Illustration by Shannon Orcutt

Paninis and 10-dollar flatbreads may be hot on the lunch circuit these days, but what was the first “It” sandwich? None other than the classic club — a perfectly layered amalgamation of chicken, bacon, lettuce, tomato, and don’t forget the mayo. Read on as we deconstruct the layers and find out the who, what, where, when, and why behind the always popular — and now healthier — club sandwich.

A short history of a tall sandwich

Unlike the crisp layers of the now-iconic sandwich, the origins of the club sandwich aren’t so easy to see. According to the most popular theory, the club sandwich was invented around 1894 at the Saratoga Club House, an exclusive gambling joint in Saratoga Springs, New York. It’s still up for debate, however, whether the Club House’s founder or chef was the first to create the towering stack of meat, lettuce, tomato, and bread. Fun fact: The small racetrack town in upstate NY must have been a cradle of invention in the 1800s, because the club sandwich’s BFF, the potato chip, was also invented in Saratoga Springs, in 1853.

Luckily for everyone, the star sammie left the gambling tables and was soon a hit around the country. From fancy restaurants to humble lunch spots to ex-King Edward VIII’s dining room table, the club sandwich manages to be satisfying, homey, and a little bit glamorous all at the same time.

The Sandwich Now

Step into any diner, deli, or trendy “Nouveau American” bistro and the winsome club sandwich will likely be on the menu (usually above the equally-ubiquitous hamburger). The mainstay ingredients are: toasted bread, sliced turkey or chicken, bacon, lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise. The Club is a close relative of the equally beloved BLT, which consists of Bacon, Lettuce, and Tomato. The Club came into the world a bit earlier than its simpler cousin, but it’s still a crowd-pleaser with its extra layer of meaty goodness. The only real Club controversy is the turkey/chicken conundrum. Purists like food authority James Beard insist on using chicken, although turkey is actually more common these days. The sandwich usually has a middle slice of bread (carb-lovers rejoice!), but that can be removed to make the whole shebang easier to eat.

How to Make the Healthiest Club Sandwich

All in all, the club sandwich isn’t a super-decadent meal. But, like any sandwich, there are plenty of strategies to boost the vitamins and nutrients and nudge down pesky fat and calories. Here are some strategies to build the healthiest club sandwich ever.

Bread: The original recipe calls for white toast, but sub in 100 percent whole-wheat or whole grain bread to get more complex carbs, fiber, and flavor. Traditionalists may shudder, but nixing the middle slice can also cut down on calories.

Tomato: If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it! Tomatoes are bona-fide superfoods, so slice up plenty of the lycopene-loaded beauties.

Lettuce: Most clubs get their green from iceberg or romaine lettuce, but why stop there? There are plenty of other options to choose from, so take a look around at the grocery store before heading to checkout. Vitamin-rich spinach, exotic red leaf, and spicy arugula are all unexpected — and healthier — ways to fill a club sandwich with flavor and antioxidants.

Turkey or Chicken: Protein-rich, low-fat deli meat can easily veer into dangerfood territory because those lil’ white meat slices often pack a powerful sodium punch. If buying from the deli counter, choose low sodium turkey or chicken breast meat. If DIY is more your style, try these tips for making the best roast turkey ever.

Bacon: From ice cream to pizza, bacon can make just about anything taste better. Unfortunately, it’s not super healthy — two slices contains 70 calories and 6 grams of fat. To make bacon as wholesome as possible, try baking it in the oven or cooking it low and slow in a skillet — a process called rendering — which allows the meat to separate from the fat. Drain and ditch the melted bacon fat (yum?) and keep the crispy strips for the sandwich. Another option is to get the same smoky flavor with proscuitto or pancetta, which are much lighter options. Or nix the meat altogether and nibble on some homemade tempeh “facon.”

Mayo: The club sandwich’s least healthy ingredient is clearly the swipe of mayonnaise that slathers all three slices of bread. Just two tablespoons has about 200 calories and 24 grams of fat, including 4 grams of saturated fat. It ain’t pretty — especially given that most restaurants use more than that serving size on a sandwich. Swap mayo for heart-healthy mashed avocado, green mayo, or get some extra protein with by spreading bread with hummus or tangy Greek yogurt.

Cooking: Preparing a club sandwich is all about the assembly, because the ingredients are just sliced and stacked. Be sure to toast the bread on both sides to avoid soggy slices, especially if using three pieces of bread. Add some festive toothpicks or cocktail umbrellas to hold everything together. Just don’t forget to remove before chomping down!

What’s your favorite way to make a club sandwich? Tell us in the comments below or tweet the author @SophBreene.