A GOOD SANDWICH is a humble creature. It knows its place yet is confident of our affections; it has no need of regular praise. A sandwich provides the comfort of familiarity, like Granny’s lap. On your first day at school, a sandwich says, “Don’t worry, you’ll make friends!” As your first personally crafted meal, a sandwich says, “You are capable and fiercely independent. You made me!” At that grown-up job, it says, “You are frugal! You will be retired by the time you are 45!” After a holiday meal, when you are alone raiding the fridge, a sandwich says, “It’s OK. Holidays are difficult, but I am here for you.” During these glorious early days of spring, a sandwich whispers, “Take me outside! Eat me with the sun on your face and you will feel free!”
As with many tasty food items, we must thank the French for our portable friends. Commanded by the government to provide midday meals for peasants, the kitchen workers at chⴥaus devised this thrifty method of cramming whatever was handy between two slices of bread. John Montague, that famous fourth Earl of Sandwich, visited one of these estates and was enamored with the convenient face-stuffing potential. Throw a few Jewish deli owners and Italian meat smokers into the mix, and today you have the most basic, beloved, and versatile meal in the world.
Tuck one in a brown bag and share with the birds. Order a giant size and munch with friends. Eat one hunched over your desk while you’re trying to make that retire-by-45 thing happen. Throw a couple in your pack and spend the day at a park. Inexpensive, filling, and spiritually substantial, a sandwich is comforting without being babyish. Age may wither the appeal of a specific sandwich, but there is no danger of custom staling its infinite variety.
For the closest thing to a school lunch you can have without actually being enrolled, head to Bakeman’s (122 Cherry, 622-3375). The bread is soft and unthreatening and can be piled with fresh chunks of turkey ($3) or smooth, warm slices of meatloaf ($3.25). Mayo, mustard, onion, and lettuce are all free; cheese and tomatoes are 15 cents a slice. Another 75 cents gets you the house lemonade, powerful and sweet, and $1 adds a meltingly fresh slice of cake. If your order’s to go, it’s dropped in a plain brown lunch bag; a short lecture about doing your homework before turning on the television seems imminent.
Zootie’s Cafe (324 15th E., 325-9178) is a more recent entry to the sack-lunch category. Their egg salad ($3.95) is exactly like Mom’s, and the nice woman who makes it even has the sweet-but-slightly-harried expression Mom had when it was her turn to drive the car pool. God bless ’em, there’s even a genuine Fluffernutter ($2.95) on the menu! When was the last time you treated yourself to peanut butter and Marshmallow Fluff on squishy white bread? Grab a bar cookie ($1.25 each)—seven-layer and lemon are standouts—and an insulin shot to go. This is the cafe to which Capitol Hillers should take the kids, if they want the kids to then grow up and write odes to sandwiches in alternative newsweeklies. Memories will be made.
IF ALL THESE ARE a little bland for your taste, then you already know about the Reuben. A good Reuben is a Dadaist creation: What the hell are they thinking, and what am I supposed to do with it now? You, sir, should grab a stack of napkins, roll up your sleeves, and get to eating. At Roxy’s (1329 First, 381-8800, and 2364 N.W. 80th, 784-6121 ext. 3), it has just enough sweet dressing and tangy cheese, piles of kraut, and enough meat for about nine of its kind (for $7.25). It is impossible to eat without dropping half of it on your shirt, so wear something that goes with Thousand Island. Onion rings, a house-made half-sour pickle, and a root beer complete the meal. Think of the resulting burps as airy little haikus of satisfaction. Do not try to match the proper syllable count, or you may be asked to leave.
The Other Coast Cafe (5315 Ballard N.W., 789-0936) also makes a damn fine Reuben, even if it’s slightly unorthodox and has an astonishing $8.90 price tag. Stone-ground mustard is thrown on with the bright red Thousand Island, and while the combination packs a spicy-sweet punch, it also overwhelms the kraut and cheese flavors. Tender and peppery, the pastrami was crafted by a shaman on the sacred Isle of Deli, easily compensating for the failures of the dressing. The bread almost holds up—which is the most you can ask of a Reuben made with sacred meat—and the size is plenty big enough for two.
Between Fluffernutter and Reuben lies a most happy medium: the classic Italian sub. S.U.B.S. Sandwiches (1919 1/2 Fifth, 441-6366, and 4754 University Way, 527-2040) has been baking bread and slicing meats since Reagan was president. The brown bread is the greatest—slightly sweet, chewy, and sturdy enough to accommodate the layers of coppacola, salami, prosciuttini, and provolone. Dressed with the simplest oil, vinegar, and oregano, the subtle tang is far tastier than overspiced bottled dressing and more interesting than mayonnaise. These are the perfect outdoor sandwiches. Messy, but not fall-apart messy, they come wrapped in white butcher paper that allows you to eat while lying on a patch of warm grass. “Think of the warm sun, the light breeze, the birds chirping. Go now,” whispers the sandwich. You must obey.