Brenda Miller & Julie Marie Wade
Most foods are not invented; they evolve.
—The Timeline of Food
The bread is most important; it contains everything. White, no crust, insubstantial.
Peanut butter—Skippy’s, smooth, no nuts to interfere with a loose baby tooth. Spread not too thick, not too thin. My mother ran the knife across the surface, made perfect waves like the woman on the commercial. The bread lined up on the counter, each slice waiting to be anointed.
Jelly. Grape. Welch’s. In the commercial on TV, the jelly distills through a complicated system of glass pipes, curlicued tubes. A mother smells the steam with eyes closed. My mother dabbed it on, spread the purple jelly up to the edges, but left a margin to account for ooze.
She cut it in four small triangles. Once, she bought a special loaf and sliced it horizontally—flat and wide—to make peanut butter-and-jelly rolls. She must have gotten the idea from Good Housekeeping or Family Circle. She cut each spiral exactly an inch wide, laid them out on a plate just for me. Pinwheels that made me dizzy. The spiral made all the difference.
But the bread—a Wonder—is most important; it contains everything.
My grandmother believes in name brands; my mother doesn’t. This is not the only difference between them, but it is the first line that divides one side of our family from the other.
In Grandma’s kitchen, I fidget with the drawer that harbors that softest of bread—the whitest, the most insubstantial—Wonder. How the bag beckons to me with its red, blue, and yellow balloons, each slice so light it floats away from my tongue, settles on the roof of my mouth.
“Do you want peanut-butter-and-jelly?” Grandma asks, rummaging through her cupboard for the jars of Skippy and Welch’s.
I shake my head. “I want what you’re having.”
Now our familiar stand-off before the stove until at last she concedes, reaches for the frying pan. “This was always your grandfather’s favorite.” I beam, remembering how everyone says I take after him. “But I’ve never heard of a little girl who liked fried wiener and mustard sandwiches.”
In the pan, Grandma spreads Darigold butter, one of the products my father sells in his busy life on the road. Next, she adds the all-beef franks sliced longways, guiding them through the butter, flipping them deftly with her fork as I look on, amazed.
The sandwich will be too salty and hot, too rich for my stomach to take. But I will eat it anyway, gobble it down: Wonder bread, Ball Park beef, Grey Poupon mustard, spices I cannot name.
My grandmother believes in name brands; my mother doesn’t. This is the first line that divides them. With every bite, I pledge allegiance to my paternal side.
My father has brought home a Manhattan sandwich from Fedco. Fedco predates Walmart, Costco, Kmart—a place to shop in bulk, get bargains, if you have family enough to warrant it. Its full name is the “Federal Employees Distribution Company,” and my family has paid $5 to be a member. We love a good bargain.
For some reason, only my father goes there to shop, though my mother is the one in charge of food. Perhaps he’s the only one with the federal ID: he works for RCA as an engineer, and they must contract with the government, designing radio defense systems. I imagine him wandering the wide aisles, craning his neck to see the stacks of toilet paper, the fifty-pound sacks of dog food, the boxes of nails and screws.
He comes home with bags and bags of useful items, but the only thing I’m interested in is the sandwich, a sandwich big as a dinner plate. A sandwich in keeping with the large scale of Fedco, meant to feed an entire family. I clamor for it the minute he walks in the door. Did you get the Manhattan? And of course he has. He pulls it from the sack and lays it on the table for us to admire.
I don’t know why it’s called a Manhattan. Maybe because it’s so big. Maybe because of the Jewish Rye, studded with caraway, the crust gritty with cornmeal. Where did they get such a big loaf of rye bread, I wonder; what kind of oven must be built to contain it?
Between the ovals of rye sit thin slices of ham and roast beef and Swiss cheese. Nothing special about these; they are dowdy, ordinary. What they rely on—what makes the sandwich come together as Sandwich—is the Russian dressing spread thinly on each side. Pink, studded with relish, both tangy and sweet at once. No lettuce or tomato or onion to interfere; just the Russian dressing, gently soaking into the stale rye, kissing the meat and cheese.
The sandwich is wrapped tightly in plastic, and this is key. This sandwich teaches us patience. This sandwich tastes best after the ingredients have had time to mingle and meld. For some reason, it also tastes best at night, when you have snuck into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator door, the small light bathing you where you stand. It tastes best when you lift it from its chilled cubby, peel back the wrapping, and slice off a thin portion—getting just the right ratio of bread, meat, cheese, and dressing. Tastes best eaten standing up, in the dark, while your family breathes all around you in their sleep, dreaming, perhaps, of Manhattan, or of the good bargains they’ve made.
