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Bite Me

Ham on Wry

Sometimes when I have a bad day, I console myself by thinking about sandwiches. Not about eating them -- although I do dearly love a good sammich -- but making them. It's an obsession, something just short of a religion. I think of sandwich-as-spiritual-object the way a Mexican Catholic might approach a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe or a Buddhist would sit in contemplation of the perfect lotus flower.

It's not any particular sandwich I have in mind, either, but the entire sandwich gestalt. I am not elitist in my daydreaming. I am thinking about every sandwich simultaneously -- from the sublime simplicity of salami and butter lettuce on a chewy roll, to a Sardi's stacked ham on rye, to a complicated truffled egg-salad canapé, to my midnight-guilty-pleasure, white-trash fallback sandwich: three individually wrapped slices of yellow mega-mart cheese product on grocery-store white bread heated for fifteen seconds in the microwave.

I even have this fantasy of making it big someday and investing a portion of the windfall from my gambling binge/book contract/ slip-and-fall lawsuit in a sandwich shop of my very own. In it, I would stock all the necessaries for making every conceivable sandwich (except paninis, which I've never liked anyway), including French croque monsieur and madame, Vietnamese pâté banh mi on baguette, Cajun oyster loaf, Rust Belt beef on weck, Philly cheesesteaks, and open-faced Russian sandwiches or even their Kansas cousin, the runza. There would be after-school PB&Js with their crusts cut off, made with Skippy and sugary grape jelly, and then again with cashew butter and white-champagne grape jam; Dutch condensed-milk and jimmies sandwiches; Greek-diner flat-top sandwiches of butter-soaked and grilled bread with hashbrowns, fried peppers and marinated chicken; Italian prosciutto and fried-egg sandwiches; peanut butter and banana à la Elvis; street-fair sausage and peppers on a hard roll; hot barbecued brisket on white Wonder bread; pulled pork on a hard roll; pork Cubanos on lard-heavy bread with plenty of mustard and cornichons; Chinese pork buns; subs, spiedies, hoagies, grinders, po'boys -- everything.

Once a year, I would close down for a month to travel the globe collecting new sandwich knowledge. What do Sherpas eat for a quick lunch at the peak of Everest? Is there a traditional Eskimo sandwich? I would find out. And then, like the archetypal Joseph Campbell hero, I would return to my shop and bestow these boons upon my customers. Once a month, I would hold sandwich-therapy encounter groups for people wanting to get in touch with the simple flavors of their childhood. And every night, I would don cape and mask as the Sandwich Avenger and Superglue the locks on the doors of all Subwayfranchises.

I would bring to the sandwich-maker's art all the passion, focus and obsessive dedication of haute cuisine. Does a sandwich deserve any less? Of course not. After all, there is so much to consider in the construction of a perfect sandwich. Beyond the obvious concerns of excellent and texturally appropriate bread (stiff, dense hoagie rolls for a meatball sandwich, squishy white bread for that PB&J), acquiring the best artisan or regionally authentic ingredients (hard Genoa salami that actually comes from Genoa, the best German liverwurst for a proper Polish-with-onions), and preparing all the fixings right (cornichons sliced thin and long, the skordalia left slightly lumpy to keep it from becoming starch paste and then dosed with fresh lemon at the last minute), there are more esoteric considerations. Stacking, for instance. What item must go where in the architecture of your sandwich so that each flavor hits your mouth in the proper place and order? And the power of food memory. Is handmade cashew butter intrinsically better than chunky Skippy if Skippy is what you remember from your childhood and what you really, truly desire?

No doubt there are some great sandwiches in town. The croque monsieur at Brasserie Rouge (1801 Wynkoop Street), which you can now enjoy many more hours of the day since that bistro started serving lunch last week; Denver's (and possibly the world's) best grilled cheese at Chedd's(1906 Pearl Street); a great red pepper and mozzarella sandwich served with attitude at Salvaggio's Deli (2609 Pearl Street, Boulder). And Phil Collier gets a lot of things right with the sandwiches at A La Tomate (see review): good ingredients, many choices, a do-it-yourself mentality that leaves decisions in the hands of the customer. He takes a lot of care in the preparation of his spreads -- the olive tapenade, the fig-and-olive paste -- and plain knows a lot of stuff, like how thin the prosciutto ought to be (very) and how to temper the flavor of a strong brie (by adjusting its place in the stack). Still, Collier does not begin to approach the sort of OCD fervor I would bring to my imaginary sandwich shop.

For starters, he doesn't even have a cold meatloaf sandwich, which would be a mainstay on my fantasy sandwich board. Specifically, my wife's cold meatloaf sandwich. At the Earl of Sandwich (that's what I'd call the place -- just Earl's, for those in the know), Laura would be referred to as the Queen of Meatloaf, Dame of Worcestershire, and she would boss her meatloaf minions with an iron hand. The loaf itself would be made with three-way mix from the South Philly Italian Market, the ground beef, pork and veal air-dropped into Denver in the middle of the night in a blacked-out Learjet because -- at least so far -- I haven't found a single butcher in this city who makes anything resembling a proper three-way mix, and if Denverites knew what they were missing, there'd be riots.

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