The Sandwich Issue

Finger Sandwiches

In the pantheon of famous sandwiches, which New Orleans creation should get the highest pedestal? Is it the roast beef po-boy? The oyster loaf? The muffaletta?

Just for argument’s sake, I’m going to throw out one more suggestion: the humble New Orleans finger sandwich. The sheer ubiquity of these bite-sized favorites should qualify them as a contender. In New Orleans — and all along the Gulf Coast — they’re served with a regularity that would raise eyebrows anywhere else in the United States.

Around the country, finger sandwiches, if you can find them, are a fussy business. Google the term, and you’ll get results for cucumber sandwiches and salmon toast points, the kinds of dainties found at a British afternoon tea service — not that there’s anything wrong with that.

But it’s not what we’re talking about here. In metro New Orleans, finger sandwiches are hardly fancy affairs laden with flavors. They are simple — downright modest — both in proportion and in ingredients. White or wheat bread, untoasted. Ham, turkey, roast beef, or egg salad, tuna salad and chicken saladA thin swipe of mayo.

You can eat them in two bites. Put out a tray, and they’ll be nearly gone by the time the wine is uncorked.

On the Gulf Coast, finger sandwiches are a prerequisite for any get-together, large or small, fancy or casual. At the finest of homes, they’re served on a silver platter with linen napkins, hardly amiss on a white tablecloth spread. On the parade route, they’re pulled from ice chests and perched on folding tables, perfectly sized to gobble down between passing floats.

And for popularity, they rival the po-boy in the mind-boggling number eaten per capita. Rouses stores last year sold 8.9 million finger sandwiches. That’s not a typo: 8.9 million, eaten at every type of life milestone: weddings, funerals, bridal showers, baby christenings. (If divorce parties were a thing, they’d no doubt show up there, too.)

You can even find them at the gas station. Danny & Clyde’s, the South Louisiana gas station/convenience store chain, offers finger sandwiches on its catering menu.

All of this begs a few questions: How did finger sandwiches become a Gulf Coast mainstay? And more important, why aren’t they served in other places? Finally, why can you eat your body weight in them when you’d never dream of eating the equivalent amount in full-sized sandwiches?

Maybe the answer to all of those questions is plainly obvious: “It’s comfort between soft white bread,” said Mike Westbrook, Rouses’ Director of Deli, Cold Cuts and Sushi, laughing, as he acknowledged the astounding popularity of the finger sandwich. The biggest seller for Rouses is the 24-count finger sandwich tray, always stocked and ready to go in the deli area of the stores. Rouses also sells 48- and 96-count trays, as well as special-order finger sandwiches.

“They are a staple here, as much as milk and eggs are in our stores,” Westbrook said. Finger sandwiches easily account for 40% of the deli sales for Rouses stores, he added — a fact that absolutely shocked him when he moved here.

Westbrook was raised in Georgia and spent much of his career in the grocery industry in the Carolinas and along the East Coast. There, nary a finger sandwich can be found ready-made in a grocery case, though some stores might offer them for special orders. “On the East Coast, you will not see catering trays out like you do here in a grocery store; it just doesn’t exist,” he said.

“At Rouses, we call the catering cases Party Central, and it’s important that they are always fresh, full and have variety,” Westbrook continued. “It’s engrained in our culture.” The holiday season is a peak time, followed only by Carnival, graduation and football seasons. During those periods, some of Rouses’ deli staff work 24 hours a day to manage all the special orders and to keep the ready-to-go trays stocked fresh daily.

Judy Walker, who served as the food editor for The Times-Picayune from 2004 to 201was equally perplexed by the abundance of these bite-sized sandwiches when she moved to New Orleans. She lived in Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas, and previously worked as food editor for The Arizona Republic in Phoenix. In none of those areas were finger sandwiches served often.

“They do have them other places, but they are for tea in fancy places,” she said. “My only memory of it as a kid was when I was sick, and my mother would cut the crust off the toast. I was struck when I moved to New Orleans and, all of a sudden, there are finger sandwiches in every store and at every party.”

