Terry Durack column

Take control: make a sandwich
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
CORNISH PASTIES roll off assembly lines. The pizza has degenerated into an automated piece of engineering with indecipherable toppings, and hamburgers are cloned into identical polystyrene coffins.

A sandwich, on - and in - the other hand, is one of the few things left in life that allows us to exert our own individualism. A sandwich is action food, with much of the action left firmly in our own capable hands.

That's why the words "made to order" are so compelling. We get to choose whether we leave the onion out of our salad sandwich, or put beetroot in, or double the mayonnaise. In this way, the humble sandwich gives back a little of the control over our lives that convenience foods take away.

The best sandwiches in all the world can be found in a very sophisticated sandwich bar in Vienna called Trzesniewski (at Dorotheergasse 1), pronounced correctly by sneezing as you say Trezneeyevskee. Here, the counters groan under the weight of giant trays full of rich, delicate open-faced sandwiches, spread with a mixture of egg and mayo and flavoured with ham, lobster, mushroom, herring, goose liver, salmon or capsicum. There are no tables or chairs, just a couple of counters to lean on, but the sandwiches are irresistible. Stay for a fresh goose-liver roll and whistle up a Pfiff (125ml) of beer.

Then there is the mighty club sandwich. According to the wok-wielding Ken Hom, the best way to judge the quality of a hotel is to order a club sandwich as soon as you check in. The best club sandwich in the world, however, is not to be found in a hotel but at Venice's renowned Harry's Bar, where they are grilled butter-side-up and filled with bacon, home- made mayonnaise, romaine lettuce, tomato, shredded poached chicken, salt, pepper and, for the final touch, a few drops of Worcestershire sauce. That's not sandwich making, that's art.

If the sandwich has a spiritual home, then it has to be America, for it was here, between the wars, that sandwich-making developed into an unashamed obsession. Americans seemed able to take anything and slap two slices of bread around it.

The advent of the automobile, of which there were 26 million by 1930, meant that there were millions of mouths on the road, ready to pull over and feed in roadside eateries. Aided by the invention of the 1lb pack of butter (1922), the toaster (1924) and sliced bread (1928), the sandwich spread like peanut butter throughout the land. Regional variations sprang up, with exotic warlike names - hero, hoagy, wedgie, torpedo, bomber, rocket, zeppelin and sub.

The height of American sandwich serving today is the high-rise pastrami sandwich eaten with much relish (both spiritual and material) at the 106- year old Katz's Deli in New York (205 East Houston Street). It's a great place, full of old codgers of waiters who are as rude as one can wish. "Where you from, buddy?" asked my last waiter. I told him. "How much did it cost you to get here?" I told him. "Here," he said, pulling a few dollars out of his pocket. "Go home."

Katz's is also the spot where Harry met Sally. Mind you, if they had met in London, it would have been at Harvey Nicks' Fifth Floor sandwich bar, where the charming Dylis wields a sharp knife instead of a rapier wit.

So what's your favourite sandwich? Everyone has one. For the late American cookery author, James Beard, it was the club. For the Earl of Sandwich, it was cold meat. For Elvis Presley, it was peanut butter and banana, pan-fried. For the writer Kurt Vonnegut, it's peanut butter and pickle on rye. For Dolly Parton, it's a smoky barbecue sandwich.

For me, it's mortadella (dolce, not piccante) on sourdough (crust on), buttered (salted, not unsalted) and topped with cheese (provolone), artichoke hearts (in olive oil), tomatoes (oven-roasted, not sun-dried) and mayo (whole egg, Dutch or American, unsweetened). No onion, no grated carrot, no shredded lettuce. With sandwiches, simple is always the way to go.