A Shifter by Any Other Name…

Written by Jack Ries

Over the years, I’ve developed a reputation for being a bit of a trencherman; eating with a certain gusto, especially when I can get my hands on a good sandwich. For a little while, some of my friends jokingly started calling me “Hoagie” due to my love for the food item of the same name. I’d go off on tangents about fresh-baked bread, processed versus roasted cold cuts, or the merits of whole-leaf lettuce, and invariably, someone would utter the words, “Hoagie’s talking about hoagies again.” However, this article isn’t about hoagies. Instead, it’s about another sandwich from the local area. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you “The Shifter.”

So, what is a shifter, exactly? Well, for starters, it’s a sandwich. But it’s not just any sandwich. It’s a sandwich with local roots, and almost exclusively served in Columbia and Marietta. If you talk to someone from somewhere even as close as Lancaster or York, I’d put my money on them not even having heard of a shifter sandwich. So it’s a local delicacy, we know that much already. But what’s in it, and where did it come from?

Let’s take a brief look at the history of the shifter. Local accounts trace the origins of this sandwich back to the 1930s in Columbia. In that day, the railroad yard by the river was bustling with activity twenty four hours a day. Most of the work being done was moving railroad cars from a dropoff point to a pickup point, or in the event of a train wreck or derailment, the yard workers would be sent to clean up the mess. All of this moving and recovering of train cars was done by small steam locomotives called shifters. When crews were out working all day, they rarely had time to stop for lunch. The railroad bosses would head in to Columbia and pick up coffee, water, and sandwiches to feed their hungry crews. Ham and cheese was a popular choice, but the basic sandwich lacked nutrition, so eventually lettuce, tomatoes, and pickles were added to the sandwiches, and the shifter sandwich was born. Later on in history, the shifter was a common choice in the area for company-provided lunches for shift workers, so the name stuck and it hasn’t changed since.

Now that we know the history, let’s examine the ingredients, and what makes it more than just a ham and cheese sandwich. According to the accounts that I was able to find, there is a specific set of ingredients (and some even specify an order in which the ingredients should be stacked). First off, there’s the bread. It should either be white or whole grain. Then comes ham. Roasted ham is best, but I suppose processed ham will work in a pinch. There’s cheese on the sandwich as well. Traditionally, it was Swiss, but any cheese will do. Then we have lettuce, tomato, pickles (dill, if you want it to be historically accurate), and a generous slathering of mayonnaise. Top it with another slice of bread, and you’ve got a delectable concoction fit for any one of us river folk. And remember, if it doesn’t have all of those ingredients, it’s not a shifter; it’s just a fancy ham and cheese.

In order to properly research this sandwich, I decided to visit no less than seven local eateries, all with a shifter on the menu. I also decided (before sampling any sandwiches, I should mention) to design a grading system that would allow me to judge each sandwich based on its own merits. The sandwiches were all graded heavily on ingredients (including historical correctness), freshness, and overall taste. I also threw in a few points for portion and price, as well as up to a half a point for presentation. I know adding presentation to the grading is a bit obtuse, but I like being given a sandwich that looks like it was made with care. With all of that in mind, I have come up with (in my humble opinion) the best shifter sandwiches in the area. All scores are on a 1-10 basis.

Honorable Mention – Union Station Grill 7.7 Points Overall

This was the only sandwich I tasted that was grilled. The grilling adds a very nice texture and some good warmth. It’s also served with french fries, which is always a great pairing with a sandwich. I did have two big gripes, however. First off, at $10.75, it was the most expensive sandwich I tried (by four dollars). Also, there was no lettuce. As I stated earlier, if it doesn’t have all the ingredients, it isn’t a shifter. A bit of a technicality, I know. But I’m sticking to my guns here.

Third Place – Hinkle’s Restaurant – 8.7 Points Overall

Hinkle’s did very well with freshness and taste, although I would have preferred a tiny bit more ham to balance out the flavor. The price point was very good though, coming in at $5.59, including a side of chips. A fine example of the sandwich, presented neatly, and thoroughly satisfying.

Second Place – Rose’s Deli – 8.9 Points Overall

The Shifter at Rose’s is outstanding. You get a ton of chipped ham, a ton of shredded lettuce, and all of it is fresh. This sandwich landed at the number one spot in terms of portion size. The only thing keeping it out of the top spot overall was the sweet pickles. They were very strong flavored, and there were a lot, so their flavor took over the entire sandwich. It was, however, the second-best priced sandwich, ringing up at $5.25.

First Place – Shank’s Tavern – 9.3 Points Overall

Shank’s had very high marks for freshness, taste, and faithful recreation of the sandwich from a historical perspective. Although at $6.75, it was the second most expensive sandwich I tasted, you can tell why it’s a bit more expensive than the others. Roasted ham piled high, two slices of cheese, whole leaf lettuce, fresh delicious tomatoes (not too sweet, not too tart), and thin-sliced dill pickles all team up to make this sandwich our grand champion.
The grand champion! Shank’s Tavern serves up the tastiest shifter sandwich in the area!

All scores and judgment aside, every sandwich I tried was great in its own way. I highly recommend trying one at any of the multitude of locations that serve them in our area. You really won’t be disappointed. And if you do order one, take time to appreciate the history of the sandwich that calls our little stretch of the Susquehanna River’s east shore its home. Maybe even imagine yourself eating one while at the controls of an old-timey steam locomotive. I’ve even got a toy train whistle that you can borrow, if you want. Until next time, sit back, relax, and have a shifter!