The Sandwich That Changed My Life: True stories from Meatpaper readers

July 15, 2010

This article originally appeared in SANDWICH, a supplement to Meatpaper Issue Thirteen.

Upon going through reader-submitted essays on the topic of “The Sandwich That Changed My Life,” we never expected that the most compelling would be so heavy on (a) love and (b) pastrami. In the same way that people say you never really know a person until you fight them, perhaps you never truly know a person until you see them confronted with an extremely messy, exuberant sandwich. And so: two stories. One about sandwiches and love lost, and another about sandwiches and love found.

— Heather Smith


I MET FRANCESCA WHILE LIVING IN ITALY. I called her Franky because I loved her. We traveled a lot together and ate sandwiches on the way. Like mile markers on a trail, they told us where we were going, who we had become. In Sicily: dry salame and caciocavallo on crusty loaves. Driving across Wyoming and Nebraska: turkey on rye. In France: baguettes and jambon fumé. The last we ate in a parked car in Chartres while the afternoon rain thumped on the hood. Between bites I suddenly told Franky that I wanted to marry her. I had no ring, no plan. It just came out, unexpectedly. The stained glass, the rain, and the sandwich had come together and flushed my secret out of hiding.

She wanted to come join me in New York. She visited, and often, but time passed and she lost her nerve. One day, Franky boarded the plane home, and we both silently knew it was her last.

Years after the breakup, we finally spoke on the phone. We spoke elliptically, in code, stepping around that wreck in the middle.

Francesca asked me if I remembered the roast beef on pumpernickel.

For her last flight back, I had built her a glorious sandwich. A teetering opus stacked with market tomatoes, onions, pickles, deli mustard, celery salt, and grated fresh horseradish. The thing was glamorous, loud, and delectable. New York on pump. But it was not built for travel. She said that on the airplane she unwrapped the sandwich to find it falling apart in her hands. The bread was soaked through. She ate the sandwich, piecemeal, with her fingers.

“Franky…,” I started. But there was nothing to add. It was all there, already, in the sandwich.




A MOTEL ROOM ON SUNSET, NEAR LA BREA. A fervid afternoon of lovemaking.

Sometime later, the curtains warm with the setting of the sun, he said, “What is it you desire?”

I looked up at him and gave a blissful sigh: “A hot pastrami sandwich.”

Not the answer he’d expected, but he took it well. He’d been mostly vegetarian until he got himself a Jewish girlfriend. He wrote a six-word memoir that went, “Vegetarian meets Jewish girl: eats pork.”

We got dressed and walked the mile and a half to Fairfax. I was very excited. Though I’d grown up here, I hadn’t been in L.A. for nearly a decade.

Canter’s deli serves the best damned pastrami. Ever. Formative pastrami. Pretentious media critic pastrami. Kosher punk rock pastrami. After crashing a party in the Hollywood Hills pastrami.

And now? Postcoital pastrami.

Quickly seated, we ordered the sandwich. The septuagenarian waitress said, “What do I get for customers a couple amateurs? Oy.” One, she said, was not enough to share. She’d bring an extra half.

It arrived. The bread was steamy warm. The caraway seeds were about to sprout. The crust was tough and chewy. Mustard? Russian dressing? Pshaw. The pastrami, its pellicle smoked to near black, melted on the tongue. The fat ran down your chin.

He took a bite. I watched. Bliss washed over his face.

He took a second bite. I sighed. Now he understood.

We ordered another.

TAYLOR THORNE, South Louisiana

HEATHER SMITH is an editor at Meatpaper.

This article originally appeared in SANDWICH, a supplement to Meatpaper Issue Thirteen.

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