I used to play “Sandwich Bar” in my college dining hall. Now that I am old and depressed and it’s a pandemic, it is still a good game.
“You can’t live on vodka and anxiety. You can try, but eventually, I’m here to tell you, you will need to eat something.”
I went to a college where everyone ate in the dining hall, all four years. The prepared food wasn’t the worst food you ever had but it wasn’t good.
I found my way around this problem every single day by eating for lunch and most dinners the exact same sandwich.
In the revolving dining hall toaster, which is sort of like a ferris wheel for bread, I made Bran’ola toast. This brand no longer exists, it was “the” sort of high-end supermarket healthy bread in the late 80s; its taste lives on in the Orowheat brand. The bread had to take two trips to become sufficiently toasted, sometimes it even had to take three. This was hard when I was really hungry but if the bread wasn’t toasted the project would fail.
Onto one side I spread mayonnaise, generously, but not disgustingly. On the other side I spread brown mustard, thinly. I then layered onto the mayonnaise side slices of red onion, cut-up dill pickle, cucumber slices, sprouts, three slices of Swiss, cheddar or jack cheese, then more sprouts (the binding), tomato slices, then the mustard side on top of it.
I must admit, new to me, we did not lose the need to eat, but I lost both the desire to cook and the will to clean up afterward.
I ate it with two more pickles on the side, probably 800 times.
When coronavirus first hit, I was into cooking. Life was depressing and dull, cooking was an attempt to make it festive. Also, it was still cool here in Northern California. Then summer came, record hot temperatures, and on top of those came white supremacists, then fire, then smoke, then more fire and more smoke. The blue summer sky I used to stupidly and truly get so sick of here went away, actually turning black one day at 3 p.m. (Hello, is this the Complaint Retraction office?)
Despite everything, despite truly unending horror, nothing many citizens of the world haven’t lived with for years—but honestly, I must admit, new to me—we did not lose the need to eat, but I lost both the desire to cook and the will to clean up afterward.
All I could manage, aside from the barest minimum of work, was drinking and worry. Then, of course, came the power outages, when Pacific Gas and Electric turned off our power for a few days because a fire might start from the lethal combination of power lines, wind, and dry trees. One doesn’t wish to have a great deal in the refrigerator at times like these. In addition to the depression brought on by all the things listed above—and yes, this now includes having no internet, no lights, and neighbors who, unable to survive without these things for even a fraction of an hour and even at the height of dawn, run extremely loud generators—one doesn’t wish to feel bad about throwing away food.
And yet, still, the need to eat. You can’t live on vodka and anxiety. You can try, but eventually, I’m here to tell you, you will need to eat something.
And thus, from the ashes of so many hells, real and metaphorical, the sandwich bar has risen like a toasted, mayonnaised Phoenix. Yes, it is different from the last sandwich bar in that it is not conveniently paid for with my tuition but also different because I have to shop for and put out the sandwich bar myself—I can’t rely on the labor of a kitchen staff. But because the sandwich bar’s job is supposed to at least attempt to make life a little more pleasant, and I don’t expect much, just the smallest break, I try to put it together with something bordering on institutional efficiency.
The first bite, with lots and lots of everything, is great, the last one, just a scrap of toast with a chunk of pickle, is equally so.
The shopping list: decent, slightly oversized wheat or sourdough, I use Truckee Sliced Sourdough or Sliced Multigrain but you probably don’t have that. Sliced cheese of any kind, from the deli, cheaper than pre-sliced, but no slicing myself—that would require concentration and is therefore not an option. Tomatoes, sprouts, cucumbers, red onion, pickles. These must be sliced up and put into glass containers, at the ready in the refrigerator. Then of course mayonnaise and mustard.
I can add to all of this too: olive tapenade, red pepper paste (Safeway makes a good “Red Pepper Bruschetta Topping”), artichoke paste, any paste, really, also sliced pepper rounds, avocado, if you can stand the expense and the chance that it might suck. I pickle red onions, because it’s actually easy, but it’s not necessary. Hardboiled eggs are good. You can add meat if you want. Personally, I am always trying not to eat meat and sometimes, like now, I happen to be succeeding.
So, once again, every night, and many lunches, if I’m not eating yogurt or popsicles or just smoking pot in bed while I watch “The Split” on one screen and follow @YubaNetFire on the other, we have Sandwich Bar. The first bite, with lots and lots of everything, is great, the last one, just a scrap of toast with a chunk of pickle, is equally so. It’s easy to clean up.
Can you really eat a cheese sandwich every night? Some say no. I say to those people, you never know what you’re capable of until you try, or, conversely, have lost all will to try. Which state does Sandwich Bar represent? Here is some rare good news, you will never have to know, because either way, the result is the same: a delicious sandwich, a timeless classic, which, whether you are young and hopeful or old and existentially exhausted, tastes exactly the same.