Listen to this article
When I moved to London a decade ago, I would take a break for lunch and think of Thomas Jefferson. He was a founding father of the country of my birth, and he wrote something that would come to mind as I considered my culinary options at midday.
It was called the Declaration of Independence. Issued in 1776, it proclaimed to the world that the 13 “united States of America” – the “u” was lower case then – were dissolving their ties to Great Britain because its king, George III, had failed respect their rights as men.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident,” it explained, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, [and] that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
I would often reflect upon that third specified right (and isn’t it interesting that the founding fathers allowed for more?) when I ventured into one of those ubiquitous Pret A Manger shops in London, where freshly made sandwiches packaged securely in cardboard and plastic could be found cooling off in refrigerated shelf displays.
They were an impressive product. The people at Pret obviously worked hard on the crafty combinations of ingredients in their fare. As a keyboard pounder myself, I could also appreciate the effort expended on the earnest verbiage found on the wrapping materials, attesting to the good intentions and high-mindedness of the unseen sandwich makers.
But there was something about the Pret experience that gnawed at me as an American – and particularly the kind who grew up in the New York metropolitan area of the 1960s and 1970s. As silly as this might sound to some of you, I felt my unalienable right to pursue my happiness slipping away as I stared silently at those mute sandwiches.
Where I came from, a sandwich obtained at a shop was more than a quick meal. It was a group improvisation – in the spirit of the great American musical form, jazz.
There was no place for a passive consumer in the process. Ordering a New York sandwich required a culinary sensibility, a familiarity with the available ingredients and the grace under pressure to specify the desired bread, fillings and condiments with the speed and precision demanded by the dervish behind the counter.
Just as the rat-a-tat conversation was being concluded, the culinary show would begin as the sandwich maker whirled around before one’s eyes in the manner of Gene Krupa moving from tom-toms to snare and cymbals and back again on a swing-era bandstand.
New American mores and folkways were forged in the process. Jewish delis, for example, moved beyond the dietary laws of the Torah to create something known as “kosher style”. As a result, it became acceptable to melt a slice of Swiss cheese on the beef of a Reuben sandwich in contravention of the biblical prohibition on cooking a kid (as in a young goat) in its mother’s milk.
But it was never appropriate to wash down a meat sandwich of that sort with an actual glass of milk. Properly educated New Yorkers knew the Lord had created Dr Brown’s Cel-Ray soda for that purpose (said beverage is a sweetened carbonated drink flavoured with celery seed, which, for reasons that are probably apparent, never achieved great popularity in many places outside the Big Apple).
Standing in a Pret, I had to say goodbye to all that and accept whatever was dished out by those darling people who expressed all those lovely sentiments on the packages of those icy sandwiches – as if there had never been a Thomas Jefferson or a Gene Krupa or a Reuben or a Dr Brown.
I began to grumble about it in the local style, in pubs and in print, even writing an FT column about my troubled pursuit of sandwich happiness, which prompted one angry English colleague to stop me in the street a few days later to suggest a possible change of address, or something like that.
Yet when I returned to New York a couple of years later, in 2006 – for editorial rather than security reasons, I would add – a funny thing happened. I continued eating sandwiches at Pret (as well as the soups, which are pretty good, if overpriced, considering the portions).
The sandwich culture of my youth, it became clear, was fading away. The legendary Stage Deli on Seventh Avenue closed. The revered 2nd Ave Deli, which, as one might expect, was located on Second Avenue, beat a retreat of sorts to 33rd Street.
With rents as high as they have become in Manhattan and the boroughs across the bridges and tunnels, it no longer makes much commercial sense to employ teams of experienced sandwich mavens to stand and wait for the orders of an idiosyncratic clientele.
Nor do I usually have as much time for the traditional to-ing and fro-ing at the deli counter. Texts and emails interrupt me even during those brief moments when I ponder the sandwich possibilities at Pret.
When I grab lunch nowadays, I am reminded that Jefferson was more than a writer. He was a fighter. Securing our inalienable rights – whether one is in New York or London and pursuing happiness between slices of bread or elsewhere – will always require some measure of struggle.