The past fortnight has given me to ruminate on the nature of sandwiches and their role in my life. For John Montagu’s great invention is no static thing; my experience of sandwiches reflects certain of the stages of my existence.
First there was the humble classic PB & J, which my 5-year-old-self enjoyed, with the exception of the crusts. As far as I know, no child has ever liked the crust of his PB & J. But that’s what you get for making a sandwich with Wonder Bread. When I made my own, I used copious amounts* of strawberry jam rather than grape jelly; not only did I prefer the flavor, but it was marginally less runny and (though I hardly articulated this to myself) less likely to stain one’s clothing if some of the generously-spread jam leaked out.
This satisfied me for some time in grade school. Then someone (probably my brother Peachy, and probably by virtue of being the oldest and in high school football practice) decided that corned beef sandwiches were the order of the day, where “the” means “every.” We didn’t get cheese with them and I have always loathed condiments on my sandwiches, but Mum was careful to give us tiny Tupperware containers full of dill pickle slices to put on top. Anyone whose lunch must sit for several hours before lunchtime arrives recognizes the necessity of keeping such fixings away from the bread or bun, lest it be soggy and horrifying. My classmates found my lunches slightly peculiar, though Nina approved of the pickles.**
Somewhere there came a phase when I firmly believed that no sandwich was a complete sandwich without meat, lettuce, and tomatoes (with pickles when appropriate). But since these also tended toward the soggy, they made for convoluted packing.*** Mum made a lot of lunches with supper leftovers instead. The sandwich paradigm shifted not a whit through college, though I sometimes wondered how I could follow the schema so faithfully in the dining hall and end up with lackluster sandwiches. The reason, of course, was the green-but-tasteless lettuce, the out-of-season, yellow, flavorless tomatoes, the depressingly square American cheese, and watery deli ham. But let us not speak of those dark days.
And then I graduated and began working at the firm, where I came to know and enjoy both cream cheese and Jimmy Johns in one week. I wondered why it was that I would prefer a JJ sandwich to Subway or my own concoctions. Eventually I concluded that their superior sandwichery was not witchery, but entailed the use of freshly-cut meat that hadn’t dried out. Suddenly my homemade lunches became nothing more than bags of bread, meat, cheese, and the occasional other topping for texture’s sake.
The latest installment follows my recognition of the fact that JJ’s Italian Night Club delights me more than their Ultimate Porker, despite the fact that the U.P. has bacon. This should not be possible. Clearly the onion, genoa salami, and capicola have much to recommend them! The pungency of the onion and the slight peppery quality of the salami and capicola contribute to the Italian Night Club experience, which (unlikely though it may seem) outweighs fast food bacon.
And that is how I came to make a grilled sandwich spread with cream cheese, topped with sliced scallions, sprinkled with mozzarella, and full of neatly arranged bits of ham and salami. It is a thing of beauty and delight. That, friends, and not gambling or convenience, is what sandwiches are all about.
¹Latin titles are cool, often cooler than English titles. But given the lateness of the sandwich’s christening, there’s no corresponding Latin word I know of. The region of Sandwich, unsurprisingly, was named by Anglo-Saxons, so Harenaportibus is my rendering of Sand-wicæ in Latin (and in the ablative, no less. That took no less than the consultation of my favorite Classics major).
*There is probably some way of categorizing people by virtue of how generously they spread things on bread. I have always been generous when spreading jam, butter, and (eventually) cream cheese. But then, I go to the other extreme with ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise, which is to say I avoid them like the plague in my own food.
**Nina was my BFF for a portion of 6th grade; that did not seem a contradiction in terms at the time. She went through a period of being obsessed with dill pickles, such that we planned a sort of Pickle Dictatorship wherein everyone would be forced to eat pickles and detractors would be drowned in brine. When that phase ended, she loathed them awhile; and eventually she came to have the same casual regard most other people have.
***You could argue that BLTs fulfill all my sandwichy desires given their ingredients. Indeed, I love BLTs very much and firmly believe that no one makes a better BLT than my father, who carefully times the cooking of the bacon and the toasting of the bread; who cuts the tomatoes in wedges rather than slices so that they can overlap a bit and cover the bacon better. Arthur Dent the Sandwich Maker has nothing on Daddy, despite his impressive cutlery. Anyway, that’s not the point. The point is, you can’t pack a BLT. It wouldn’t be warm anymore and thus lose all its desirability.