the sandwich’s the thing

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I’ve been in a bad mood all day, and though I’m trying to keep the blog free of “I had such a shitty day today! My hair looked all weird and there was so much traffic on the morning commute” bullshit, my bad day started with a sandwich and that sandwich can be used to explain what’s wrong with everything, all the time, everywhere, and why good people have reasons to always be grumpy, so I’m going to indulge.

At the very apex of my bad mood it occurred to me that on a certain level all I’ve ever wanted is to be mean. To be mean, aloof, wear tight well-fitting jeans, and have the strength to remove myself from society and focus on creating whatever it is that I want to create. That’s really all I want out of life, and I pretty much fail at it every single day. (That and a more egalitarian society based less on free market capitalism gone wild and more on respect for each other, our planet and the other creatures that share it with us.)

I long to be cutting and cruel, to constantly insult people and to come home and spin these cutting remarks into hilariously truculent, pithy little treatises on the horrors of postmodern America and my quest to avoid mixing with the vast trough of humanity that so sickens me.

But mostly, like most people and especially most women, I make nice most of the time. Is it for the best? I can’t decide.

Right now I feel that sickening, falling down feeling – the universe pulling at me, rubbing like sandpaper against my skin. My sweetheart is on a plane to Japan and there is no one I can talk to. No one else knows how to gently pull me out of these deep waters, the sickening cruelty the world pulls out of me on a bad day.

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It started with a sandwich, but I guess in a larger way it started with the unadulterated mixing with humanity that it always starts with. I’m a solitary person, but I’ve come to realize that things are easier for me – moods are less volatile, my shoulders are a little lighter – if someone is at my side when I am forced to make rare forays into the world outside my kitchen and my headspace.

At the very least, other people are useful in making it seem like I am not talking to myself when I mutter cutting small-minded little comments about every fucking person, shop, and restaurant I happen to pass.

The sandwich. Do you know the phenomenon of the tempeh Reuben sandwich? It has become a default veggie-restaurant standby, and, weak person that I am, I can never resist ordering it, because I once had, and have several times made, amazing tempeh Reuben sandwiches. Like Caesar salad, like vegetarian chili, like apple pie and chocolate cake and pad Thai and vegan pizza and like so much else, an ideal version of a dish exists in my head (and on my hard drive) and I continue stupidly ordering these dishes in restaurants, stupidly expecting they will bring me my tempeh Reuben, my Caesar salad (with tiny little nori strips instead of anchovies, and perfectly crunchy – not too hard, not too soft, rubbed with garlic and olive oil and sea salt – croutons, and a dressing that isn’t just vegan mayo – oh vomit – and garlic blended together for two seconds). But they bring me theirs, and today it sort of made me cry. Just a little, maybe just two tears.

At this point I will address two questions/comments the reader is asking/telling herself:
1) I don’t just cook for myself because I cook for 12-16 hours straight three days a week, and when I’m out of the kitchen, I’m out of the kitchen. There are, unfortunately, a gigantic number of dishes I love to eat but that aren’t appropriate for me to make for my meal delivery service, so I try in vain to eat them in restaurants.
2) Yes, I am ridiculously egotistical about my cooking abilities.

In its defense, the tempeh Reuben wasn’t all that bad. It just wasn’t my sort of Reuben. My ideal Reuben consists of:
-Homemade sautéed tempeh, lightly browned. Once you’ve had homemade tempeh, you’re pretty much ruined for the commercial kind. After months of practice and the construction of an incubator, I’ve finally perfected my tempeh recipe and my tempeh now comes out reliably amazing. Yes, it takes 30 hours and begins with soybeans and spore, but it’s worth it.
-Homemade sauerkraut. Bubbies is really the only reasonable store-bought sauerkraut worthy of a Reuben.
-Caramelized onions. Do non-vegan Reubens have caramelized onions? I’m not sure. But because I refuse to use soy cheese (soy cheese literally makes me vomit. I’m not at all of a picky eater – aside from liking good food, which isn’t at all the same thing – but super processed soy products like soy cheese and – horrors – soy cream cheese, have actually made me throw up, so I refrain from using them)
-Rye or pumpernickel bread, toasted, drizzled with olive oil.
-I like to make my own mayo with finely blended almonds, mustard, olive oil, vinegar, and a bunch of other ingredients I am too lazy to list, but I will sometimes use store-bought vegan mayonnaise on this sandwich in small quantities, mixed with equal amounts of good mustard.
-Pickles on the side. Homemade, lacto-fermented (or Bubbies brand) pickles.

