, but I actually LOL-d when I read the recipe. That’s not even trying, for pete sake!

    Now, about the cheese sandwich, I’m all in. In fact, I could go for one right now!

  6. I grew up in OH and know what your mom is talking about, however, having lived in MO for the past 20 years, homegrown tomatoes here are wonderful, too. I personally enjoy a slice of tomato on my toasted cheese sandwiches. Or eat them with tomato soup.

Comments are closed.