England, where I grew up, isn’t generally known for its contributions to culinary progress. It is, however, the origin of the sandwich as we know it today. The story goes that in the 18th century, the Earl of Sandwich was at a gaming table for 24 hours, but didn’t want to step away and eat. So he ordered two slices of bread with meat in between so he could play cards and munch at the same time.
It was America who embraced the sandwich, however, inventing and popularizing such gastronomic delights as the BLT, sloppy joe, po’ boy, Reuben, club, bologna, pastrami, and various lavish preparations involving beef or pork. The first time I visited the US, I stood in a New York City deli admiring the elaborate preparations, some of which were so massive they could have passed for a three-course meal.
But back in England, the sandwich is traditionally a more subdued affair. Even today, many London sandwich shops only offer the basics: cheese, tuna salad, egg salad, and meats on either “white” or “brown” bread. Lettuce and tomato are the extent of the add-ons.
I happily live in America, and yet? I still crave a simple sandwich—much to the bemusement of my American friends. I’m tired of big ass sandwiches that are too big to bite into, fall apart under the weight of their fillings, or are so loaded with spreads and sauces the bread becomes soggy.
There’s a purity to the stripped-back version that appeals to the Spartan in me. It also means that each of the ingredients has to be good—there’s no hiding when a sandwich consists of three things. All I want is the classic cheese ’n’ pickle: Cheddar cheese, pickle (a type of chutney, not the mini cucumber), and some soft, brown bread. Is this too much to ask?
But where was I to find such a thing in Portland? Bunk, Lardo, Brass Tacks, Sammich? Great sandwiches for sure, but positively operatic when compared to my three-chord garage punk preferences. And so my search began.
First I tried Jimmy John’s (apologies in advance)—and on the first attempt, they managed to out-Spartan me. They had a children’s sandwich consisting of bread and cheese. That’s it. Not even butter or mayo. I admired their obvious determination to help foster a robust future generation that’s content with just the basics in life. The sandwich itself wasn’t bad, but—you guessed it—the cheese wasn’t up to scratch. Cheese is always the weak link on this side of the pond. Swiss, Provolone, and (God forbid) American are no match for a Cheddar at the height of its powers.
Still, I persevered. At Whole Foods I filled out my order card and handed it to the gentleman behind the counter: Cheese, mayo, wheat bread. He spent a few moments studying the card. “You just want a grilled cheese?” he asked, confused. When I explained that actually I just wanted cheese, mayo, and wheat bread, he gave me a look that said, “Whatever, you’re the customer.”
While putting it together he kindly offered me extra layers of cheese in hopes of padding it out. I abstained. He handed it over.
“I’ve had some strange requests in my time,” he said, “but that was the strangest. I’m guessing you’re taking it home to grill it?”
I attempted to explain why I was going to eat it in its current simple state, but finally just gave up.
“It’s a weird English thing,” I said.
While the Cheddar couldn’t match an aged farmhouse (which you already suspected), the sandwich, in its simplicity, was possibly as close as I was going to get to a classic cheese ’n’ pickle—without, of course, the pickle.
I’m in America now. I guess I’ll just have to make do.