One of the masterminds behind sandwich blog Sandwich Tribunal, Jim Behymer, also posted a video recreating the sandwich—and it garnered a few illuminating comments. “My Syrian grandmother made me a similar sandwich on pita bread,” reads one. The commenter laid out his grandmother’s recipe: labneh, olive (“preferably black”), dried powdered mint leaves, and a drizzle of olive oil. Another comb through the BA Instagram post led me to a corroborating comment: “Dunno about this rendition, but labneh and olives on pita is always a yes.”
Perhaps, I thought, the sandwich might also have roots in Syria, or, even more broadly, Middle Eastern cuisine. The recipe cited sounded similar to one I’d seen on the menu at Edy’s Grocer, a Lebanese deli, market and catering company in New York, owned by Edy Massih, a chef who grew up in Lebanon. It was the “labneh toast,” he confirmed. “I grew up eating this every day; I think it’s Lebanese. Of course, everyone in the Middle East will say it’s from their country.” The version Edy grew up eating is a bit different from S&P’s and even the Syrian version scooped from YouTube comments; labneh is the base, and in addition to green olives, mint, and olive oil, the sandwich gets topped with za’atar, tomato, and cucumber before rolling it all up to eat.
But a tweet revealed another olive sandwich origin story, as well as the fond memories to match. The S&P version looked a lot like the Argentinian sandwiches de miga, designer Lille Allen wrote, in which olives and cream cheese are layered with other toppings (typically ham and cheese) between crustless slices of bread. “We had them a lot growing up in casual get-togethers,” Allen says. The sandwiches are a favorite in Argentinian delis, she says, where they’ll offer a ham and cheese version with three layers, or a “mixto” in which one layer consists of chopped up olives. Now, Allen lives in Las Vegas, but olive and cream cheese sandwiches (with ham and cheese) remain a nostalgic favorite. “I get them as comfort food from the single Argentinian deli in town,” she says. “They remind me of home and my extended family.”
Some olive and cream cheese lovers even claim it as a snack native to the American South. A piece in Southern Living from 2022 lays out the recipe for an olive and cream cheese combination that’s boosted with garlic powder, pepper, and Worcestershire sauce. There, it’s described as a “Southern grandmother specialty.” And some Bon Appétit commenters agree. “Being a Southern girl, ours always had chopped walnuts or pecans stirred in,” one comment on the original sandwich post from Elazar reads.
Where does the olive and cream cheese sandwich come from? Perhaps it contains multitudes; perhaps it refuses to dull its complexity in a world that despises nuance; perhaps I’ve spent too much time anthropomorphizing this sandwich. Perhaps it’s simply a product of people—Jewish, Syrian, Lebanese, Argentinian—moving around the world and spreading their love of brine and dairy—yes, in other words, globalization. The olive and cream cheese diaspora is alive and thriving.
Whatever the case, one thing is certain: The olive and cream cheese sandwich has been a lunchtime icon for at least a century in many parts of the globe, where people feel so strongly about it that they claim it and make it their own. Given how good it seems to taste, that part isn’t a mystery at all.