The Classics Would Like You To Know They're Flattered, But They Don't Need Reinvention
Closing out #SandwichWeek in praise of low-key genius.
September 29, 2020 ● 3 min read
By Richie Nakano | Collage ChefsFeed
When it comes to sandwiches, there’s a formula.
A sandwich can be boring, and make you shoot glitter from your eyeballs at the same time. There’s something about its simplicity that tricks us into believing we can corrupt it without bringing the whole house of cards down. (We are always wrong.) Done right, it rarely lets you down, but when it does? Soul-crushing.
The truth is that even chefs who know better, when left to their own devices, try to improve upon The Sandwich. Their inner stunt cook gets the best of them and they pile a bunch of mismatched ingredients atop one another in an effort to create something really mind-bending, man—and then, with a smarmy sense of irony, call it something mundane and familiar. It’s like trying to find your childhood from inside of a rave.
Listen, the classics are just fine the way they are. Canonical sandwiches are born whole and perfect, like that oyster you learned not to mess with or that ripe piece of fruit. Not to go all Alice Waters on you, but sometimes simple really is better.
Ham sandwiches, for example. Ham sandwiches are good. No, not ham and orange cheese. When salty ham meets bracing mustard on anything from white bread to a fancy-ass baguette, it is a perfect bite. That the history of this sandwich dates back almost 170 years speaks to its appeal…and yet the culinary world is rife with attempts to “improve” on it. Is grilled levain with goat cheese and prosciutto inherently bad? No. Is it a ham sandwich? Also no.
Turkey sandwiches seem less susceptible to cheffing up than other sandwiches, and I don’t know why that is, but I need to relay this story because turkey sandwiches are near and dear to me. I love turkey sandwiches. My friends say this makes me basic and I do not care. Turkey is good and delicious and is not at all to be confined to the holidays. So it was with great dismay that on a trip to New York City a few years ago, I was served a “Turkey Sandwich” at a very fancy, Michelin-rated restaurant that looked more or less like a meat Frisbee. It was described to me as a turkey thigh roulade wrapped in lavash, with a hibiscus emulsion and fermented cranberry. The emulsion was just mayonnaise and the cranberries were allegedly more sour than usual but who could tell. Afterwards, I walked St Marks Place until 3 am, $1200 poorer, in search of a slice of pizza. Sleep did not come easily that night.
Club sandwiches have saved my life on countless occasions. They grace so many menus and are always a safe choice—if assembled correctly by a cook with menial skills they're satisfying and filling—and will save you from having to order an elk burger served with chipotle mayo and pickled jalapeños. However, the definition of what constitutes a club sandwich has drifted: while you may think everyone knows that a club sandwich is a triple decker with plenty of mayo, lettuce, turkey, bacon, and a shitty tomato, many menus would have you believe that clubs that are just turkey sandwiches with bacon, or chicken breast burgers with bacon, or even inexplicable crab based versions. Don't mess with the club sandwich. It is sublime.
And, of course, the sandwich with an irresistibly shiny target on its back is the PB&J. The peanut butter and jelly sandwich is the first sandwich you know and love, then resent, then love again, and it is probably the first thing you learn how to prepare. The fancifying of the PB&J is rooted in this nostalgia—everyone understands the general cultural reference related to those three letters. But chefs associate those letters as “fat with something sweet”; countless foie gras “pb&j’s,” chicken liver mousse parfaits, even modern cookery versions of peanut butter snow with loganberry panna cotta. Of course you serve rich, fatty liver with jam and toast points: that shit ain’t new.
And sure, maybe in some twisted version of history, the PB&J is even descended from it—but it’s too late. The PB&J has already earned its dignified autonomy.