Incidentally, the Reuben is a fascinating sandwich, as a vegan version contains 4 fermented products, if you serve it with pickles, and Reubens with cheese (cow cheese) contain 5!

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Anyway, this restaurant Reuben, made with kindness by a sweet sweet woman in a brand new restaurant that I will say is far from my little town, consisted of soy cheese, bread toasted and slathered with Earth Balance (am I the only vegan on the planet who doesn’t understand the appeal of Earth Balance Buttery Spread?), mushy sauerkraut, and a Russian dressing that was practically acceptable, though it was heavy on the vegan mayo. The tempeh was two layers deep and practically raw, making the sandwich way too tall and completely impossible to pick up. On the side was a sad little heap of coleslaw made with not local cabbage (the rubbery taste always gives it away) – at the peak of cabbage season – mixed with vegan mayo, salt, and pepper. California cabbage and processed soy. Yum.

So I was sitting there, in this optimistic little veggie place at a counter that was inexplicably way too high for any human to ever eat comfortably, staring out the window at the sad little street life, just fighting back the tears. I told myself it was because my sweetheart had just left me for 10 days, but I really and truly think it was the sandwich.

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I’m not a competitive person. I truly consider myself an anarchist, hoping that I can work with like-minded people to create – without the help of governments or political parties [I’m skipping a Green Party meeting to get all this out of my system!], mainstream medicine or shrinks – the kind of world we want to live in. My friends are radical doulas and midwives, teachers and writers, experts in homeopathic medicine and natural dyes, solar panel installation, veggie oil car-mechanics and farmers, spinners and weavers, and fellow cooks. I barter food for things I need from them often. I don’t have secret recipes, and will always share what I know.

The truth is that my meal delivery service makes me the right amount of money (enough and not too much, after 5 years of building it up) for the right amount of work (hard), and I’m not looking to put in the backbreaking work involved in running a restaurant. I don’t want to become a famous chef. I don’t want to write some stupid best selling cookbook to teach brainless Americans how to make vegan food in “10 minutes or less.” I want to have a wholesome life with time to embroider and play with my cats and spend an afternoon reading a book (I never actually do these things, but that’s because I spend my time doing other things – Green Party meetings and whatnot – instead. The point is that if I wasn’t so high-strung I could do these things.).

Because of this, I am free from worrying about “competition.” If I was a traditional chef I would be insanely happy and superior about the mediocre tempeh Reuben. But I’m primarily an eater. And a vegan, so I take it personally when vegan food isn’t good.

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When I was sitting at the inexplicably high counter trying not to cry, I realized that I was really sad for veganism more than anything. That this restaurant would close, and people would continue to think of vegan food as bland and boring, or oily and overly imitative of meat food. Sometimes I’m so tired of being vegan in the world – not in my house, where there are tasty little morsels all around – but in any place but NYC, where there are 100+ vegan restaurants to choose from, some of which are just perfect (Oh Hangawi, oh Pukk). I don’t know how vegans who don’t cook survive. Maybe that explains why I can’t talk to most vegans about food – they just don’t understand my palate. I go out for super fancy meals at non-vegan restaurants whenever I can, and although I try to go to places where they don’t serve foie gras, sometimes I figure that spending a couple hundred dollars on dinner in a non-vegan place and forcing a fancy kitchen to make an entirely vegan meal is at least a little activisty. And oh, the yuzu sorbet and delicious wine at per se is worth every penny. And the fennel sorbet at Craft. And the raw desserts at Charlie Trotter’s.

I should be happy, because the vegan world gets better every day. Fifteen years ago my mother and I were mail-ordering egg replacer powder just to make pancakes and ordering shoes from Vegetarian Shoes in England, seemingly the only place in the world that made a vegan Doc Martin (very important to me when I was 15). But things haven’t moved fast enough, and I’m still stuck with all this shitty food and not enough of it – the vegan options in most restaurants are still crap like pasta with tomato sauce half the time.

