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Bread Winner

Building an outstanding sandwich takes ingenuity and a firm set of rules, and this former deli wizard has both.

When I was growing up in northern Indiana, my father and I would buy a loaf of rye bread, grab the mustard jar out of the fridge and cross the state line to the Michigan town of Three Oaks. In a shop there, beneath the wicked gleam cast by a portrait of JR from Dallas (Larry Hagman was a mail-order customer), a man named Drier made magnificent sausages. We'd slice one of them with a pocket knife onto the mustarded rye and eat reverently.

That was a rare island in an otherwise battering sea of not-good, or plain bad, sandwiches. I happened across another one this past fall: A new sandwich guy at one of my neighborhood delis in Brooklyn sometimes made suggestions when I couldn't decide what I wanted. The more often I took his suggestions, the better the sandwiches got. When I finally noticed, I think he noticed: He unleashed an astonishing sandwich, of small veal meatballs, sautéed mushrooms and gravy on toasted ciabatta, as if he'd been waiting for my full attention.

It may sound grandiose, but when you eat a sandwich almost every day, as your sole break from work, that sandwich is important. In the days that followed that meatball sandwich, I ate only great sandwiches. Some were inventions, like the sandwich of grilled chicken sausage with a tangy carrot slaw. Others were classics, like roast beef, but impeccably done, with deft touches of coarse salt and horseradish. Most of the time, the guy made what customers asked for--although you'd catch him tinkering, covertly adding butter or salt or substituting a real farmstead cheese for slices from the brick of Boar's Head. But it was when you let the guy "just make you something" that he shined brightest. One day, a few weeks into what I had privately dubbed the Golden Age of the Sandwich, the guy said, "I'm so glad you came in! I want to make you my favorite sandwich." It was a fresh execution of a classic: home-baked ham, Pavé d'Affinois cheese, slivered red onion, tomato, intimations of mustard and salt on buttered ciabatta. And it was fantastic, of course--but it would mark his last day on the job.

As they used to say at the end of old Westerns, "Who was that sandwich guy?" I needed to know who he was, if only to tell him how much I'd enjoyed that last sandwich. I finally went to the deli and asked for the guy's name and number. He turned out to be Dan Segall, age 27, originally from Sharon, Massachusetts. An aspiring playwright and director, he had more than one day job. In baseball season, he shot T-shirts out of an air cannon into the stands at Mets home games. "Who were you?" he asked on the phone when I called him. I'd barely started to explain when he said, with nostalgia, "The meat girl. You liked to eat meat."

Going to meet him, I panicked: What if Dan Segall was some kind of sandwich idiot savant? A misplaced concern, it turned out. "My philosophy of the sandwich?" he mused as we sat at a café in Brooklyn. "More like my manifesto. My rules of engagement." A man of many plans, Segall meant to present his manifesto in a convenient trifold format to his customers, but he never had time--he was too busy putting principles into action. To explain, he quoted no less a luminary than chef Thomas Keller of Napa Valley's French Laundry on the law of diminishing returns: "The initial bite is fabulous. The second bite is great. But by the third bite... the diner loses interest." Keller serves many small courses to patrons at his restaurant, but what to do within the confines of a sandwich? Every bite of a sandwich is the same, so each bite must contain differences--vivid contrasts, like sweet mozzarella and salty prosciutto. Segall's ideal sandwich, he explained, possesses the unity and complexity of any great dish.

Of course ingredients have to be excellent. They must also be, if not easily bitable, cut down to size: "You don't want to fight with your sandwich," Segall said. Bread shouldn't be "inappropriate," too sharp-edged or chewy or thick. Adjacency should be considered: Raw onion should be next to cheese. Layering ought to be logical. For example, Segall never puts lettuce on top, because the bread slides right off. And butter is his first fundamental, because it's not just delicious but also keeps bread from getting soggy. "It's like a little raincoat for your sandwich," he marveled. "Why do so many people avoid it?"

But these are like the rules of fine carpentry, invisible if practiced correctly. Eventually the rules give way to what Segall lovingly called the "shared pursuit" of sandwiches. I learned that I'd been just one of his sandwich compatriots. There was the customer who longed for the world's spiciest sandwich, driving Segall to perfect his own hot-pepper oil. He had customers whose requests he refused, like the man who wanted prosciutto with cheddar (he talked him into a happier pairing). What we all had in common was the sense of partnership, a rule proved by exceptions, like the man who ate turkey on rye with ketchup. "I gave it to him without comment," Segall admitted. "With that, there was no arguable point."

It's hard enough to find someone who understands that making sandwiches requires artistry. It's even harder to find someone devoted to the craft of the thing. Even the completing gesture, of wrapping the sandwich in paper, was so satisfying to Segall that he went through a period of being disturbed by the imbalance of handing over something he had made and receiving mere cash in return. "I'd think, make me a card or something. Give me your T-shirt!" This phase passed, luckily, but the desire to "put everything in right" remained. And this was why he left the deli, and also set the theater aside, to attend cooking school. He was only sorry he'd never realized his plan to write one-page playlets about sandwiches to slip into customers' bags.

After we parted, it occurred to me that among the myriad ways to offer a sandwich to the world, Dan Segall's way was improvisational. The deli was not his, and the raw materials were not of his choosing. For every customer like me, who would try anything, he had many more with rigid and habitual demands. Yet this was what made his art great: his capacity to find endless possibility in a realm over which he could never have total control. It was all starting to remind me of my own kitchen, where I often find myself confronting an array of foodstuffs that seem to have been forced upon me from on high. Meeting Dan Segall reminded me that when the daily question "What shall I eat?" yields as its answer the humble sandwich, that's a chance for élan and excitement. I think it no detraction from Segall's talents when I say that since I met him, my homemade sandwiches have vastly improved.

The recipes that follow, from Segall and other sandwich experts, should be less strict blueprints for you than enactments of certain themes: of butter on bread; of the marriage of cheese and onion; of contrasts (a world in each bite!). Make these sandwiches, but better yet, vary them--be your own sandwich artist.

--Novelist Susan Choi is the author of The Foreign Student.

Published July 2002
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