Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
ALGERNON: "And, speaking of the science of Life, have you got the cucumber sandwiches cut for Lady Bracknell?"
A cucumber sandwich is, unsurprisingly, a sandwich containing cucumber. The cucumber sandwiches provided a running theme in the opening scene of The Importance of Being Earnest. More recently, they have provided a somewhat heavy-handed vehicle of resentful social commentary: it might be hard to find a deft and witty example.
Stereotypically, cucumber sandwiches formed an integral part of a polite afternoon tea, a formal light meal served some time between 3.30 and 6 p.m.
ALGERNON. [stiffly.] "I believe it is customary in good society to take some slight refreshment at five o'clock."
They are also traditionally supposed to be served in the tea-break at club cricket matches in England.
A proper cucumber sandwich contains paper-thin slices of cucumber, with the peel either removed or scored lengthwise with a fork before slicing, quite recently placed on buttered white bread (the butter preventing the juice from dampening the bread), with another buttered slice of bread on top with the butter face down. The bread can scarcely be too thin. The crusts of the bread should be removed and the sandwich sliced diagonally twice. This will create four small triangles.
A few drops of lemon juice may be dashed on the cucumber slices. Modern variants (largely of American origin) do exist, involving cream cheese, chopped dill or spices, brown bread, salmon, and even leaving the crusts on. One specific American variant includes a spread called benedictine, which is a green soft spread based on cream cheese, cucumbers, and Benedictine liqueur. These benedictine cucumber sandwiches are frequently served at outdoor gatherings during summer months as an hors d'oeuvre. British cucumber sandwich purists (if any exist) would frown on these variants.
Cucumber sandwiches contain little protein and so are generally considered "not filling". This was deliberate. Because of cucumber's cooling nature, cucumber sandwiches are often eaten in the summer months or in warmer climates; parts of India, for example. The popularity of the cucumber sandwich reached its zenith in the Edwardian era, when cheap labor and plentiful coal enabled cucumbers to be produced in hotbeds under glass through most of the year.
Cucumber sandwiches are usually associated with the upper classes of the UK, where working people preferred a more filling, protein-filled sandwich, in a "meat tea" that might substitute for supper, and are often used as a kind of shorthand, in novels and films to identify upper class people, sometimes in a derogatory way. Some writers have attempted to draw out an association between the daintiness of the sandwich and the perceived effeteness of the British aristocracy. This association was used for humorous effect by Bertrand R. Brinley in The New Adventures of the Mad Scientists' Club:
The Colonel smiled his appreciation, but looked askance at the sandwiches. "Cucumber sandwiches?" he said uncertainly.
"Yes! They're very good," said Henry.
"Have one," said Freddy, taking a handful. "They make you burp."
A further cliché is that cucumber sandwiches were considered appropriate delicacies to offer to visiting clergy, in times when such visits were still a common feature of English middle class life. In numerous scenes featuring the words "More tea, vicar?" it is highly likely that cucumber sandwiches also appeared on the menu. It is at least possible that some harmless satire was intended, the implication being that Anglican clergy were as limp, ineffectual, and tasteless as thinly sliced cucumber. Or as refreshing, depending on your point of view.
With the declining popularity of tea as a meal in the UK, largely as a result of the increasing proportion of women working outside the home, there has been a corresponding decline in the popularity of cucumber sandwiches.
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