My mother insists we shop at Kmart for the bargains—Kmart, because they offer rainchecks when they run out of stock; Kmart, because they’ll match the price of screws and nails at Lowe’s, toilet paper at Pay ‘n Save.
“Shouldn’t we just go to those stores?” I protest. “They’re the ones actually having the sales.”
Of course, when I discover the Kmart cafeteria, I stop asking this question. My values, it seems, can be purchased for the price of one foot-long Submarine wrapped in pleasing, crinkly paper.
Best is when my father comes with us. In fact, there is little chance of procuring a sandwich without him. If it’s a weekday, and he’s traveling, I’ll stall on my chores, ask for help with my homework, pretend I’ve forgotten how to find the common denominator again.
Best is to leave home late on a Saturday afternoon. The sky will be overcast, probably drizzling, too, which has a way of making us hungry, or reminding us we already are.
My mother tears her list in half, and I go with my father because I am “his girl.” I take after him. When she finds us again, our cart is still bare. We have failed to locate the sweat socks, the glass cleaner, and the batteries. Instead, we’re lingering at the greasy threshold where merchandise gives way to food. “You know,” my father says, as if this idea has just occurred to him, “you wouldn’t even have to cook tonight if…”
My mother always says no at first. The secret rests in our gentle finessing. My father reminds her about the sandwich, the mothership of all sandwiches so far: French bread, freshly baked, sometimes still warm and always golden on top like a crown; every kind of meat she can dream of—roast beef, ham, bologna, salami—I know it by its little black seeds; a fringe of lettuce; tomatoes razor-sliced; onions that sting my nose as I swallow; cheddar and Swiss, mayonnaise and mustard galore.
“Let’s not make this a habit,” she sighs at last. My father raises three fingers to the man in the stained apron, then reaches for his wallet, quick on the draw. We grin at each other like we’ve been distinguished with an honor.
My mother insists we shop at Kmart for the bargains, but this sandwich becomes our common denominator—the reason we stay cordial with each other at the sticky table; the reason we keep coming back.
We keep coming back, my mother and I, to the lunch counter at Woolworth’s. Or maybe it’s not Woolworth’s, but the diner at Bullock’s department store. The exact place is not important, but the counter is. It’s important that we are not sitting at a table, facing one another over silverware and water glasses; instead, we sit side-by-side, on revolving stools with worn Naugahyde cushions. I hook my feet around the pole and swivel with my hips back and forth. My mother sips a cup of coffee with one hand and smokes a cigarette with the other.
It’s important, too, that we’re in a store, not a restaurant. We’ve been plucked from the aisles of commerce and set here to rest. We can smell the dry waft of sundries, or the astringent crisp of new clothes. We can hear cash registers ringing up wares, the muffled trace of folding. We have our backs to all this, gazing either at the waitress—red-lipsticked, hair shellacked—who glides back and forth with coffee pot in hand, or at the food that has been set before us on a white plate.
We’re sharing a club sandwich, my mother and I. It sits before us now: a precarious tower of toast, chicken, bacon, iceberg lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise. It’s cut into four triangles, with a ruffled toothpick speared into each piece to hold them together. I’m afraid to pick it up—or not afraid, exactly, but so thrilled with the sandwich’s arrival that I’m reluctant to destroy it.
What is it about a club sandwich? That extra slice of toast in the middle? The slightly risqué combination of bacon and chicken? The triple helping of mayonnaise? Or maybe it’s just the frilled adornment of toothpick, or the potato chips heaped on the side. Perhaps it’s even the moniker “club sandwich,” as if we were dining in an exclusive establishment, or in the club car of a train taking us to New York.
But we’re not. We’ve never set foot in a country club, and if we were to take a train anywhere, my mother would pack peanut-butter-and-jelly so we wouldn’t waste money on restaurant prices. “Waste good money,” she would emphasize, as if there were such a thing as bad currency that could be squandered if one got ahold of it.
She picks up the first triangle delicately between her fingers, plucks out the toothpick, and nibbles at the pointed edge. I do the same, following her every move. As I bite in, the sandwich’s form starts to disintegrate—bread sliding every which way; bacon shooting out the crust; tomato slithering down my chin—but for a moment, I get it: the delight of layers, the power of contrast, the way we keep things separate in order to savor them all when our boundaries collapse.
