How Proust Eats A Sandwich

My family, when I was very small, would travel to the country during the summer season, leaving the oppressive heat and dust that the August winds bring, roosting amongst the garrets and entryways, the pavements and workrooms. Little respite could be found in the resplendent rooms of even the finest houses; windows cracked to allow for frisking breezes also let in beetles, mosquitoes and flies (those ubiquitous urban dwellers) that would add to the persistent torment of the lifeless heat. The county towns were more manageable, with green space – lawns, gardens, trees, and limpid pools – adding an instant coolness together with  the cobbled streets and half timbered buildings, they themselves in accordance with the great stoned cathedrals that were an even greater reprieve with a constant drafty coolness which was so daunting at winter but so welcome at these times.  In the city, one could only spend so much of one’s time in the galleries, contemplating the misty sunrises of Turner, the fresh water lilies of Monet, the pastoral glades of Constable, or the glacial calm of Bierstadt, to immerse oneself in the visual calm, to almost feel the teasing gentle whispers of a verdant wind and smell of earth mingling with the fragrance from the full headed blossoms that grace the terraced gate of our familial gardens, carefully tamed to offer little paths and nooks to sit and read or flirt or simply embrace the delicate flavor of the dusky fading evening.

On such evenings, when the wind playfully tickled and tripped, meals would be taken in the garden in a festive, come-as-you-are, casual manner, to pander in the out-of-doors freshness that the dining room, ridged chairs and gilt framed portraits, candlelight drawing shadows across one’s neighbor’s face,  could not complete.  We would lay a spread of seemingly endless magnitude and when set, descend upon the rustic table – no cloth, save an old sheet usually reserved for covering storage in the attic, with tin ware and chipped, second-hand china piled at one end – to fill our plates with cold meats, fruits, cakes and such delicacies are most appreciated in their rarity – bean salad, potato salad, pasta salad – as well as a full assortment of condiments, breads, and cheeses.  It was my one opportunity as a young child to personally design my meal, to weigh each offering as an entity and determine its place on my menu, whether it would work in conjunction with its brethren foodstuffs, to instantly determine the intricate needs and wants of my palate, to create such magnificence as I could conjure from the abundance available to me.  As such, I invariably would construct the most magnificent sandwich, that delight of the bourgeoisies, the invention of the infamous Earl of Sandwich.  I pretended, unbeknownst to my good, God-fearing mother, that I am one such Earl, who with a beckon, could derive the most simple pleasure that would not deter from my most immediate interest, a high-stakes game of whist, or poker, or whatever which it was that nobleman had been enamored.   Or sometimes I imagine that I am his man servant, tasked with creating a scrumptious and handheld multilayered delight that will appease his Lordship’s hunger while not overflowing his palm.

I select first the bread, for which to use as a base and also as a buffer should the components reach a critical height.   Often bakers’ loaves have been sliced in preparation for this event, but sometimes rolls are available, and these, with their firmer outer layers and springy insides, offer a studier transport for the forthcoming ingredients.   These, though, require further steps, to split the roll in twain and remove some of the inner bread to make a small concavity with which to fill.  Next comes choosing the perfect sauce to compliment both the texture of the bread and the eventual flavor experience.  Mustard, while delicious in its grainy texture and nostril-tingling spice, can overcome the other additions, making every bite taste like the seeping, glopping yellow goop.  It is a valuable tool when trying to cover up an otherwise unpleasant taste; in and of itself, mustard simply overpowers and renders useless the delicate balance that is the epitome of sandwich.   Another choice is simple butter, a sweet rich creamy offering, a common topping for rolls fresh from the oven, or the dry flat crackers I was often served as my bed time snack.  This butter, I know, comes from the farm a half mile’s walk from town and it, along with the cream and milk, was delivered by the swarthy diary laborer who leads the aging mare each morning before dawn to accommodate the houses on his route.  I have rarely seen him, except when his route is completed, he turns the mare towards home and follows her back to her well deserved stable.  They pass behind the garden gate, taking the shorter route, but one that does not pass every early morning delivery.   Sometimes he even lulls in the cart, now stocked with empty containers, and lets the mare return unhindered, except what hindering a heavy cart and empty stomach are to a grey coated, long toothed horse.   But butter is not the prime choice as my sandwich’s condiment.  No, the best choice is a smooth swath of mayonnaise, made fresh from eggs and oil, with cracked black pepper and then covered with a sweet relish of finely chopped pickles.  These pickles, themselves tart and firm, add the honey-tinged element to the meal, the iota of sweetness that offsets and highlights the heavier components that follow.

Cheese we get from a store in town and my mother always takes the recommendation of the cheese monger, who often extols the virtues of the denser options, the runny ones that hit one in the face with their pungency, yet provide the most delicate flavors.  These, like mustard, are unsuitable for my type of sandwich, being inappropriate to eat in tandem with more than one select partner – a fig, or reduction of balsamic, or bit of olive – bright flavors that match and display the front and back tones of a finely aged chunk.  The perfect sandwich cheese has a mildness that allows it to co-mingle with the striving tones; for this Comté is especially suitable, sweet and slightly nutty, hard enough to allow slices that are not so thick as to overwhelm a bite; a skilled attended can accommodate thin slices that seem to melt into the folds of the meat and vegetables.  Slicing these items is also an important preparatory stage; the cold meats and the juicy tomatoes, crisp lettuce, and firm cucumber slices must not be thick and substantial.  The thinner the slice, the more accommodatingly can one have in one’s jaws a complete cross section of the sandwich.  And what meats?  What meats are available?  Slices of ham hock left from the past dinner, a slice of tongue, some thin rounds of salami or other hard, spiced sausages from the village butcher.  It is best to choose only two for any one creation, as meat piled high can lead to a sandwich impossible to enjoy bite by bite.   The components slide against each other and threaten to fall from the back end of the sandwich, despite the firm grip of the consumer.

Once all is assembled, I take my plated sandwich, accompanied by the aforementioned cold salads, to the garden table, gathering a glass of water and a napkin on my way.   To eat a sandwich is a messy business – no matter how careful the construction the risk of complete dissolution is always imminent.   One should only consume sandwiches within the comfortable confines of one’s home, in the company of those who know you, know your limitations, and love you all the same.  There is doubtless the uncouth unhinging of the jaw, to accommodate that tremendous initial bite, followed by pleasant mastication and joyous gnashing.  The devouring of a sandwich should be hasty business; on no uncertain terms should the sandwich be put back on the plate once the feast has begun, already the precarious layers are trying to escape their doom.  To that end the drink should be sampled before beginning and conversation saved for after.   No one can hold an intelligent debate with juices dripping down their chin and forearms, nor should they subject their companions to the jumbled mass within one’s jowls.  That is not to say the sandwich is not consumed with the greatest pleasure.  Like a sunset or mountain vista, though similar in countenance to others, a sandwich has a unique quality that can only be savored for the briefest of moment.

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