Grinders, Hoagies And Wedges: What You Call A Sub Sandwich Reveals Where You're From

Everyone loves a good sub, but the terms we use can explain a lot about where we grew up.
10/04/2018 05:45am ET | Updated October 4, 2018
Isabella Carapella/HuffPost

Hoagie, zeppelin, wedge ― these might sound like meaningless words to you, or depending on where you’re from, they might mean “sub sandwich.” We call the classic sub different names all across this country, but with the exception of a few variations that require certain ingredients, every term points back to an overall American love of a long, crusty roll piled high with meats, cheeses, lettuce and tomato.

To help you understand how different regions of the United States specialize in their own takes on the sub, we’ve collected some of the country’s most interesting names for the bread-and-fixing combos, from the popular to the storied to the strange.

Grinder: New England (Connecticut And Massachusetts, Specifically)

Brian Cleland, owner of Richard’s Grinders in West Springfield, Massachusetts, specifies that the term “grinder” is more prevalent in Connecticut and Massachusetts.

“I could be wrong, but I bet there are a few parts of New England that still think a ‘grinder’ is something that shreds coffee beans,” he says.

His thoughts on the term’s origins echo one somewhat-popular theory, as the history is hard to pin down: “Grinder” was a slang term for an Italian-American dockworker. A common belief is that subs are harder to chew than a typical sandwich made with softer bread, so your teeth have to “grind” in for a bite. Whatever the backstory, the grinder is a source of regional pride.

“In this area, ‘grinder’ is the only term we know for ‘subs,’ ‘hoagies,’ ‘heroes,’ ‘wedges,’” Cleland says. “We know that when we order grinders, we are home.”

Wedge: Westchester County, New York, And Fairfield County, Connecticut

The “wedge” is one of the stranger sub sandwich terms because of two factors. First, the term is used only in two very specific regions, and secondly, its name implies a triangular wedge shape when the sub is decidedly not wedge-shaped.

There are explanations, although as with most of these monikers, none of those explanations can be 100 percent proved. The wedge shape might come from the sandwich being halved diagonally or because a wedge of the bread’s top half is removed to make room for fixings. Or, geometry might not play a role at all, and “wedge” simply may be short for “sandwich.” It’s believed that a Yonkers deli owner coined the term, which would also account for the wedge’s regional domain there.

In nearby Fairfield County, Connecticut, the name speaks to the sandwich’s two “wedges” of bread.

Hoagie: Philadelphia And Southern New Jersey

While Philadelphians might bristle at anyone confusing a “hoagie” with a “hero” (the latter is a distinctly New York term), the connection between a “hoagie” and a “sub” is clear: They’re made with a variety of meat, cheese and toppings on loaves of French or Italian bread, usually served cold. Hoagies may lean a bit more Italian, though.

Some like the origin story that “hoagie” comes from workers called “hoggies” at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, nicknamed “Hog Island.” Others argue the term came about after Hog Island was closed and that “hoagie” comes from jazz musician Al De Palma, who said you had to be a “hog” to eat the sandwich: Again, “hoggie” becomes “hoagie.” Whatever the story, the classic hoagie has mortadella, ham, salami, capicola, provolone cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, sweet and hot peppers, and oil and vinegar.

Court Street Grocers
Court Street Grocers co-owner Eric Finkelstein (whose hero is pictured above) explains that a hero isn't a type of sandwich but the type of bread one orders it on.

Hero: New York City

“One thing that we like so much about the hero sandwich is that, unlike the hoagie or the po’ boy, there are effectively no rules regarding its construction and it has no fanatics,” Court Street Grocers co-owner Eric Finkelstein tells HuffPost. It’s a typically New York attitude: no fuss, no fanfare, just focus on the food.

“In New York City there is no pride at all in the hero as a specific construct; like a bodega coffee in a Greek or Big Apple cup, our pride is in the utility of the thing more than in the thing itself,” he says. Finkelstein explains that a hero isn’t a type of sandwich but the type of bread one orders their sandwich on; it can have any combination of ingredients.

As far as how it got its name? Surprise, surprise, the history is debated. Many credit food writer Clementine Paddleworth for naming it in 1936 by writing that you had to be a “hero to finish one.”

Blimpie: New Jersey

In the same way we call any adhesive tape “Scotch tape” and any tissue a “Kleenex,” many New Jerseyans have taken to calling a sub a “blimpie.” The sandwich chain Blimpie got its start in Hoboken and named its sandwiches for blimps to indicate that they’d be bigger and better than the typical sub. The quintessential blimpie is stacked with Italian meats and cheeses, and it’s so specifically geographic that it’s an instant giveaway of where you’re from.

Crabby Jack's

Po’ Boy: Louisiana / Poor Boy: The Southern Midwest

Louisiana’s “po’ boy” — which is called the “poor boy” in parts of the southern Midwest — has its own murky history, but both of its possible origin stories start with brothers Benny and Clovis Martin. One legend has it that the Martins fed their half-loaves of French bread stuffed with a variety of fixings to striking streetcar drivers in New Orleans in 1929. Whenever they saw another striker heading for a free sandwich, they’d say, “Here comes another po’ boy.” A newspaper story about the Martins’ sandwich shop in 1933, however, attributed the term to the hard-pressed truck farmers who sold their produce in town.