Their local popularity can likely be chalked up to the simplest reasons: They’re affordable; they’re easy to buy or to make at home; and everyone likes them, young and old.

“I also think it’s tied to the drinking culture here,” Walker said, noting that the sandwiches are a quick way to pad the stomach when parades or parties stretch from day to night.

When did finger sandwiches start to become popular here? That’s a harder question to answer. A quick scan of historic newspaper references finds that the term “finger sandwich” was rarely — if ever — used in print in 19th-century New Orleans. But a column from the 1898 Times-Democrat newspaper in New Orleans gives a recipe for shrimp sandwiches that clearly are intended to be bite-sized: “Pick a half pint of shrimps [sic], put them in a bowl with two or three ounces of butter, season with a little salt and cayenne pepper and pound them to a paste. Moisten with a few drops of tarragon vinegar. Cut some thin slices of bread, butter them, spread half of them with the paste, fold the remaining half over these, and press them lightly together. Cut the sandwiches into fingers or quarter in that dainty fashion, arrange on a folded napkin with parsley garnish and serve.” (One would assume the shrimp should be cooked before making this recipe.)

Walker, in her writing for The Times-Picayune, noted that the 1901 Picayune Creole Cook Book offered a chapter on canapés, which likely are the precursor to the finger sandwich.

“No book on Creole cookery would be complete without reference to the delightful canapés that are so extensively used at breakfasts, luncheons, dinners or suppers, and whose methods of preparation, distinctively Creole, have added to the reputation of the Creole cuisine,” the Picayune Creole Cook Book said. “Canapé is a French term, literally meaning a couch or bed. In the culinary sense, it is used as a bed on which to rest savory foods. Usually, the canapé is in the form of sliced bread, or toast, or crackers, covered with finely minced meats, pastes, etc., and handsomely decorated. It is a term that is also applied to the ordinary sandwich.”

By the 1950s, the term finger sandwich was popping up often in the newspaper, in advertisements for caterers and eateries. D. H. Holmes Restaurant, for example, touted its finger sandwiches served with “a salad and a sweet arranged on an attractive plate,” from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. daily for 50 cents.

River Road Recipes, the popular Junior League of Baton Rouge cookbook series first printed in 1959, includes recipes for smoked chicken salad sandwiches as well as fancier spinach and water chestnut sandwiches; both recipes instruct the cook to “cut each sandwich into four pieces.” Voilà, finger sandwiches.

Back in 2011, longtime Louisiana food writer Marcelle Bienvenu reminisced in her newspaper column about her mother enlisting her to make sandwiches for the family’s parties, instructing the young Marcelle to “spread the filling to the edges of the bread, trim the crusts, and then cut them into points or squares.”

Today, popping open a tray from Rouses is by far the easiest — and most common — way to enjoy finger sandwiches at any gathering. But they are simple to make at home, if you’re so inclined. If you do, mind the following tips:

  • If you are cutting off the crusts, it’s best to trim them with a serrated knife so as not to smush the soft bread.
  • Once the sandwiches are made, diagonally cut them into quarters, so they make perfect triangles.
  • To keep the bread from drying out, cover the sandwiches loosely with a clean damp kitchen towel and refrigerate until serving time.

The smoked chicken salad version below, from River Road Recipes III: A Healthy Collection, is a good go-to. Or you can use Mrs. Rouse’s Chicken Salad.


From River Road Recipes III: A Healthy Collection


  • 6 boneless chicken breast halves, smoked and skinned
  • 1 cup low-fat mayonnaise
  • 3 stalks celery, minced
  • 2 tablespoons green onion, minced
  • 1 teaspoon Creole seasoning
  • ¼ teaspoon black pepper
  • 26 slices of whole wheat bread


Chop chicken and blend with mayonnaise. Add celery, green onions, Creole seasoning and pepper. Refrigerate. Spread mixture on half of the bread and top with remaining bread. Cut each sandwich into four pieces.