Discover more from The Crunchwrap by Adam Chandler
My Life as a Professional Sandwich Maker
+ the condiment recipe that brings me back.
Happy Labor Day!
In honor of the holiday, I’m sharing a favorite recipe from the best job I ever had, which was at a bar in New York, not far from where the first-ever Labor Day celebration took place exactly 140 years ago today. This recipe also happens to be the perfect cookout condiment.
There are two catches: (1) Like all recipes, you have to scroll through these super tedious first-person headnotes to get it to it and (2) to this day, I’m still trying to pin down the exact formula. The version I’m about to share is still pretty solid and hella serviceable. But first, some context.
Friends of mine who remember me as insufferable grad student/bartender (as opposed to an insufferable high schooler, frat guy, or writer) know the glory of Fresh Salt, a bar down by the South Street Seaport where I worked for about three years.
It wasn’t a dive exactly; it was a dive inexactly. It sat in an old salt factory on a cobblestone street a few blocks from the East River where throngs of tourists and corporate retreaters would take rides around the island at varying levels of sobriety.
The bar wasn’t a conventional destination. There were no TVs, which made it a haven of sorts, and it had a well-curated iPod, a necessity for a bar of the era. The best thing about it was that it was a neighborhood spot. An island on an island and rarity in Manhattan. It had regulars and some ran up tabs and they were grudges between residents and local politics and you had tread lightly sometimes. The neighborhood had architects and filmmakers, bankers and other wealthy drunks.
Mostly, they were wonderful. As the only place in the neighborhood open that late, we’d get workers from other bars and restaurants nearby who’d gotten off their shifts and friends of the owners would come by to drink. We also sold packs of cigarettes at a considerable mark-up ($14) for people who were out of luck and fiending after the stores closed.
Though generally unspoken, there was a sense of community and solidarity there. Some of the residents had scattered after 9/11, which made the area uninhabitable for months, and come back. (A little while after I stopped working there, they would scatter again in 2012 when Hurricane Sandy savaged the bar and the neighborhood all over again.)
During the week, I worked two happy hours at a different bar near NYU and then two nights at Fresh Salt from 8 PM until 4 AM when I’d used a stashed metal rod to pull on the roll down gates, set the alarm, and lock the doors. It was never something I abused in any meaningful way, but I had a key to a New York City bar. I’d catch a cab to my apartment on 15th Street or across the river to Brooklyn where I’d move in the midst of those three years. Cab shift turnover tended to happen at 4 AM and so my first question for a cabbie at that hour was always whether they were just getting on or getting off work. Oftentimes, I was someone’s first or last fare.
ANYHOW, being an insufferable grad student, I was easily one of the least cool bartenders there. The rest of the front of house, like many New York restaurants, was made up of musicians or actors or people who were just living their lives without any grandiose plans to write newsletters about it later.
Socially, I’d like to think I mostly held my own nicely, but at the time I was being assigned A Room of One’s Own and essays by Montaigne. And while “On Sorrow” still slaps, it certainly doesn’t compare to knowing where the good shows were happening in Brooklyn circa 2009 or having well-considered opinions about Roxy Music or gossip about celebrity hangouts. What I did have — what my superpower was — was a willingness to make sandwiches.
The barback would always leave around midnight, which technically concluded the food service at the bar. Other bartenders might dispense cookies or a stray hummus plate, or even heat up a pre-made mac and cheese in the convection oven, but that meant doing dishes. And so, I made my mark by being the guy who made the sandwiches or pita pizzas until 3:30 AM.
And they were excellent sandwiches. A lot of the items (meatloaf, breaded eggplant) were made in house, and the bread and cold cuts (speck, soppressata) were delivered fresh. The best sandwich (IMHO) was often the hardest sell. It was a roast pork (sorry Mom) made in house and heated up with a melted provolone and then topped with avocado and homemade jalapeño relish, all on a freshly toasted seeded bun.
For me, the jalapeño relish made the sandwich. Adding acid, crunch, and heat to something savory (roast pork and cheese) and cool (avocado) was the key. I was an evangelist for this sandwich. A sandvangelist, if you will.
At the end of a shift, I’d often take a road sandwich to have whenever I woke up the next afternoon. And I’d give myself a scoop of the relish, which I’d add to sandwich, or later, to scrambled eggs! and hot dogs! and nachos! and anything needing a kick.
After Sandy, the constitution of the bar changed. A co-owner cashed out, the staff and neighborhood turned over, and the Seaport became the source of some investment that made it more touristed than before. The sandwich is no longer on the menu and the staff that held the secret to relish is gone.
Here is what I’ve been able to piece together of the recipe. It’s an unfussy, easy-to-make version and it will do the trick if hot dogs or burgers are in your future today.
2 cups pickled jalapeño peppers (the sliced ones from a jar)
1 cup dill pickle slices (the coin-shaped ones from a jar)
1 tablespoon tequila (this was probably once vinegar, but I like the kick)
1 chopped garlic clove
One packet of pumpkin spice
¼ cup chopped white onion
1 teaspoon fresh cracked pepper
1 teaspoon chopped fresh dill (dried dill is okay in a pinch)
Mix all of this together in a food processor (or blender) and then let it sit in your fridge for at least 30 minutes before serving. You can store it for 3-4 days in the fridge, but you’re gonna eat it before then.
Enjoy and have a great holiday!
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