The original po’ boys often featured oysters, but the sub can include any ingredients. The specifications are that those ingredients are hot, and that French bread is used, which is what sets the po’ boy apart from Italian-bread subs. Today, shrimp po’ boys are especially popular and the go-to for Brandi Faulk of New Orleans institution Crabby Jack’s.

“For me, the mark of a true New Orleans po’ boy is when there’s enough shrimp left on the paper for another sandwich,” Faulk tells HuffPost.

Italian: Maine

Locals trace the “Italian” back to Portland in 1899, where an Italian baker, Giovanni Amato, invented the sandwich as a cheap, easy, filling lunch for construction workers. Amato’s is still a Portland go-to for Italians. An outsider might mistake an Italian for any other sub, but Mainers have guidelines. It’s a soft roll with American cheese and ham, topped with onions, tomatoes, pickles, onions, salt, pepper and oil. The fixings are a departure from the Italian ingredients that earned the sub its name, but this particular mix has fans waxing poetic about the sandwiches and their vendors.

Cutty's
Cutty's meat spuckie (left) and its vegetarian eggplant spuckie (right).

Spuckie: Boston

“Spuckie” was a general term for a sub that faded from popularity before being revived a bit more specifically by a few Boston institutions. “Spuckie” comes from “spucadella,” a long Italian sandwich roll made locally. When city pride inspired favorite spots like Cutty’s to spotlight the spuckie, they honed the fixings: Cutty’s features mortadella, finocchiona (a sort of dry, fennel salami), hot capicola, fresh mozzarella, and olive and carrot salad. There’s also a vegetarian version that swaps eggplant for meat.

“Our spuckies are nontraditional; they’re a new take on the local classic,” says Rachel Toomey Kelsey, who owns Cutty’s with her husband, Charles. “Only a handful of places still use the term, but we wanted to bring it back. Plus, it’s just fun as hell to say.”

Torpedo: New York, New Jersey, Connecticut

The nickname “torpedo” is much more clear-cut than the “wedge.” The shape of the bread that the sandwich is on, well, looks like a torpedo. Just as real torpedoes are slimmer than real submarines, it’s thought that torpedo sandwiches are slimmer than subs. For some reason, the term “torpedo” never spread past New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Quizno’s used to have a section of its menu dedicated to “Toasty Torpedos” that looked like baguettes stuffed with sub fixings.

Zeppelin: Eastern Pennsylvania

The birth of the “zeppelin” isn’t too far from “hoagie” land in Philly. In Norristown, Pennsylvania, subs are named “zeppelins” using similar logic as the “blimpie”: shape and size. There are some rules with the zeppelin, as have been laid out by local purveyors Lou’s Sandwich Shop and Eve’s Lunch. There can only be one kind of meat, no lettuce and the bread (Italian) had better be fresh. The classic combo is considered to be salami, provolone cheese, tomatoes, onions and olive oil. You can get pretty much any fixings in there, but zeppelin devotees tend to stick to the classic.

bonchan via Getty Images
This is a chicken spiedie, featuring cubes of meat that have been marinated in an Italian dressing-like marinade. This version features melted cheese, but most versions are served without it.

Spiedie: Binghamton, New York

Binghamton’s “spiedie” is strikingly different from what you’d imagine as a typical sub, but it’s a regional favorite. The star ingredient is marinated cubes of meat, and that’s it ― there usually aren’t any toppings or condiments.

“It was traditionally made with lamb, then it went to beef, pork, and our claim is that we started the chicken spiedie in the ’80s,” Sam Lupo, owner of area favorite Lupo’s, tells HuffPost. The sandwich features Italian bread with cubed, marinated meat from a skewer and little else, though Lupo notes things are getting more liberal and some people like to add cheese, mushrooms or hot sauce.

“True spiedie people eat it plain,” he says. The term comes from the Italian “spiedino,” or “skewer” in English. The man behind the spiedie is thought to be Agostino Iacovelli, who sold them in the late 1930s at his Endicott, New York, restaurant. The spiedie is so beloved in the Binghamton area today that it has its own festival.

Cuban: Florida

Perhaps the most specific set of rules belongs to the Cuban. It must be made on Cuban bread, spread with mustard and stuffed with ham, pork (and salami if in Tampa), Swiss cheese and pickles, and heated in a press that makes it juicy and crispy.

While everyone can agree on its preparation, Miami and Tampa debate which city is responsible for its birth. The sandwich has been traced back to Cuba in the 1500s, when it was made with fish and bird meat in casabe, a crackery bread. The Spaniards arrived with pork and ham, and then Cubans brought that updated version to Florida in the 1800s when the tobacco industry developed. The addition of salami in Tampa is thanks to Italian immigrants getting in the mix, but it’s unclear which city can say it was doing the Cuban first.

Sub: Everywhere

If you’re from anywhere else, you probably just call it a sub. On their long rolls, “subs” look like subs, or submarines. The story could end there, but there are a few different theories on when sub sandwiches first got their nickname.

Shopkeeper Benedetto Capaldo made sandwiches for the workers building submarines for World War II, and they ordered so many that people started calling them “subs.” The Naval Sub Base was known as the “New London Sub Base” after that Connecticut town but was technically in Groton, so both Connecticut cities argue for sub fame. However, printed records of the first mention of a “sub” sandwich date back to 1940, before the U.S. was making submarines for WWII.

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