The truth about sandwiches
“What is the best sandwich?” Not, “What is your favorite?” but the more categorical “What is the best?”
It is the first of 15 questions in the “Colbert Questionert,” a new segment on A Late Show with Stephen Colbert, in which the host asks various celebrities, over Zoom, to answer spontaneously.
It is a sort of down-market version of those queries made famous by Bernard Pivot and brought to American television by Inside the Actors Studio host James Lipton.
A similar set of questions was answered by Marcel Proust in 1890. It is where Pivot found his model. And it is a far cry from Colbert’s “best sandwich.”
But it set me to thinking and I unequivocally can assert that the best sandwich is rare roast beef on a kaiser roll. A real Kaiser roll — something nearly impossible to procure outside the New York tri-state area. I wrote about this in a previous blog:
No doubt there are other excellent sandwiches. And you may prefer one of them. Why? I don’t know, but people have their quirks.
The problem with the roast beef on a kaiser is that it is a regional specialty. I now live in North Carolina, and while I can find passable roast beef, sliced thinly, I cannot find a true kaiser roll. I couldn’t find one either when I lived in Seattle or when I lived in Phoenix, Ariz. They may have their regional prides, but a kaiser roll isn’t one of them.
My father used to have a roast beef sandwich on a kaiser roll every day for lunch in his office. He got if from a nearby deli and ate it with a pint of cold milk.
Many of us have something that yanks us back, in our minds, to where we grew up and became ourselves. The sandwich is one of mine. The yearning for a crusty kaiser roll loaded with paper-thin rare, red roast beef and a layer of mayo, salt and cracked pepper, is one of the rock-constants in my life. (Matched only by a sense of loss over the New Jersey pizza).
Like I said, there are other very good sandwiches, and I will now rank them. Some, like the hot pastrami on rye, almost reach the heights of the roast beef. And others less transcendent still manage to fill some psychic hole that each of us suffers.
The first is the pastrami on rye. I have found good versions outside New York, but that is only because you can find the necessary ingredients elsewhere in the country. Still, most outside New York fail by not piling the meat high enough or slicing it thin enough. A pastrami sandwich should not look so much like a sandwich but like a pile. The bread under and on top should be an afterthought.
There is a problem, though, because in so many places — including in New York supermarkets — it is harder and harder to come across a real rye bread. Supermarket ryes are really just dun-colored bread. They might as well be Wonder Bread (or Merita, for you Southern readers).
Real rye bread can still be found at some baker shops. It should have caraway seeds and a tooth-resistant crust. I remember going to a bakery at the Pike Street Market in Seattle that was a hole in the wall — literally: You spoke to the woman through a small window and made your request. “I’d like the toughest, darkest, nastiest thing you have,” I told her. “You’re looking at her,” she said. But the bread was wonderful.
The pastrami can be responsibly had in several variation, and the one with melted Swiss cheese is chief among them. But pastrami’s close relative comes in at No. 3 on my list:
The reuben sandwich is another northern specialty. Ideally, it is corned beef, sliced thin, with melted Swiss, sauerkraut and Russian dressing on rye bread. My heart pines at the memory of it.
You find the best in a good kosher deli, even though the reuben is not kosher — it mixes meat and dairy — but still, many a New York Jew is happy to tempt the anger of the deity just to bite into a heavenly reuben. Like its cousin pastrami, it also needs to be piled high and deep. And the sandwich should be thicker in the middle than at the edges, so much so that the bread drapes over the meat like blanket.
Next on the list is ham and Swiss on rye. A good ham and cheese sandwich is a classic. There are those who make such a thing with muenster cheese or worse — Velveeta — but no self-respecting sandwich lover with a clear conscience would ever do such a thing. No cheddar, no American cheese, no provalone.
This is the third sandwich in a row that requires a good rye bread. I’ve seen it done on white sandwich bread, but such people in countries more strict than our own have wound up in gulags or worse.
A refinement that makes the sandwich even better is to melt the Swiss cheese. That will bring you the Great Leader’s commendation.
While you are at the deli you can also get a bagel with lox and cream cheese. A good bagel is another New York specialty. Outside the tri-state area, you used to be reduced to the poverty of eating frozen bagels from the supermarket. Inedible. They are related to real bagels the way concrete is related to a grassy field in spring.
