Sandwich Making is an Art, You Know  

Make Me A Sandwich by Molly Johanson

“You ever go to Subway? You ever order a sandwich? Somebody put that together for you, dude. That’s art,” James Franco tells Jay Baruchel in This is the End. Franco makes a pretty good point. Sandwich making is an art.

There are two parts to the art of sandwich making: the construction and the conceptualization. While any knucklehead can master sandwich construction so long as he knows how to spread, slice, and stack, it takes a special kind of person to conceptualize a quality sandwich. It isn’t just about knowing what tastes good; its about finding flavors and textures that complement each other, about picking a concept that enables disparate ingredients to come together into a cohesive whole. A good sandwich isn’t a garbage dump of delicious items (although many people think it is): it’s a delicate ratio of tastes unified by a guiding theme.

I intimately experienced both parts of the creative process when I worked at my school’s deli during my first two years of college. While my job largely dealt with following dull, prescribed formulas or carrying out people’s exacting orders, I actually served a surprising amount of people who had no requirements. “Make me whatever you think is good,” they would instruct me. Often times, I would play it safe and go with a good artisanal grilled cheese: cheddar and provolone on ciabatta with sweet chili sauce on one side and sriracha on the other, spinach to add a touch of greenery. Other times, it was all about the bacon: a southwestern twist on a classic BLT with guacamole on one side and chipotle mayo on the other. Sometimes, I was even into genre-mixing: who says a sandwich can’t have Italian-inspired pesto and Asian-inspired sriracha?

I had one recurring customer my first semester working who unfailingly appeared every Friday to say four words to me: “Make me a sandwich.” I christened him Ambiguous Sandwich Guy (and never learned his real name). While I didn’t mind his vague ordering at first, his refusal to offer me any sort of guidance was really starting to piss me off by his third visit. I gave him my bitchiest look and tried to wordlessly communicate: “I’m pissed off you weirdo, pick something.” Instead Ambiguous Sandwich Guy misinterpreted my bitchiness for a crippling lack of confidence and gave me a pep talk I’ll never forget.

“Look at me, “ ASG instructed. “This isn’t about me. I don’t care what you make. I won’t get mad. This isn’t about her.” He pointed at his girlfriend. “This is about you and your sandwich.” He was painting sandwich making as a positively holistic process, as something I was doing for my own personal enrichment rather than his nourishment.

I responded by making him the most gluttonous sandwich I could dream up without using ingredients that overwhelmed each other, the “Let-me-live-vicariously-through-you-sandwich.” I selected a white sub with chicken as the main meat, bacon as the auxiliary meat, and guacamole as the main spread. I also added sweet chili sauce, pico de gallo salsa, and cheddar cheese. I suppose the theme I was going for could be loosely described as “Hedonism Below the Border.”

Although I resented him at the time, I’m grateful for ASG and the others like him who let me conceptualize their sandwiches. When they gave me no specifications, they weren’t just giving me creative freedom, they were giving me their trust. And those gifts gave me the courage to invent and experiment with daring new combinations. On my last day at the deli my sophomore year, my friend even made me a “Best Sandwich Maker” pin, which I still have as a reminder of how far I’ve come since ASG’s pep talk.

He graduated after my first semester at work, but our last interaction did not disappoint. It was a beautiful day: the sun was shining, the frisbees were flying, and Ambiguous Sandwich Guy had just walked out of his last undergraduate class ever. I half-heartedly asked him if he had any specifications. He did: “Could you make it celebratory?” So naturally I made him a sandwich with Fiesta Jack cheese.

Post by Kirsten Martin. Art by Molly Johanson.