Like so many rants, this is rooted in love, expectation, and disappointment.
Preface: before I had ever run across my grandmother’s low-carb diet books, so old they stressed that you could eat all the wooly mammoth you wanted, I realized that eating bread made me feel happy and clogged and polluted. I could choose between a dish of pot roasted beef, carrots, and half a small potato, or I could have a slice of the bread and butter that were on our table at every meal. Bye-bye bread!
The only time it was a hard choice was when the bread was homemade, by my grandma (with whom we lived) or her sister (who lived up the road.) My great-aunt’s bread is the best I’ve ever had. Those hard farmer hands could knead the evil out of the devil himself, and she knew when to stop, too. Her dinner rolls were feather light, always tender, and had the best crust! Thick and sweet and browned, perfect for dunking, with plenty of the narcotic chemical agent found in all delicious brown foods: caramel, bread crust, brown butter, toffee, even popcorn. Call it the operatic demise of sugar. Jeffrey Steingarten wrote a concise, heartfelt column about it for Vogue (June 2009, I think) that is worth reading, for information or strictly for sense memory of the most delicious foods.
He would have loved my great-aunt’s bread. In summer, we would take tiny strawberries (not the big thyroidal white-core clonkers from the store, but ripe berries from our own garden) and make strawberry sandwiches with real butter and a sprinkling of sugar. Glass of cold milk (whole milk for us farm kids) and that was a heaven I’ve never been to since.
So needless to say, I love bread wholeheartedly. I also give it the fearful respect all white drugs deserve. Cocaine, white sugar, heroin, HFCS, wheat flour, crystal meth, and pasta are all part of the same Schedule I food group.
Unfortunately, one of my great food romances is the sandwich. I can cheerfully get by with lettuce wraps a good deal of the time, but the real deal gets me right in the breadbasket, so to speak. (I’ve just deleted nearly a thousand words of praise for my favorite sandwiches. No one needs a list of the delectable combinations out there. And I don’t need to torture myself, no matter how fun it is.)
So, despite my growing up with farmer white, I’ve fallen in love with the family of breads. Challah was a no-brainer, as were all forms of rye. I was an early adopter of focaccia, ciabatta, and michetta. Sourdough from scratch was a cheap way to experiment with cooking when I was a broke college student, and I made great slow-rise pizza crust for my on-campus joe job back then. The Mediterranean life captivated me for a while, and a little bread with olive oil and salt was a new kind of delicious.
Eventually I created a perfect sandwich, a gift from the saluminati on high: a very crusty hoagie roll, lightly gutted; some shaved veggies (red onion, peppers hot and sweet and pickled, romaine, cucumber); some shaved meat (hot capocollo, sopressata, parma ham, porketta); and red wine mustard vinaigrette (not too much.) It’s one of the mother sandwiches, ready for anything. Add mushrooms and black olives if you’re feeling it, or cheese, or whatever; that is a sandwich that can seat six comfortably. Pile it on Dagwood style. Add a fried egg if you like; it can handle it. Shrimp can take it in a lovely direction, or sliced boiled eggs, or a pile of sauerkraut. Seriously, you’d be pleasantly surprised.
The crusty roll is the foundation for this and many perfect sandwiches. I have become a lover of substantial bread.
But when, lord, WHEN, did people decide that the Rustic Loaf (usually sourdough, here in the Bay Area) — unsliced, ungutted, unassailable — would make a good sandwich? It’s thick as a brick. I have a mouth like the Hoover Dam (seriously, I have frightened dentists who told me to open wide) and I can’t accommodate this huge chunk of dough. It’s usually either dry enough to choke you, or a gluey sponge for excess condiments. Either of these problems is sufficient to scrap the project and start over.
But maybe you like an inch of dense bread on either side of the contents. Now the question is one of proportion. A four-ounce portion of meat fits in the palm of my tiny hand, and that is undetectable in the huge wad of dough we’ve been handed. Chances are good you were served something with a noticeable pile of meat and cheese, in the attempt to even out this block-like loaf with a pile of fillings. It’s a mountain of food. But guess what? It’s still too much bread.
Because this bread is usually tough as hell. I don’t just mean the chewy crust, I mean the tougher-than-leather interior — though the combination of both is the equivalent of body armor. You shouldn’t have to grab a sandwich with both hands, chomp down hard, and yank the bread from side to side to win the battle of the bite. My teeth are strong and I have a wicked jaw, but as a friend / host / cook, you should not require your guests to struggle with hand-held food like a pit bull set to fight a bear. Such a sandwich is impossible to eat cleanly, much less gracefully. It’s easy to jar your teeth or even loosen them on these things.
Some folks have tried to avoid the problem by hollowing out a sourdough round and filling it with clam chowder. I have news for you people: if your chowder is thickened with flour…to the point that it no longer counts as a liquid and can’t penetrate your bread…you have made an inedible pot of glue. Anything that will break a sink Dispos-All and clog the bathroom pipes probably shouldn’t be consumed as food.
Try this instead: a clam po’boy, adapted from Peg Bracken’s recipe for Eddy’s Oyster Loaves, from her excellent work, The Compleat I Hate to Cook Book. I make them with clams instead.
- Slice a grinder lengthwise, leaving a hinge, and toast the opened roll. Brush the interior with garlic butter.
- Toast the breadcrumbs with seasoning (I like garlic and onion powder, with a little parsley, cayenne, and thyme.) Sizzle a dozen clams in seasoned butter. Mix them together and stuff the roll.
- Wrap the closed sandwich in cheesecloth, twisting the ends tight. Dip the whole thing in milk. Pop it into a medium hot oven for 20-30 minutes. Slice it on the diagonal to serve.
“Eddy was a San Franciscan who owned a bar and made small oyster loaves for his married male customers to take home to their wives. These were pacifiers. But Eddy is dead now, and Mother must pacify herself. This is good for a special lunch. I also know a family who has it traditionally as Christmas Eve supper.”
And to all, a good night.