There is no cafeteria at my elementary school. We keep our lunches in cubby holes distinguished by our names. All morning we wait, watching the clock, until the big hand and the little hand point straight up like a classroom know-it-all—like the kind of student I am. Then, we run to grab our paper sacks, our thermal bags, our lunch boxes decorated by Disney.
Now for the power of contrast, the hierarchy of sandwiches. Tom Murray has tuna fish with tiny pickles and thick globs of mayonnaise. His mother even cuts the crust off his name-brand bread and slices it sideways in two, tidy triangles. Erin Sauter has the same white bread with missing crusts, but hers is delicately pasted with peanut butter and honey. Mike Shields has a hoagie roll stuffed with turkey, ham, and cheese. The meat dangles from the sides like untucked bed clothes. He eats the whole thing in three bites.
My mother buys our bread at the Hostess discount store, loaves by the dozen, which she preserves in a storm freezer downstairs. This appliance is so enormous I have to plant my feet firmly and yank with both hands even to peek inside. At night, she sends me to fetch two frozen slices. “They’ll thaw by morning,” my mother insists. I watch her coat the icy bread with a thin layer of drizzly white called Magic Whip, purchased in bulk tubs at a nameless warehouse store. Then, she cuts a strand from the faintly green iceberg head, slices deeply into a brick of yellow industrial cheese.
I am hungry, always, but still the last to open my lunch box. It’s the old-fashioned kind that creaks on metal hinges, rattles when I skip or swing. In fact, it once belonged to my mother. This lunchbox is adorned with her favorite girl, a country bumpkin called Holly Hobbie who wears a bonnet and a patchwork dress and is only ever pictured in profile. I’ve decided she’s boring. I’ve decided if I ever met Holly Hobbie in real life, I’d punch her right where her face would be.
Carl Lull cranes his neck and calls out, “Whatcha got in your lunch today?” He asks this question every day, and all the heads whirl around to stare.
“Just another Holly Hobbie sandwich,” I say, unpacking the boring cheese on its boring bread from the messy blob of cling wrap. My mother doesn’t believe in sandwich bags; she says we won’t waste good money on those.
My sandwich is always grim and mostly frozen. The fake mayonnaise has no tang, and the lettuce is always wilted and blanched. But I eat it because I know everyone is watching. I eat it because I won’t be called a “bad sport.” Megan Jerochim has already explained it this way: “If you’re going to be first in reading and spelling and most of the time in math, then it just makes sense that you have to be last in something.” She opens her Lunchables with a satisfied thwack.
There is no cafeteria in my elementary school, only separate desks and cubby holes, contrasts and hierarchies. I am first in a lot of things, but I am last in sandwiches.
Maybe it was turkey with gravy; that would make the most sense. Or egg salad spread precariously on a single slice of wheat bread. Or an abstemious half of tuna on rye. In any case, an open-faced sandwich seems all wrong. You cannot pick it up with one hand, casually chewing while reading the paper or (as the famous legend suggests) while playing cards for twenty-four hours in an eighteenth-century gentleman’s club. A sandwich, though it often gets my full attention, is meant to be peripheral, a convenience.
The law agrees with me. In a Massachusetts court case, the judge ruled against Panera Bread, stating that a sandwich, by legal definition, involves two slices of conventional bread. Anything else is a non-sandwich and must be treated as such. Sandwiches are not subject to the same public health scrutiny as, say, a burrito. A burrito is a meal. A sandwich is a sandwich is a sandwich.
The contents of a sandwich—ham, turkey, or tuna; lettuce, tomato, or bacon—are not in themselves confident objects. They require the comfort, the security, the tradition of two slices of bread, not one. (I rally with Tevya here: Tradition! Tradition! The poor man haunted by his fiddler on the roof, the harbinger of change.) The ingredients become a sandwich only when revealed in cross-section, each layer symbiotic with the next. One cannot layer properly in a solo bread environment.
There’s something unseemly, too, about the open-faced sandwich, as if we’re privy to something intimate. The sandwich is meant to be modest, not flagrant. The sandwich does not wear its emotions on its sleeve; its face is not an open book. It knows how to behave properly.
When I was a girl, I dreamed of high tea with the Queen, eating watercress and cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off. I would sip my tea with pinky extended, my fingernails polished to a high shine. I wanted to nibble sandwiches made entirely of butter. I wanted to be in such company, where the rules of etiquette were simple and followed to the letter. I would never let my unruly emotions show, instead tucking them in tidily. My face would not be an open book. I might finally make some sense—no longer solo or precarious.
