Try it. Who knows, you may even like it.

Friday, May 16, 2008

For a balanced diet, add an occasional food column

By Dick Hirsch

We were headed out to dinner with our 7-year-old house guest, so, seeking to stimulate her interest as well as her appetite, we inquired about her favorite restaurant food.

“I like pizza or spaghetti,” she said.

Great. That was no big surprise, and we knew just the place, so off we went to one of the area’s many renowned spots that has specialized for years in such saucy cuisine. Once there, the guest studied the menu for a moment and when the waitress arrived, she placed her order with obvious enthusiasm:

“I’ll have a grilled cheese sandwich,” she said.

“This place has terrific pizza,” I reminded her. “I thought you liked pizza.”

She said that she does like pizza but she likes grilled cheese sandwiches even better.

So it goes: another reminder of the enduring allure of the grilled cheese sandwich and its appeal to young and old, especially young. I suppose much of its charm is based on its predictable blandness, although among sandwiches it is one of the most versatile, since it can be modified in so many ways. I saved a menu from a popular spot in New York called “Say Cheese!” which offered grilled cheese sandwiches in at least 50 different variations. The differences were defined by additives that ranged from the simple, such as bacon or tomato, to the peculiar such as slices of pear, avocado or beets.

Our guest seemed delighted with her sandwich, which was just what she expected. That is part of the appeal, too: the diner knows exactly what to expect and how it will taste. And, as a food expert might say, “It’s impossible to wreck a grilled cheese sandwich.”

The sandwich species is quite resilient. After decades of noisy emphasis on a continuing parade of diets, most of which warned of the perils of the regular eating of bread in large amounts, the sandwich has managed to outlast many of the diet promoters and their books.

As you probably have heard, the sandwich was reportedly developed in England in 1762 by John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich. He was First Lord of the Admiralty and Capt. James Cook, the revered explorer, discovered a small group of islands in the South Atlantic which was named after Montagu, the Sandwich Islands. You wouldn’t rush to visit there.

I have no information on the makeup of that first sandwich, but, considering the time and location, I might guess that he served a slab of nicely fatted mutton, accompanied by a tankard of dark ale. That sounds good, even now, doesn’t it?

From another viewpoint, the word sandwich is somewhat unique. It is most often used as a noun, but it is also a verb, describing a setting in which a person is surrounded in close quarters by other persons or objects. Even in an upscale restaurant a diner can feel sandwiched when the tables are crammed together.

Diversity, much sought after today, is a feature of sandwiches. Almost anything works. Years ago, not a soul had even heard of a Portabella mushroom, now it’s on the sandwich list in many places. I just recently scanned a magazine story purporting to feature the newest “in” sandwiches. Most had various ethnic backgrounds and included combinations not readily available where I dine. I’m still in the universe of ham and Swiss on rye, roast beef, egg salad, and baloney or other cold cuts. Burgers will get no mention here because they are in a category all their own.

I am still impressed with the record of a physician of my acquaintance who dined in the hospital cafeteria with regularity for over 37 years, always having a tuna salad sandwich. He never bothered ordering anything else until one day he chose sliced turkey on a whole wheat toast with lettuce and mayo.

The biggest sandwich innovation started slowly in the 1950s, being marketed by delis and taverns under different regional names. In Connecticut, for example, where I ate my first, it was called a “grinder.” Elsewhere, it could be known as a “hero,” a “hoagie,” a “bomber,” an “Italian” or a “submarine” sandwich, all employed a long roll shaped like a submarine and stuffed with the customer’s choice of various meats, cheeses, vegetables and condiments. The sub, with aggressive marketing, today holds a commanding position among present day sandwiches.

The sandwich of whatever shape has withstood diet trends. I continue to endorse a specimen so simple and satisfying that it needs only initials. That would be PB&J.



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