Luckily, bagels have invaded other regions of the country in bagel shops. These are often quite good. And such chain bakeries offer decent salmon and cream cheese, too. A half-bagel with a schmear and some thin slices of red lox and maybe some chopped fronds of dill. That’s what I call breakfast.
My sandwich list is overbalanced in the favor of the American northeast. I do not question that this is because that is where the best sandwiches are created. But I have lived in the South at least twice as long as I lived in the North and I have come to acquire a tooth for several very Southern things. Most importantly is the barbecue sandwich.
Every region of the nation, it seems, has its barbecue chauvinism. In some states, the word, “barbecue” is even a verb. I pray for their souls. And even in the Carolinas there is contention between styles of barbecue. In South Carolina it is pork with a mustard sauce. In western North Carolina, the favorite is Lexington style, with a tomato sauce. But I learned on Eastern Carolina barbecue from Scotland Neck and I will swear to my grave on pulled pork from the whole hog — gristle and all — with vinegar and red pepper flakes.
A sandwich requires — with as much strictness as a reuben requires a Jewish rye bread — a soft hamburger bun. Its sponginess is needed to sop up the juices. It is topped with coleslaw and eaten with a plate of hush puppies and a cold glass of sweet tea. And maybe a side of fried okra.
If there is a sandwich that can wear the title “classic,” it must be the bacon, lettuce and tomato. Yet, here, too, there are regional differences. Where I was raised, bacon was not bacon if it wasn’t crispy. In the South, there are people who are willing to eat wiggly bacon. They get all the snap they need in a BLT from the lettuce.
A good BLT sits on toast and has a thick layer of mayonnaise. I grew up with Hellman’s and every other brand I tried let me down. So, I ignored them all until last year, when the store was out during the pandemic and I was reduced to buying Duke’s, which turned out to be a revelation. Duke’s is now my mayo of choice.
The South is also where I first tasted the tomato sandwich. No bacon, no lettuce. It would never have occurred to me, but one summer when I was working with the maintenance crew at college, the senior member of the crew, an ancient Black man named Horace, brought out a tomato sandwich one day at lunch. I marveled. He offered me a bite, and I was hooked. The magic was in the mayo and the salt and pepper. Lots of it. And the tomato cut into slabs thick as porterhouse steaks. Wow.
There are other classic sandwiches that we can’t leave off our list. Perhaps most iconic is the PB&J. Peanut Butter and Jelly. The possibilities are extensive. Crunchy-style or smooth for the PB. Jelly or jam for partnering. The classic is grape jelly, but I have always preferred strawberry preserves.
This is one of the few sandwiches where it is permissible to use puffy white bread. It’s better on bread with some texture, but really, the classic is just supermarket white bread. Maybe toasted.
One of the most perverse variants I have come across was a favorite of my baby brother, Jack, who loved peanut butter and ketchup sandwiches. Chacun à son goût. I’ve also heard of peanut butter and pickles, but that is primarily for les femmes enceinte.
Then, there is the chilled grease sandwich. At least, that’s what we always called it in our house. It was my late wife’s absolute favorite and over the years I became a master at making it. I must have made thousands over 35 years of marriage.
I seldom eat one myself, and if I do, I tend to make it with a better grade of bread and cheese. But the one my wife loved is the basic. Here is my recipe for the Best Chilled Grease Sandwich You Will Ever Eat.
Toast two slices of white bread. Butter one side of each and layer with American cheese. Top the second slice on the first and butter the outside of the toasted bread, both top and bottom. Grill them in a hot pan until the bread develops a rich brown crust and the cheese begins to ooze.
Another classic is the tunafish sandwich. I grew up with this one. In fact for eight years running in grade school, my mother made me a tuna sandwich every day for lunch, packed in wax paper and left in my lunchbox.
It was the regular tuna salad, made with canned tuna, mayonnaise and chopped onion and maybe chopped celery, too. On white bread toast. Every few years, my mother would ask if I wouldn’t prefer a change, something other than a tuna sandwich. No, I said. I like tunafish. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
That leaves us with hot dogs and hamburgers. They are so much their own thing that they hardly get thought of as sandwiches. But they are: meat wrapped in bread.
