Do you have a favorite sandwich? And what do you call your favorite? I was born in Connecticut, and for years grew up calling that sandwich on a long bun a grinder. Then we moved to the midwest, where I learned to call it a sub. If you are from Philly, you might call them hoagies. Or heros. Or if you are from the south, you might prefer a po’boy.
In most variations, there is bread. Often a long, crusty roll, or bun. But the key, for me, is the CRUST. I prefer my subsherohoagiegrinder with a nice crusty outside, and a squishy bread on the inside. Then there are the contents. Of course there are millions of permutations. Cold cuts of all varieties, pulled meats, lettuce, shredded or not, veggies like tomato, onion, green pepper, and of course cheese. The cheese options are endless. Provolone, swiss, cheddar, and of course the dreaded American white or orange cheese food product. And lest we forget, condiments. Mayo, oil and vinegar, BBQ sauce, salt, pepper, Italian spices, pickles, and hots. The combinations are infinite.
And everyone has their own favorite. The one that reminds them of a hot summer day at the beach, or family BBQs or tailgating parties in college. I read a LOT of cooking magazines, on the treadmill at 5:30 am which is a bit counter intuitive and slightly masochistic but there you are, and recently there was a review of the many po’boy options to be had in New Orleans. I didn’t like NO when I visited, 7 years ago, pre Katrina, but after reading the descriptions of some of these creations, I would go back, just for a sandwich.
My fondest memory of a really good sub is from college. There was a sandwich shop across the street from the college theater, where I spent copious amounts of my free time. As a result I came to try and fall in love with a Number 2. With tomatoes, hold the onion. It was a traditional Italian sub as far as I was concerned. Gigantic in its proportions, I would split one with my roommate Terri. It had two kinds of lunch meat, Genoa salami, and ham (you could add bologna if you wanted, but I didn’t), provolone cheese, shredded lettuce, huge slices of tomato, round slices of pickle and if you wanted, onions. I prefered at the time to skip the onions. They stuck with me too much. Then there was oil, vinegar, and a sprinkling of Italian spices, including, salt, pepper and oregano. It was all served on a fabulously crusty on the outside, squishy on the inside bun. It was sublime.
Fast forward to my life being married to the Bob. Bob is from Maine. In Maine, specifically in Lewiston ME, they serve a sandwich which is ubiquitously referred to as an Italian Sandwich. Aside from the name, there is nothing about this sandwich that resembles what I consider the quintessential Italian sub.
First is the bun. According to legend, these buns are produced in Maine and are SPECIAL. They are long, about 15 inches, but they are about the width and consistency of a hot dog bun. There is no fabulous crust, but they are squishy.
Then there is the meat. You generally have two choices: Ham OR salami. I am not sure what would happen if you asked for both.
Cheese. The cheese is always, without fail, American. Yellow or white, but American cheese. I once asked if it was possible to get it with provolone, and I am pretty sure I just avoided getting run out of town as a heretic.
There is a bit of iceburg lettuce, tomato, green pepper, onion, and the best part, long slices of dill pickle.
The final ingredient is the Oil. Bob’s mother, Sylvia, swears it is special oil. We bought a bottle from Sam’s, one of the umpteen million places you can get an Italian Sandwich in Lewiston. It is cottonseed and olive oil. Nothing particularly secret about it.
That is it. It is not offensive, it just isn’t as special as I expected the first time I had one, given the GIGANTIC build up I had received from Bob. It was not transcending. I didn’t not hear angels sing. I could not figure out the draw.
But it is, I think, about history. This is HIS sandwich. It is the one he grew up eating. It is his childhood, and every time we are up there, or if his mother is coming to visit, she gets four or five of these for him. And I eat them with him, because it is the thing to do.
I don’t even know if the sandwich shop in Beaver Falls is still there. And if it is, I don’t know if the Number 2 is still as good. It is possible that it will never be as good as it was, during college, that first experience with being an adult, living independently and eating out with a best friend after rehearsing a play for hours. And no, there was no alcohol involved. I attended a dry campus, and observed that rule for better or worse. But for me, that is a sandwich that lives on in my mind as THE Italian sandwich. Made by Greeks. You can’t have everything.