Run your eye down the menu above from a Seattle sandwich shop and a question or two may pop into your mind. In my case, it would be “What makes you think a Bronte would eat this mess?” I’m assuming that the combinations resulted from rigorous trial and error, but hold out the possibility that they were selected by lot. Frankly, it’s hard for me to believe that someone actually sat down and said “Let’s slap some finnochiona and salame de cacao with giardiniera and olive tapinade on a baguette — and maybe threw in some provolone — and — wait — pepperonicis! Mouth party!”
Of course, my judgment could be handicapped by the fact that I have no idea whatever what finnochiana, salame de cacao or giardiniera are. In Seattle, this most likely would lower my social standing to something approaching the leprous. They take their food seriously there, it seems, and bring to the sandwich-making process a degree of innovation they must have borrowed from the skunk works folks at nearby Boeing.
What in hell has happened to sandwiches? It’s almost impossible to get one that is recognizable these days. In New York City, which once boasted a first-class deli or coffee shop on almost every midtown block, we have mostly given way to pannini salons, chipotle palaces, over-the-top salad bars and a raft of pretenders catering to a lunchtime crowd that clearly embraces the esoteric and spurns the mundane. Lunch, like everything else in New York (including voting for mayor) is now an adventure.
Those few shops that still offer relics like chicken salad, ham and swiss and all the other soothing fodder of my youth display little knowledge or skill at their craft. To start with, they are now staffed by people who are as unfamiliar with this cuisine as I am with giardiniera. They are pleasant, industrious and efficient, but often unfamiliar with either English or mayonnaise, so that orders, even when repeated several times, tend to come out either missing one or more ingredients or sporting a few that were unwanted and unasked for — usually lettuce and tomato, which they put on everything except a BLT.
The fact is, real sandwich shops have become as scarce as rickshaws here in the Big Apple. Even on the upper west side, where pastramis on rye seemed almost to sprout from the sidewalk some years ago, the rot has become almost unavoidable. Recently, I ducked into what seemed to be a promising place, took a seat at a counter and ordered an egg salad sandwich, no lettuce, no tomato, on white. This dialogue ensued:
“May I suggest you try our seven grain bread? It’s really fabulous. We can toast it.”
“No, thanks. Just plain white.”
“We bake it right here on premises.”
“The white bread?”
“No, the seven-grain bread.”
“Just white, please.”
A few minutes later he reappeared with the sandwich. On seven-grain bread. With lettuce and tomato. He smiled. The word “patronizing” would not be out of place here.
“I thought that perhaps if you just tried it….”
I wish I could tell you I said something clever, or did something clever, or in fact had any response at all that would restore a sense of balance to a world obvious gone hideously wrong. No such luck. The best I could manage was a mumbled “You win.” I got up and walked out. I was hungry. There wasn’t another egg salad sandwich for miles.