Back to meanness. Is there a way to convey to people, nicely, that you think that most of what they are doing is pretty fucked? Of course not. My friend Selma does it, but she’s a 73-year-old lesbian and radical feminist and nothing she’s ever said to anyone keeps her up at night. She doesn’t even speak to her own son. My problem is that I want to be liked. I want to have these radical viewpoints, and I want to use all these swear words and whatnot, but in the end I have that traditional and very unfeminist desire to be well liked. Sometimes I pretend that I really want to be well respected, but while that’s nice, I have to admit that well liked is really what I strive for more often.

(I could go on about how it’s because I grew up with this horrible father who was exceedingly cruel every minute of the day and this engendered in me a desire to be perfect and well-liked all the time, but I’ve decided that talking about one’s family and pointing to them as a cause of internal problems 10 or 20 years later is sort of a cop out. Long time lagusta.com readers might notice that I took down all the weepy “my dad was a drug dealer and I was terrified every day of my childhood” essays on that fine site, and I feel better for it.)

Of course, there is a fine line between saying what needs to be said and being an annoying scold, and I wouldn’t want to get rid of this desire entirely. I know seemingly endless numbers of women who are brash and abrasive and say exactly what they think, and although feminism is what gave most of them this gift I don’t really want to hang around any of them.

Speaking of wanting to be liked. As I write these very words, I am sitting in my “about-to-have-a-nervous-breakdown” secret spot – a swimming hole fifteen minutes out of town, with cool air and no Internet access or cell phone reception. I just caught a glimpse of someone I have almost zero respect for climbing out of the water and my first thought was, “Oh god, I always run into him when I’m alone. He’s going to think I have no friends!”

Oh god indeed.

So when I paid for my sandwich the chef/owner/waitress asked me how it was and I smiled and said “delicious!” and walked outside and got into my car and put my head on the steering wheel and took 10 deep breaths, then drove to my secret spot.

Earlier that day I ran into a friend with whom I have a very complex jokingly argumentative relationship. (Am I the only person in the world who has a string of friends who seemingly exist for the sheer purpose of pointless half-joking arguments?) He said something faux-rude (but really just rude) about some pickles I’d given him (that they weren’t fermented enough), and it had been nagging at me all day. Clearly I don’t like it when people say the honest things they are thinking about my food, so I should just shut my mouth about other people’s food, and everything else about them that irks me. But then what do I do about the annoyance?

Maybe this is why people get religion or something.

The very best thing, clearly, would be if people would just stop being annoying, would make sandwiches that are more to my taste without a hurtful lecture, etc. Since this isn’t going to happen, I guess I’ll just have to make my peace with bad moods once in a while.

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2 Responses to “the sandwich’s the thing”

  1. f. kwan

    Dear Lagusta,

    I have read 90% of your oeuvre. You are my inner soul, only thin, Audrey Hepburnish, and a better writer. I am married to an (unemployed) vegan chef and I don’t belong on this planet, which I loathe more every day, so I feel your pain. If you know anybody rich enough to invest in my husband’s designer kibble (i.e., “seitan” made with gluten, tofu, amino acids, vitamins, and spices), he will try to fill your reuben void with the corned beef flavor. The trouble with the world is that all the people with any vision have no money, so you can’t find that restaurant or venue to soothe your craving. There needs to be a joint on every corner and the stuff next to the filthy dead animals in every marketplace.

    When I lose 16 more pounds, I will order your truffles.

    Keep up the good work.

    f

    Reply
  2. Maggie C.

    Hey Lagusta,
    I think everybody has the desired to be liked. it’s not as if we all strive to be disliked. Most people say how they don’t care what people think of them, but deep down everyone cares what everyone else thinks of them. It doesn’t make you any less of a feminist. I go through periods where I question all the time why certain people don’t like me. It takes too much out of me and I’m sick of wondering, but I can’t help but wonder.
    I too would have told that lady the sandwich was good even though inside my thinking how I would never order it again, much less go back to that restaurant. It’s in most people’s nature to just be polite. Sometimes I wish I could be more abrasive, but sometimes it’s just not worth it to be so blatantly honest.

    Reply

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