The story goes that John Montagu, fourth Earl of Sandwich, invented the meal-snack of the same name at his gambling table more than three hundred years ago and quite by accident. Not wanting to break for supper or perhaps even to avert his eyes from the cards, Sandwich sustained himself with slices of bread and meat, arranging them in a convenient, one-handed gestalt. Others at the gambling table soon cried out to have “the same as Sandwich,” and according to one strain of British lore, our modern-day sandwich was born.
My other grandmother, the one who lived in the country and presided even at some great distance over our lives, did not believe in sandwiches. She did not bake cookies or speak in dulcet tones or daub rose hips behind her ears either. When we converged on her home, my cousins and I, she frowned and set her hands on her hips, akimbo, then sent her silent husband to the store.
Once, I asked her, using all the best manners my mother had taught me: “May I please have a sandwich, Grandma?”
Her eyes narrowed, and her lips turned down: “Do you think you’re too good to have what the rest of the children are having?”
In another version of the story, Montagu’s biographer asserts that the Earl of Sandwich was so committed to his political office that he ate “sandwiches” late into the night at his work desk. I can picture him there, solo and precarious, his boots unstrapped, a quill in one hand and a hoagie in the other.
Before low-carb options became popular in restaurants, my mother sometimes made sandwiches without the bread, using lettuce leaves as a substitution. Her mother in the country approved of this, and it was widely known that her mother approved of very little.
For the children, she tossed bologna and cheddar cheese into the blender, mixed the resulting puree with mayonnaise, then spooned it into hot dog buns. These she wrapped in foil and placed inside her large, electric oven whose red lines seemed always to be glowering. I feared that oven like an oracle poised to deliver unsettling news, which is why I hesitated at the threshold of her kitchen when she called out to us, “Lunch is served!” My grandmother too glowered in the oven-light.
We learned in school that there was a British territory in the far Atlantic called the South Sandwich Islands. Captain Cook discovered these in the late eighteenth century and dubbed them “Sandwich Land,” homage to the fourth earl of the same name. Though this region was mountainous, polar, and largely uninhabitable, I liked to imagine a more hospitable place, where grilled cheeses grew on trees and tomato soup was served from a steaming vat on the shore.
When my grandmother took ill, suddenly, the summer I was twelve, my mother soon stopped eating. She lost so much weight she seemed to be swimming through the world in her clothes. Even from her hospital bed, my grandmother in the country noticed and approved.
Left to ourselves most nights, my father and I subsisted on sandwiches. We went to the sub shop. We picnicked in the park. It should not have been a joyful time, yet I was thriving on garnishes: the tang of pickles and pepperoncini, the mile-high club and the European wonder of hot Italian meatballs pressed between soft French bread.
After the funeral, I saw meat and cheese laid out in colorful rows. There were crackers on a separate tray and toothpicks instead of silverware. Napkins arranged in triangle towers. The notable absence of bread.
In one version, I don’t know what to do, how to position my lips or where to place my hands. An aunt calls me “stoic” and pats my head. She says grief sometimes renders us silent. In another account, I point to the table, my unruly emotions beginning to show. “There are no sandwiches!” I say, indignant. “Not even those little pinwheels that everybody has when they die.”
When you hum the tune “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” you are enacting a perfect fifth: the fifth note at the optimum interval from the first to create harmony, melody.
As a girl, I hum off-key, and nothing about me is perfect. But sometimes, oh sometimes, the perfect sandwich appears in my lunchbox. Often it happens on field trips: we board the bus, our lunchboxes banging against our knobby knees. We’re headed to the planetarium, or the La Brea Tar Pits, or to the L.A. Forum to see Hansel and Gretel (The Musical!). We are let loose upon the world. We must behave, but this behavior nudges at the limits of decorum. We poke each other accidentally-on-purpose; we laugh too loud at nothing at all.
We sit at unfamiliar picnic tables to eat our lunches. My mother knows that such an outing, while exciting, will also ignite anxiety, and so she takes care to make my lunch extra special. She’s bought rye bread at the Jewish delicatessen, and thinly sliced roast beef at the deli counter. She’s dotted the bread with Russian dressing. She’s included Lay’s potato chips and a can of root beer. As I unwrap the marvelous sandwich from its waxed paper, I think about Hansel and Gretel, how they relied on bread crumbs to lead them home. How such faith turned out to be foolish, and how they were led astray by their own desires.
