On the heels of Lititz winning the coveted title of America’s Coolest Small Town in an online contest conducted by Budget Travel in 2013, Columbia was designated as one of the 20 Best Small Towns to Visit in 2014 by Smithsonian magazine. I have long considered Lancaster County to be a pretty great place to live, but when a respected outside source validates this belief, there’s reason to celebrate.
As Lititz did last year, Columbia has planned many events to commemorate this recognition. One curious happening is the “Shifter Showdown,” and it’s the history behind this event that initially caught my interest.
Until now, I would have guessed that a shifter is the handle in a manual transmission car. Apparently though, everyone in Columbia knows better: the Shifter is really a sandwich. Moreover, to be considered the real deal, the Shifter must be made in a precise way.
The Shifter originated in the 1930s when Columbia was a bustling railroad town. According to John “Tink” Lutz, the sandwich was created by the late George “Cork” Lutz and Charles “Todder” Roberts.
Back in the day, small steam engines, called shifters, moved the railroad cars around the yard to get them in the correct position for transport. If a wreck occurred on the railroad, three or four work cars would be sent to the area to clean up the mess. To feed their crews, railroad bosses would go to the Columbia hotels where they would order a gallon of coffee at one hotel, a gallon of soup at another, and sandwiches (usually ham and cheese) at yet another hotel.
Todder had a restaurant in the front room of his home on the 400 block of Cherry Street, and Cork ran the Lutz Hotel (or Lower Hotel as it was sometimes called) around the corner on South Fifth Street. Todder got so sick and tired of making plain ham and cheese sandwiches that he told Cork they had to come up with something more nutritious. To that end, they sliced freshly baked white bread, layered on ham that they had roasted and carved, added Swiss cheese sliced from a wheel, put crisp lettuce and then fresh tomato on top. Dill pickle slices, mayonnaise and another slice of white bread completed the package—in that exact order. If the order of the ingredients was changed, it wasn’t a Shifter.
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Though any claims of authenticity would surely be negated by my use of sweet pickles, doing so was the perfect excuse to showcase a homemade pickle recipe that has developed a surprisingly loyal following among my family and friends. It also made my version of the sandwich Shifter-Showdown worthy. And though I took a couple of liberties, also using whole grain bread, I did maintain the proper order.
As one of the many events planned in a yearlong celebration of the Smithsonian honor, the “Shifter Showdown” is scheduled for Saturday, September 13th. Categories will include most authentic, best variation, best modern version, and the largest. The Showdown will be held at the Columbia Farmers Market on South Third Street in Columbia from 11:00 am until 2:00 pm. Applications are available at the Market House or at the Susquehanna Valley Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center. Prizes will be awarded for the best in each category for both amateurs and professionals.
A special thank you goes out to Claire Storm who shared the history behind the Shifter.
- White bread (may substitute whole grain)
- Swiss cheese (I use Sargento 100% natural slices)
- Vine-ripened tomatoes, thickly sliced
- Dill pickles (or [Seven-Day Pickles|https://fountainavenuekitchen.com/seven-day-pickles/]; recipe follows)
Layer the ham, and then the Swiss cheese on a slice of bread. (I like chipped ham for the texture and use approximately 2 ounces of ham and two slices of Swiss cheese per sandwich.)
Top with crisp lettuce, juicy tomato slices, and pickles—in that order. Spread a nice layer of mayonnaise on the top piece of bread, place over the pickles, and enjoy.
For the record, there was no mention as to which way the sandwich was cut. I cut on the diagonal–and served with potato chips. (Tucking a few of the chips in the sandwich adds a welcome crunch!)