Sandwiches for Everyone

tuna melt
Even false creation stories become true in time. First there was Adam and Eve, and now there’s Western misogyny. First there was John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, and now tuna melts. Even the tamest packaged loaf owes its ancestral rise to wild yeast.

Is a tuna melt even a sandwich? That depends on whether you demand that a sandwich consist of two bread slices with an interior filling, and whether the person broiling your fish leaves it open-faced. Open-faced sandwiches, of course, are inconvenient. The Danes eat their smørrebrød (meaning, roughly, buttered bread) with a fork and knife, thus negating the efficiency of the sandwich altogether.

I’m ahead of myself: Is a sandwich efficient? John Montagu’s was, apocryphally so—just meat between slices of bread, brought to him so he wouldn’t have to leave the gambling table for a meal. Remember, though, that John was an earl, and this was his leisure time. The sandwich wasn’t something that helped him clock in sooner at an hourly job. How did it get that way? How much were the servants being paid, the ones who slapped together a dry sandwich, newly christened, for the earl. Was he the earl, also, of sandwiches? If we go by his definition, that which faces open is no sandwich at all; not serving its purpose, not eaten by him.

Here’s a theory.

The earl was English. Ask an American about English sandwiches, or visit a British tea shop, and you’ll likely find the crusts cut off, cucumbers commingling with cream cheese on white bread, herbs. These sandwiches won’t fill you up—they’re all fun, frivolity. In The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde’s characters fuss over the snacks, dutiful nephew Algernon defending them from his friend Jack’s mooching fingers: “Please don’t touch the cucumber sandwiches. They’re ordered specially for Aunt Augusta.” Algernon then eats one himself; since Augusta is his aunt, it follows logically that the sandwiches are his, too.

Jack won’t let it stand: “Well, you have been eating them all the time.” Contrite, Algernon offers: “Have some bread and butter. The bread and butter is for Gwendolyn. Gwendolyn is devoted to bread and butter.” I played Gwendolyn, but I doubt my devotion was convincing. Bread and butter to me was utter trash, inefficient poison. I was fourteen and slowly killing myself with starvation. If I was going to eat anything at all, I wanted to feel full. What I consumed onstage hardly registered, didn’t feel like a meal, seemed like someone had stolen that time from me, the rare pleasure of chewing. I nibbled daintily on the bread and butter, just like my character.

In Worcester, Massachusetts the only worthwhile sandwich is a grinder, a crusty Italian loaf filled with meat and cheese, too spicy to swallow. A grinder leaves you thirsty, a lump in your belly, a burn in your throat. Proclaiming to love it marked me hungry, lusty, working-class. Not someone with soft hands who was prepared to die over refined flour. How embarrassing, to be so fussy. How snooty. How rich.

My Polish Catholic great aunt Jennie, born and died in Worcester, worked for years as a waitress at Weintraub’s, the Jewish deli on Water Street, serving sliced tongue and pastrami on rye, softening the sharp pickled flavors with her kind eyes. For fun she visited the casinos in Connecticut. I barely knew her, but I think I remember loving her. I’m learning most of this from the obituary as I write. She died the day I left for college, at the end of the summer I earned $7.15 an hour to make sandwiches at a Polish deli on the west side of town, the Jewish side. Food for employees was discounted 50%, and our specialty, inexplicably, was an Italian grinder.

Here’s how you make one: Slip the crusty loaf out of the paper bag and cut it it in half. Toss the half you won’t be using back up onto the stainless steel shelf with the other loaves, untouched in their bags. Coax the breadknife lengthwise through what’s left on the cutting board, then grab the cottony interior of the bread with your gloved hand and throw it away. Fill the hollow with a handful of shredded lettuce, two round slices of tomato, shavings of harsh white onion. Drizzle oil and vinegar from a squeeze bottle over the top. Shake out dried Italian herbs. Smear crushed, hot red pepper on the lower half of the loaf, whose hinge I hope you have not broken by sliding the knife too far. Then: two slices of ham in long perfect rectangles, two rounds of hot ham edged in crimson, two stiff circles of salami. In order. Close the bread around its fillings, tear off a sheet of slick white paper. Slide the sandwich to the bottom, fold in the corners, roll upwards, away from your body. Secure the flapping white tongue with a flick of masking tape, mark the price—$4.75—in permanent marker. Hand it across the counter only after the customer has paid, and do not complain when you have to make change for a Benjamin smeared with motor oil.

