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.