The Origins of the Olive and Cream Cheese Sandwich

The sandwich itself looks unassuming: simple white bread, cream cheese, and a chaotic pile of roughly chopped green olives. Yes, the olive and cream cheese sandwich from Manhattan lunch counter S&P, which Bon Appétit restaurant editor and famed sandwich enthusiast Elazar Sontag reported on weeks ago, appears humble. But the response to posts by BA and Elazar on social media has revealed that it’s much more than a sandwich. Thousands of comments poured in, heralding it as a beloved childhood snack, the centerpiece of precious memories that brought people back to happy, care-free, and brinier times. 

Photograph by Alex Huang, Food Styling by Mieko Takahashi

Somehow this three-ingredient sandwich was a vital emotional touchstone for people worldwide. Olive and cream cheese sandwich lovers recalled eating the creamy-salty snack around the world, from New York to Lebanon to California to Argentina.

“What you need is pumpernickel bread and olives-it was the perfect sandwich when I worked in NYC in the 70s!”

“My grandmother always made these for me, and then for my daughter. We both love it, but other people think it’s disgusting.”

“Born and raised on cream cheese & olive sandwiches. Got some weird looks when I got it in my lunchbox but truly a favorite still!”

“I’ve had a rough week missing mom who passed away ten years ago and this sandwich just made me tear up. I can picture her in her tennis outfit eating this with a Diet Pepsi.”

Among all these comments and memories, the question of the olive and cream cheese sandwich’s origins grew mysterious and contentious. How could everyone fondly recall the same sandwich so differently? Where did it originate? I set out to find some answers. 

Though she now lives in Tennessee, for James Kicinski-McCoy, the olive and cream cheese sandwich post immediately brought her back to the first time she tried one as a kid in California, when her best friend made her an olive and cream cheese sandwich after school one day. “I remember being skeptical of the combination,” she says. But a smile bloomed on her face after the first bite, and she was hooked. “I ate them every single day for as long as I can remember,” Kicinski-McCoy says. “I still eat them from time to time, when I think about them some thirty years later.” 

Sophie Russek, who grew up in Westchester, New York, remembers eating olive and cream cheese sandwiches nearly every day as a kid—usually on untoasted whole wheat bread layered with green olives that are cut in half, plus a generous spread of cream cheese. Russek thinks the sandwich might have sprung from the Jewish culinary tradition. “I’m pretty sure it’s an Ashkenazi thing,” says Russek, who is Jewish themself. “Everyone Jewish knows olive and cream cheese sandwiches slap.” Russek seemed sure of themself, but I had to admit that I, a Jewish person from Rhode Island, had never heard of the olive and cream cheese sandwich, and when I double checked with my fellow Jew Elazar, he confirmed that he hadn’t either growing up in California’s Bay Area. 

Russek’s mother, Judy Garfinkel, remembers the first time she tasted one at five years old on a trip to the beauty parlor with her mother in the late ‘50s on Long Island. It was lunchtime, and her mother suggested they send out to the nearby Jewish deli for olive and cream cheese sandwiches. “I was like, ‘That sounds disgusting,’” Garfinkel remembers, “and my mother said, ‘You’re gonna love it’.” Soon, it arrived on toasted rye as Garfinkel had requested. “Something about the combination of smooth cream cheese, and the salt from the briny olives, and then the crunch of the toast—it was just…it was kind of amazing,” she says. The sandwich was a favorite for years. “It’s a very pleasant memory,” she recalls, “it makes me want to go have another one.”

S&P, the lunch counter at the epicenter of the olive and cream cheese question, seems to support Russek’s thesis. Co-owner Eric Finkelstein has said that he thinks of S&P as a ”Jewish luncheonette,” and the fare they offer is certainly Jewish. S&P didn’t respond when asked for comment, but its menu tells a distinct story: latkes, and pastrami on rye, and matzo brei—Jewish classics all. 

Barry Enderwick’s YouTube channel, Sandwiches of History, traces the sandwich to an American cookbook from 1909 written by Eva Greene Fuller called The Up-to-Date Sandwich Book: 400 Ways to Make a Sandwich. There, it’s listed among reliable favorites like a Parmesan and Celery Sandwich, Dairy Sandwich (?), and something called Bummers Custard Sandwich. Barry’s video about the olive and cream cheese also inspired a flurry of nostalgic comments, but it was inconclusive about its origins. Nothing came up when I dug for more info about Fuller, the fascinatingly mysterious cookbook writer. Via email, though, Enderwick pointed me towards The International Jewish Cookbook from 1919 written by Florence Kreisler Greenbaum, which features a slightly tweaked version in which mayonnaise takes the place of cream cheese. 

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.