Is this what the earl imagined? A modern sandwich elides servants entirely, facilitates a life with no room for them, and little space for expenditures. (We pooled tips at the deli; at the end of the week I took home $20 at most.) Which is not to say that all sandwiches are cheap. Places like Parm in Manhattan play on nostalgia; the sandwich tastes like childhood, or like the old country, but you can return to as an adult with dignity, can arrive each day at a new taste in the same shape, bread with something in the middle. David Chang recently announced a gourmet fried chicken sandwich shop, playing on the flavors of Chik-Fil-A—taking advantage of working-class credibility—with high-end ingredients. Before that, he finessed the bologna sandwich.

What I’m trying to say is that even the earl, who could afford it, sometimes desired ease over opulence. Peanut butter and jelly will not embarrass. Food is so often classed, seldom versatile. The diner, with its multi-page menu and dozens of offerings, is a rare, affordable American institution, open all night, somehow romantic and expansive without condescension. (And likely manufactured by the Worcester Lunch Car Company, first installed in factory parking lots to provide a quick lunch for those employed inside.)

Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks sold in 1942 to the Art Institute of Chicago for only $3,000, the equivalent of around $43,000 today. In the art world, where major works go for millions, Nighthawks is an egg and cheese on a roll—something common, accessible, delicious, and ordinary. A lone man and a heterosexual couple sit at the counter in the dark, their meals and their backs visible to passersby. This diner is a haven from darkness and hunger, but not from loneliness. Everyone looks bored. The men wear suits. They are not, at least, economically poor.

Jesus multiplied loaves and fishes to feed the hungry; the wandering Israelites fled Egypt with dough on their backs that, unrisen, baked to become matzah in the sun. Bread is basic survival but holy as well, essential, too good for none.

Yet I’m suspicious of the sandwich, its Puritan work ethic, its colonial history. Last month the New York Times ran a taxonomy of American sandwiches. Ligaya Mishan described a Hawaiian fried fish sandwich on a roll made from taro root, an “older Hawaiian staple from the time before sandwiches.” A bahn mi puts Vietnamese ingredients in a French baguette. Delicious, affordable, but carrying bitter histories under the crust. Are American sandwiches a way to make American efficiency digestible? Maria Fernandes was a Dunkin Donuts employee with three jobs who worked herself to death “in a blur of iced coffees and toasted breakfast sandwiches, coffee rolls and glazed jelly doughnuts.” She died, more or less, from serving the goods which are supposed to power the economy that killed her, the economy that lets adults with families earn $8.25 an hour, that allows $8.25 an hour to be insufficient for an apartment, food, gas, a full night’s sleep. Henry Ford, that driver of industry and exploitation, bought a Worcester diner to exhibit at his museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

The sandwich taxonomy is also a litany, sacred and expansive. Reading it, I couldn’t help getting hungry, or thinking of Walt Whitman. Stanza 20 of “Song of Myself” begins: Who goes there? hankering, gross, mystical, nude;/How is it I extract strength from the beef I eat?//What is a man anyhow? what am I? what are you?” Nearly a century later, Allen Ginsburg responded. In his poem “A Supermarket in California,” Ginsburg admits, “In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!” A few lines later, he continues, more directly: “I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber,/poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the/grocery boys.” In high school I read those poems over and over, keeping myself sane during dull dishwashing work at the deli, satisfying myself with imagined meals at a time when I denied myself food. I loved those men, messy and hungry for meat and meaning. Men is gendered, so the word’s not truly universal; But a sandwich could be almost anything.

Is a sandwich still for everyone? In Alphabet for Gourmets, the food writer M.F.K. Fisher recalls going for walks as a child with her aunt Gwen, a cookie in one pocket and “[i]n the other, oh, deep sensuous delight!…a fried egg sandwich!” How efficient, to keep her dinner in her dress. How impractical, for the egg to grow cold and rubbery on the walk, butter smearing inside the pocket. Of course we have to choose: soil ourselves with our dinner, grease stains on cloth revealing hunger and need; or else remain dignified with rumbling stomachs, our food awaiting us indoors, prepared by another.

 

This story is part of our food month series.

Diana Clarke lives in Northampton, Massachusetts. She strongly endorses the eggplant parm grinder at Joe’s. She previously wrote these stories for The Billfold.

Photo: Bert Wagner

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