Commentary: The Ephemerality of the Sandwich

“All we are is dust in the wind, dude.” – Bill S. Preston, Esq.

The Michaelangelo, from the erstwhile The Italian Market, in Merrifield.

The Michaelangelo, from the erstwhile The Italian Market, in Merrifield.

One of the major themes of this blog is the enduring nature of the medium to which it is dedicated. While Sandwich Jack’s recent post What is a Sandwich? demonstrated that there is room for debate over the exact taxonomy of a sandwich, the entire exercise was an attempt to apply a timeless standard that would be as recognizable to an 18th century English nobleman as it would to a hoverboarding, vest-wearing, time-traveling 21st-century high schooler. Such a definition is a tribute to the form and its endless adaptability.

In another sense, though, a sandwich is an inherently fleeting thing. No matter how standardized the McDonalds, Subways, and Burger Kings of the world may become, or how exacting the French Laundrys, an indelible feature of the culinary arts is that each production is unique, unrepeatable, and subjectively experienced by the diner. No Big Mac is exactly the same as another, just as no two rillettes of poullarde can be identical. I have groused innumerable times at the variability of my Chipotle burrito.

We remember each sandwich not just as the sum of its ingredients, but by how hungry we were before it arrived, how novel it was at the time, or how long the wait was before we could place our order. That’s not to say that there is no objective way to evaluate a sandwich. But our memories are a synthesis of often unrelated moods and feelings that can even change over time, and once a sandwich is eaten, we can’t conjure it back to life for a side-by-side comparison to the latest bistro to slap together a croque monsieur.

Recent experience reminded me, as well, that no sandwich is forever. The Italian Market and Deli, home of best Italian hoagies I’ve ever had, abruptly shut its doors this week after only a few short months of business in Merrifield, Va. After opening in fall, the market’s operators, who also run a handful of other local restaurants, issued a letter announcing the site would become Merrifield Wine & Beer, which will “more closely complement our two adjacent concepts, Open Road Grill and Icehouse and TRIO Grill.” A response to my inquiries indicated that the new “concept” will not retain the market’s sandwich-making program.

The closing came as a terrible shock, especially to many coworkers who had a well justified obsession with their offerings. As hoagies go, folks rave and wait in line forever at Arlington’s Italian Store, and Taylor Gourmet’s ubiquity makes theirs the clearly dominant incarnation of the style in D.C., but I swear this place blew them both out of the water. Where Taylor’s bread has become soft and chewy over time (likely the result of bringing the bread-baking in-house after importing it daily from Philly for their first year or so), The Italian Market’s sandwiches were served on a hard, crusty Italian baguette that gave a palpable crunch and stood up to their house-made dressing, even after soaking in it on the ride back to the office. Their Michelangelo, my favorite sandwich, was a classic with prosciutto, genoa salami, ham capicola, provolone with hot peppers, lettuce, onion, oregano, and dressing. We’ve probably all had dozens of sandwiches with exactly those ingredients, but the quality of each and the sandwich’s sturdy construction made this one special. Their dressing was ridiculous.

I’m trying to come to grips with the idea that this sandwich is gone. Not just the ones I personally sent to their final resting place, but the fact that nobody else will be able to experience this most perfect rendition of a classic sandwich archetype.

The wonderful thing about food as a cultural phenomenon (as opposed to simply a source of nutrition) is that a single basic concept can have limitless variations on ingredients, technique, or ratios. No two sandwiches are exactly the same. And while this might be a source of existential dread for some, I encourage you to instead treat each sandwich as if it were the subject of the Marine Corps Creed:

This is my sandwich. There are many like it, but this one is mine.


Spencer Griffin is a proud D.C. resident living in 9-5 exile in Northern Virginia. His favorite sandwich is the Smoked Salmon BLT with avocado at Neopol Savory Smokehouse at Union Market.

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