Man and Sandwich, Part 2

During the school year I like to get up and make the kids’ lunches. Been doing it since they were in kindergarten. To this day they would be content to have a PB & J every day, but I won’t le them. I have too much respect for the sandwich.

Even the stalwart PB&J has been cast aside for a spectacular susbstitute that is so scrumptious and tasty that once you adopt it, you’ll say Smuckers like it’ the filthy word it sounds like it is. But more on that later.

Rusty is the sandwich ascetic. This sandwich of preference is two slices of honey ham on a folded piece of plain wheat bread. He’ll tolerate a slice of pepper jack cheese maybe, but no condiments. No veggies. I pity the fool.

The poor kid doesn’t know what he’s missing. As any sandwich enthusiast knows, it’s the condiments that bring the whole thing together. The right combination of flavor schmears can transform a sandwich from a simple assemblage into a life-altering work of gustatory magnificence. Seriously, this cannot be overstated. Not only do the various tastes work to intermingle with the other ingredients, but condiments serve as edible mortar, literally holding the whole thing together.

The one condiment that seems to bring the strongest reaction from people is mayonnaise. As benign as it is, people seem to either love it or hate it—there is no middle ground. It’s the Neil Young of sandwich spreads.

I was making a sandwich for one of our friends last summer, and casually asked her if she wanted some Best Foods on it. From her violent reaction, you’d think I’d offered to take a dump on her pastrami. “I HATE mayo! It’s disgusting! Gawd, how can anyone put that greasy shit onto a perfectly good sandwich? Jesus, it’s HORRIBLE! GAWD!”

Hold the mayo. Gotcha.

Personally, I like mayo because it adds little in the way of taste (especially the low-fat stuff I’m forced to eat), but offers superior adhesion qualities. And its relative blandness takes a back seat to other condiments like brown mustard, horseradish, relish, etc. I sometimes like to use hummus, which does bring the occasional admonishment from some pita-munching vegetarian: “Dude. You’re totally bogarting the hummus.”

I can’t quite remember what all was on the best sandwich I ever had, but I vividly recall where and when. It was at Ron Setzer’s house, in the spring of 2006. He was playing bass in my band at the time, and we were deep into the mixing stage of American Piehole, my first CD with the Magnificent Bastards. We actually forged a solid friendship over this process, bumping heads and arguing over reverb levels, bass tones, and other such recording minutiae. At one point during a particularly contentious session (he thought my vocal take sucked, and I thought it sucked just right), he suggested we take a break, and go down to the kitchen for a sandwich.

While I sat on the living room couch and listened to that day’s mixes, Ron worked feverishly in the kitchen and soon produced a couple of world-class specimens. Like I say, I don’t remember what was in the sandwich, but I do recall that there was a lot of it. This thing was an aircraft carrier. And the best part was the bread. He’d taken a big loaf of focaccia from Le Petit Outre, sliced it in half, and built each of us a sandwich you could land a plane on. The bread was a couple of days old, and when I bit into it, it bit back. That’s when I learned a very important sandwich lesson: use bread that has some authority. I had to get a good grip on this thing, and use all 23 teeth to subdue it.

We stood at his kitchen counter, discussing the problems we were having finding our sound on the current song, and washing down mouthfuls of sandwich with gulps of Kettle House beer. (Did I mention that this man knows how to live?) We finished our meal and headed back upstairs to his spare-room studio, reinvigorated and inspired to pound this track into shape. The experience of sharing that sandwich with Ron is one of my favorite memories from creating that album, and I fully credit it (and him) for breathing new life into the project. But also, that formidable sandwich served as a serendipitous catalyst for our friendship. His attention to detail and passion for excellence were quite apparent when he made the sandwiches, and I can hear it now when I listen to the CD.

All this from a freakin’ sandwich, you say? Hell yes. I’ll bet a lot of you can name the best sandwich you ever had, and where and when you had it. It might have been that baloney and mustard on Wonder bread you were chewing in the lunchroom when your fourth-grade girlfriend told you she would go steady, and gave you a peck on the cheek. It might have been that roast beef and pastrami on rye you picked up at the deli after burglarizing your first liquor warehouse. Maybe it was a simple turkey and mashed potatoes midnight snack you enjoyed in your brother’s kitchen after sleeping with his wife last Thanksgiving.

So, try as I might, I still feel like I’m coming up short when I try to explain the special bond between Man and Sandwich. There are just so many attractions that appeal to the basic needs of men, who, let’s face it, are little more complex than bears with furniture.

There’s the variety, of course. Literally millions of yummy combinations are possible, and tasty new discoveries present themselves all the time. Take that plain jane PB & J. I like to slice plump grapes in half, film both sides of the bread with peanut butter, and build a sweet, juicy, healthy sandwich that tastes like dessert.

Peanut Butter and Grape Sandwich

This is the sandwich that Big Jelly doesn’t want you to know about.

There’s the portability factor: nothing like pulling a two-pound beauty out of your backpack at 33,000 feet over Omaha, while your seat-mates try to sustain themselves on stale little pretzels and peanuts so old they may have been grown by George Washington Carver himself.

Twenty years ago I hitchhiked from Seattle to Denver, inspired by the peripatetic life of Jack Kerouac. I gave away or sold most of my possessions and went on the road to a new life. Like the King of the Beats, I made a bread bag full of sandwiches for the journey, all built with generous slabs of deli turkey, cucumber and tomato slices, and carefully wrapped to survive long days and nights deep in my duffle bag.

They were gone by the end of the second day.

Still, whenever I eat that exact sandwich, I’m flooded with memories from that trip. But that’s a story for another day.

I’ll leave you with this: Warren Zevon was the subject of a tribute album not long after his untimely death in 2003. He was a musical inspiration to me, an artist who saw the world through a skewed lens. His songs and his lifestyle reflect a sardonic, tortured soul who wasn’t afraid to grab the world by the lapels and spit in its face, and laugh maniacally at the absurdity of it all. He knew all along that our time on earth should be spent making messes, pushing limits, and constantly shining a bright light into those dark corners of our soul, because it could all end at any time.

The title of that album: “Enjoy Every Sandwich.”

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