If there is one culinary creation Americans can claim to have perfected, I believe it is the sandwich. Hoagies, heroes, submarines, pita pockets, bagels, even burgers, you name it and Americans will stick anything and everything between two pieces of bread. (Witness the recent blogosphere frenzy over KFC’s new fried-“chicken”-and-bacon bomb, the Double Down.)
What sets American sandwich makers apart is that they don’t stop at the main ingredient, the way, say, Italian sandwich makers often do. (See one of my favorite sandwich shops in Florence, I Due Fratellini.) For a fine American sandwich you’ve got to gather up your garnishes and pile on the condiments to achieve the perfect balance of sweet, sour, salty, savory, crunchy, creamy, and soft that distinguish the best from everything else.
I realize that the sandwich’s supposed inventor, the Earl of Sandwich, was an Englishman. But despite Woody Allen’s suspenseful spoof of this nobleman’s travails:
1736— [The Earl] enters Cambridge University, at his parents’ behest, to pursue studies in rhetoric and metaphysics, but displays little enthusiasm for either. In constant revolt against everything academic, he is charged with stealing loaves of bread and performing unnatural experiments with them. Accusations of heresy result in his expulsion.
—from “Yes, But Can the Steam Engine Do This,”
in Getting Even by Woody Allen.
I think in general our sandwiches are better than theirs (witness the sorry, boxed Pret A Manger offerings). Don’t get me wrong. There are great sandwiches made around the world, wherever there’s good bread or a bread-like substitute. From the juicy tripe sandwiches on the streets of Florence to the warm manakeesh in the bakeries of the Middle East to the spicy banh mi in the sandwich shops of Vietnam, there’s no global lack of sandwich selection if you’re a frequent flyer. But even the world’s cross-cultural creations flourish here on American soil, gaining a certain gourmet glamor and igniting trends in a way they couldn’t possibly do back home. Practically everywhere else sandwiches are workaday appetite suppressants. Here they are golden. In a short block I can choose from exemplary sandwiches representing all corners of the globe.
What’s more, unlike in many other cultures that lay claim to their own great sandwiches, Americans have no qualms about making a full meal out of something you eat with your hands, breakfast, lunch or dinner. In Italy a sandwich is always a snack, and the fact that you have to use your hands to eat it marks it for a certain lower class.
And now, for your digital dining pleasure, three of my current favorite pork-based sandwiches. Stay tuned for future vegetarian, beef, cold-cut, fried food, and cheese editions.
The Breakfast Porchetta Sandwich at Maialino
There’s not much to say about this beautiful creature that has keys to Gramercy Park. The roasted pork is fragrant with herbs and garlic, the ciabatta is crusty and chewy but it won’t break a tooth and it gives enough so that the sandwich doesn’t fall apart. Arugula is a welcome foil for the rich pork. And, as I have always held true, a fried or poached egg on anything, even a porchetta sandwich, improves it.
The Porchetta Sandwich at (the aptly named) Porchetta
Proprietor-chef Sara Jenkins recently told me that she had originally intended to call her little take-out shop Maialino, or “little pig,” from which porchetta is made, but she was afraid people wouldn’t be able to remember, spell, or pronounce it. She was right. (MOst people just say, “Let’s go to Danny Meyer’s new Italian place in the Gramercy Hotel”; see above.) But now the name of her shop defines the sandwich she purveys. Unadorned save for a piece of crunchy skin, Jenkins porchetta sandwiches achieve a minimalist Italian ideal. Moist, redolent of rosemary and garlic, the pig inside requires nothing else, and that’s how it comes.
The Banh Mi at Saigon Bakery
Walk by the jade jewelry cases to get to the bakery at the back of this Chinatown storefront at 138 Mott Street. Even after the explosion of Vietnamese-style sandwiches around town, Saigon Bakery still makes the best there is. The combination of pork products, roasted and cured, vegetables, pickled and fresh, sprigs of herbs, and hot peppers, assembled on a hot bun is unbeatable. Just writing this makes me salivate.