American food gets a bad rap from outsiders and a lot of that negativity is justified. Even the whole grain bread you buy in the supermarket tastes like unimaginative cake. Cheese is mostly ultra-processed and has the consistency of fruit leather. It’s best not to think too hard about where your meat is coming from unless you’re ready to go vegan. Fortunately the supermarkets are so massive and overwhelming that its impossible to think about anything at all. You come out feeling like someone squirted LSD into your eyeballs and all you’ve got show for it is a trolley full of refined sugar, trans fats, and palm oil.
America is a very big place and, to paraphrase Walt Whitman (a poet so great they named a mall after him in Long Island), it contains multitudes. In the state of New York, centuries of immigration from all over the globe have created a working-class food culture that is swaggering in it’s self assurance, demanding, and relentlessly vocal. We asked our driver from JFK to Long Island where we would find the best pizza in Suffolk County (where he was from and where we would be spending the next two weeks). His answer was long and detailed, peppered with caveats, rich with overlapping references to pizza places long since closed, and styles of pizza both foreign (Sicilian, Roman, Neopolitan) and indigenous. He knew the new kids in town, which places had improved, and which were on the long road to decline. He cared about food a lot and liked to talk about it. It’s the same in France, in Italy, in Thailand, in Mexico. People from places with a great cuisine like to talk about food. Constantly.
We took some of his advice and advice from friends and family and we ate a lot of pizza. A particular favourite was the ‘Grandma slice’: a crispy square crust with extra tomato sauce, pungent with fresh basil, and fresh mozzerella lurking just beneath the surface. But everyone knows about New York pizza. What impressed me most was a humble sandwich: the bacon, egg and cheese.
My partner is from Long Island and she has talked about this sandwich since we met. I didn’t quite understand what the big deal was. A pretty standard collection of ingredients. In New Zealand this would hardly stand out on a cafe blackboard. But in Long Island these humble parts had become, over genrations of passionate deli-goers, a mighty sum.
There was some debate over which deli was the best purveyor of the bacon, egg and cheese. Brother argued with sister. Husband bickered with wife. At last, the person most commited to driving the fifiteen minutes to his favourite deli to collect the order won the the day. The Se-Port deli in Port Jefferson. The actor Ed O’Neil was credited with inventing one of their signature sandwiches. But there was no time for such frippery. Baconeggandcheese. Saltpepperketchup. Hard roll. The bagel would have to wait. A large Arnold Palmer (ice tea and fresh lemonade) ordered on my partner’s advice so I could experience a drink served in a bucket.
The sandwich came tightly wrapped in white paper and cut in half. The stratification of the cross section was striking. Bread crust, white loaf, the russet and pink of the bacon, the splash of bright yellow yolk, the seeping dark stain of the ketchup. It was delicious. A perfectly balanced savoury experience and one of the finest sandwiches i’d ever eaten. It had something to do with the texture, the crunch of the bacon, the chewiness of the crust, the fluffiness of the loaf. A thing of beauty that is completely of its place.
Photos courtesy of Tyler Rubin