April 19, 2011

Foodents: A new plantaintion sensation sweeps the nation

This article is part two in our on-going series on “The Sandwich.”

“Call me All-American, but I love ham and cheese sandwiches, and not just any old ham and cheese sandwich. My mother’s is the best. I’ve tried many times to make these sandwiches on my own, but it’s never the same.”

—Professional Tennis Athlete Andy Roddick

If we were to agree upon something, we would probably agree upon food. Food is a universal entity, one that transcends time as well as space. Food cannot help but heartily laugh at the artificial partitions of Man, just as a baby laughs at a suddenly disappearing and reappearing man. At the same time, food is notably bound to its geography, and furthermore serves as a source of identity for those who commonly eat the same food. E.g., we of Chicago identify with the Chicago-style pizza pie while those of New York identify with New-York-style pizza. Food, then, is a paradox: It is universal and particular; it is content and it is form; it is tied to an identity but it is also tied to all. The apt metaphor is, of course, booty: It’s something that everybody wants, something that everybody has, and yet remains something that not everybody’s getting.

So yes, let us conclude that food is confusing, but important. Let us agree to agree. While many of these food-related concerns that we have so lucidly outlined above will be addressed in the coming articles of this series, we wish to focus on just one here: food’s relationship to social identity. The epigram mounting this article has not been randomly chosen as if from some Jester’s Cap (Ice Age, Artifact, Rare). What, after all, is more American than tennis? What is more American than ham or cheese? Most of all, what is more American than the sandwich?

All of these things may have been true. They may have been true in the old hyper-nostalgized version of America to which Mr. Roddick alludes—an America which may or may not have existed. However, these things are not true anymore. No, the age of the American Sandwich—so vividly ideo-typical in Mr. Roddick’s mama’s Ham and Cheese Sandwich—has definitively come to an end. For how long—who can say? The question of the sandwich then necessarily becomes a definitively eschatological set of queries. Who, then, is the Apocalyptic Rider that announces the end of this epoch? Who can we turn to as its Janus-faced executioner and reviver? Finally, should we greet this Figure as a Cyclopean child of evil or an elderly Cyclopean entity of all consuming goodness and light?

Perhaps, one may offer the Panini; that bastard child of the sandwich and the iron face of the oil-laden grill. Not quite, say we, but this was a necessary step on the way to the Rapture.

The American identity is changing, and this is important for our discussion. The sandwich is a distinctly European innovation—or at least it has its culinary routes in that old culinary heritage. However, America is becoming less and less European and is coming to embrace the cuisine of other culinary traditions. What we’ve been hinting at all along here, of course, is an innovation from Puerto Rico, that jovial rider known as the Jibarito. He ushers in a new age, a better age, where the qualities of the old “ham n’ cheese” sandwich seamlessly intertwine.

What, exactly, is a Jibarito? For all intents and purposes it is a sandwich. However, there is one vital difference. What was once bread is now plantain. What was once probably plain—or, perhaps, toasted—is now fried and pressed to a crisp flavor-dense perfection. The construction of this plantain encasement offers an intense and flavorful way to eat a sandwich. There is so much heat and flavor energy packed into these bits that everything it touches tastes astoundingly better. Thus, the relatively quiet interiors of the Jibarito—we had steak and chicken (both were nicely flavored and very moist)—come out with a new bravado that the old sandwich cannot help but not produce.

So what do we have at this, the End of Days? While the sandwich may be flying from the world like an uncared-for guardian ghost, a new spirit has come to take its place. A spirit more delicious and, perhaps, more able than its antediluvian predecessor. In reality, I am speaking hyperbolically. The sandwich certainly has a place and still has plenty a fighting word left in that old mouth of his, but it now has a new friend which offers many an exciting possibly. Go, get a Jibarito (we got ours from Borinquen Restaurant) and taste the future of America.