Or the perfect sandwich might have been the pinwheel peanut-butter-and-jelly my mother made from the long loaf of unsliced Wonder bread. I now remember she made them not just for me, solo, but for my birthday party. They lay on a platter decorated with jelly beans. I wore a stiff pink dress with a wide ribbon sash and white ankle socks with black Mary Janes. I must have looked perfect. My mother must have loved dressing up her little girl and making the special sandwiches, hearing our cries of delight as we ate them.
When I die, I wouldn’t mind a buffet of sandwiches for my mourners, whoever they may be. Give them pinwheels of peanut-butter-and-jelly or platters of roast beef; bánh mì and paninis. Set out towers of club sandwiches held together with frilled toothpicks. Order corned beef and pastrami from Katz’s deli, or whip up a bowl of egg salad, set it near a basket of rosemary-studded rolls. Let my casket sandwich me in its satin folds. Let me be wholly contained, my life a perfect fifth—harmonized at last.
As a girl, I am quick to love words and quick to love play. Word-play is soon to follow. I buy a joke book for a nickel at St. Vincent de Paul, but my delivery is always too slow. I seem to find the wrong things funny.
“Maybe you should try riddles,” my father suggests. If jokes are the jocks of the humor world, then surely riddles are the bookworms.
The first riddle I remember reciting is this one: What do you call a magical woman who lives at the beach? (a beat, two) Do you give up? My parents nod in unison. A sand witch! Get it? They smile and force a chuckle, but they’re clearly unconvinced of my prospects as a comic.
My greater dream is to become a private detective, someone akin to Paul Drake on the Perry Mason series. I like police shows, too, but the cops are always stuck eating stale doughnuts on stakeouts. Cops are to doughnuts as detectives are to _____? It turns out I prefer my riddles served as analogies.
“I give up,” my father says.
Instead of making idle chit-chat with a partner in a car, the successful detective most often works alone. We see him, shadowy and mysterious in black and white, his dapper hat dangling from the rack. There is a bright-bulb light burning on his desk and a Winston-Salem burning in his ashtray. Best of all, there is a secretary who stays late taking his calls, typing his notes—a secretary who knows just when to send out for a sandwich.
I can almost hear the waxed paper crinkling as the detective unwraps it, can almost taste the toasted bread with sauerkraut spilling from the sides. Now the PI loosens his tie, takes another drag from his cigarette. It’s not that I don’t know I’m going to be a woman someday; it’s just that sometimes I forget. I don’t intend to be the one making sandwiches for someone else, filling lunch boxes and paper sacks, or placing a call to the deli on the corner. I want to be the one brooding in a dark room, moving the glossy prints around until I spot the murder weapon in the background. Then, I’ll take another bite of my Reuben, pour another cup of coffee from the pot plugged into my wall, and call the Chief of Police on the rotary phone to—word play!—take another bite out of crime.
My parents used to say, “The world is your oyster.” I wonder if they said this because we lived by the sea. The best sandwich I ever had, come to think of it, was an oyster po’boy, but I was far from home at a beach shack in coastal Georgia.
My friend said, “The World is Your Oyster would be a good name for a restaurant, don’t you think?”
I grinned at her, the homemade remoulade dribbling down my chin. “If I had my own restaurant, I’d call it The World is Your Sandwich.”
“I don’t think people would get it,” she said.
As it stands, I teach writing to college students. My job involves enough humor and mystery to hold my interest for a very long time. I pick up sandwiches from the drive-thru at Miami Subs, then spread the papers out on the living room floor. We are experimenting with second person now, how to show someone how to do something seemingly ordinary while the emotional stakes behind the action are high.
I leaf through the titles as I layer my tuna fish sandwich with salt and vinegar chips: “How to Plant a Rosebush,” “How to Walk a Dog,” and this one, nearly levitating from the pile—“How to Make a Sandwich.”
I know just how I want the essay to begin, which is never fair to the writer. Still, I close my eyes and make a wish: The bread is most important; it contains everything.
Collaborative work by Brenda Miller and Julie Marie Wade has previously appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Kenyon Review, The Georgia Review, The Normal School, River Teeth, Punctuate, Phoebe, and Tupelo Quarterly as well as the anthologies The Spirit of Disruption: Landmark Essays from The Normal School (Outpost 19, 2018) and They Said: A Multi-Genre Anthology of Contemporary Collaborative Writing (Black Lawrence Press, 2018). In 2019, their first collaborative collection won the Cleveland State University Press Nonfiction Book Prize. Telephone: An Essay in Two Voices is forthcoming from CSU Press in 2021. Miller teaches and writes in Bellingham, WA, and Wade in Hollywood, FL.