Saturday, November 10, 2012

The best sandwich I ever ate

By Sal Emma

I've had some really great sandwiches. On merits alone, the top of the heap would be fresh mozzarella, roasted red peppers and big, tender basil leaves with olive oil and balsamic vinegar on a slab of tender, crusty, deeply flavored Italian bread at Manganaro's in New York. Sadly, those sandwiches are no longer being made as Manganaro's closed their doors after some 90 years in business. But that's another story.

This is not a food review. It's about people coming together in times of peril to do what they can to help.

As most of you already know, after Hurricane Sandy I spent some time in Manasquan, N.J. helping cousins Mike and Christina Notaro clean out their flooded home to make way for the work crews to pull the floor and soaked drywall. It's heart-wrenching work, as much of what we dragged out to the curb were irreplaceable memories: scrapbooks, photos, yearbooks, special toys. But in spite of the emotional, difficult task before them, Mike and Christina are taking it in stride and showing admirable strength and grace. They are safe and staying with relatives until the work is done.

When I got the call, I pretty much made a beeline for Manasquan, with two stops in mind. Mike asked that I try to find some big plastic containers to hold the small stuff they were putting into storage. They were in short supply (everybody else at the New Jersey seashore had similar plans.) But I managed to score a few. And, figuring the work crew would be up for a snack, I stopped at our locally-famous Frog Hollow for a dozen of the world's greatest donuts.

My plan was to find a Wawa closer to Christina's house and grab a box of hot coffee to go with the donuts. Two problems: first, I never found a Wawa. Second, even if I had succeeded in locating one, it would have been closed for lack of power. So the crew didn't get their coffee. But the donuts were devoured with relish.

I was also planning to get my lunch at that Wawa stop, since I had jumped into the car as quickly as I could. So I never got my lunch. No big deal, in the grand scheme of things. I've done without many times before. And I could always grab a donut. In fact I wasn't even thinking about food until the sandwich brigade arrived.

I was surveying the damage, chatting with Mike and helping the other men haul soaked furniture out of the house. A small cadre of young moms and their pre-teen children arrived, on foot. "Anybody hungry?" they asked. They had baskets of handmade sandwiches, bottled water and probably some other goodies.

It was at that moment that I realized how hungry I was. “Wow! That is so nice. May I have one?” I asked. “Help yourself. Take two,” came the reply. They had spent a fair amount of time putting those sandwiches together and they were thrilled to have some customers. They even had a modest variety, ham, turkey, not sure what else. I imagine they were eager to empty out their powerless fridges before the stuff started going south. She gave me a sandwich and a bottle of water and moved to the next house.

This was a sandwich I’d never, ever make for myself. Turkey, American and mayo on puffy white bread. It was squishy and bland and uninteresting. And it was the best damned sandwich I’ve ever eaten.

At first, I thought – how could it be this good? It makes no sense. Well, I was starving, right? Not so fast. I thought the same thing. Then remembered that earlier this year, I broke a 24-hour fast with a big, drippy, stinky hoagy. I don’t particularly like big, drippy, stinky hoagies. And even though I was famished after the fast, I didn’t enjoy that hoagy much more than I would have on a normal day. It had to be more than just hunger.

I think it was because the sandwich was made with love. Made by people honestly concerned about both their neighbors – and people like me, the strangers in their midst. That’s what made it sublime.

That simple, pedestrian sandwich is a graphic reminder of the potential we have to do good when trouble strikes. These women knew they couldn’t undo the flood damage or magically restore the power lines. So they did what they could. They met around a dimly lit table in a broken house and assembled sandwiches for a broken neighborhood. It was a small gesture, an easy task, a no-brainer. Yet their accomplishment took on awesome power, bigger than any of us. They were sandwiches imbued with the power of God himself.

No wonder they tasted so good.