Hamburgers and cheeseburgers are the real American ethnic diet. Forget all that talk about turkey at Thanksgiving or fried chicken or canned ham. What separates us from the rest of the world is the burger.
We each have our model. For me, it is a burger with sliced onion and sliced tomato, with a squirt of ketchup. I’ve never warmed to all the special sauce, or the bacon or avocado, or any of the other salad ingredients so popular in fast food joints. A charcoal broiled patty is a great treat, but I like ‘em just as well fried on the stove.
If I have a nostalgia for temps passés, it is for the mini-burgers from White Castle, with their steamed buns and square-tile burgers with a half-teaspoonful of fried chopped onions. My grandmother used to take me to one in Manhattan, near where she worked. I can regenerate the aroma in my mind. A reverse Proust.
The hot dog, or frankfurter, or wiener, is second only to the burger, but where the burger is made from ground beef, the hot dog is made from whatever you don’t want to know. Really, you don’t. The tube steak used to always come a bit shorter than the bun, leaving a bite of raw bread at the end. Bun-length franks have become more common. But there is still the problem of the buns coming in packs of eight and the dogs in packs of 12. Can’t they make the math come out even?
I grew up with the kind of spicy sausage they sold at Nathan’s or at the Sabrett’s stands on the street, with its oniony red sauce. But in the South, those Hebrew National dogs are too spicy for many. A Southern hot dog is bland beyond belief. They also have a habit of coloring their franks with a blinding red dye to make “red hots.” Oy.
It is also one of those food culture things that distinguishes regions from region. When I grew up in Jersey, you put ketchup on burgers and you put mustard on hot dogs. When I was five or six, this seemed like a condition of the universe. But when we took a vacation down to Washington, DC, when I was a kid, we stopped at a restaurant in Maryland for lunch and I was served a hamburger with mustard on it. I recoiled in horror. “Human sacrifice. Dogs and cats living together. Mass hysteria.”
Now we get to the also-rans: the sandwiches that some people will eat, although I’ve never figured out why. Some are Southern favorites that I’ve never warmed to. Some are just wrong.
Like fried baloney. Which is traditionally made with a single slice of balogna, fried in a pan. You cut slots into the edges so that when it cooks and curls up, it has somewhere to give. In the South in general, I have found that people tend to make sandwiches with way too much bread vs. meat. A single slice? You can you even taste it. I grew up with pastrami piled so high you threw your jaw out if you tried to get it all in.
Then, there is the Southern penchant for pimento cheese, which is neither cheese by any real definition, or peppers. A thin smear of pimento cheese between two slabs of bland white bread counts as a meal in some parts. How? I ask. How?
And there is the cream cheese and olive sandwich. I grant this one may simply be my own food aversion. I’ve never been able to abide olives. The way some people can’t stand cilantro, I can’t take olives. But the cream cheese and olive is a staple at Southern soirees.
Finally, there is one sandwich I wish to publicly disavow: the club sandwich. It is a BLT ruined. First, turkey isn’t worth eating. It is both tasteless and it refuses to hold its form when sliced — it falls apart when you try to separate slices. Second, the ham is supererogatory. It just seconds the nuisance of the turkey. Finally, it is a three-level sandwich, which is just pretentious. A sandwich which requires a toothpick to hold it together is a weak sandwich. It is a sandwich for country clubs, not for real human beings.
There are other sandwiches, I know. And most are some variant of avocado, mung bean, kale and tofu, but I am and have always been a classicist, and so stick with the tried and true.
And so, we’ve moved from hard unassailable fact — the roast beef on kaiser roll is the best sandwich — downhill to mere personal taste — I don’t like the whole idea of a club sandwich, with various degrees of objective fact in between. And that, Mr. Stephen Colbert, is my answer.
PS: I know. I know. I have left off the sub, hoagie, hero, grinder. Also the Philly cheese steak, the muffaletta, the Cuban, the po’ boy, the sloppy joe, and bruschetta. They are all worthy. Perhaps I’ll get around to these in the future.
Oh this was delightful. Now I want tuna on a Kaiser roll. I remember waiting at the grocery store for the bakery to deliver the rolls . . .