My heaven in a bun

By Othman O'Malley

There are some objects that defy explanation. I could say the Pyramids of Giza are huge but that doesn’t mean much. Stand next to the Pyramids of Giza and you know what I am talking about. How does one describe god? The alpha and the omega? The supreme and infinite personal being? Or is it a being? See what I mean?

To this category I add the Italian beef sandwich, better known as the Italian beef and in establishments dedicated to this miracle on a bun, it is simply called a beef. I grasp for words like, juicy or tender or flavor, but nothing fits. How does one describe a first kiss, the awe of gazing over a stormy ocean at the shore or the crushing pain of lost love? These events defy explanation. They evoke emotions: deep and primal and instinctual. To experience them is to know them and to describe them is a futile attempt at approximation. These tasks are best left to bards and poets. Your humble servant, unfortunately, is not one of these.

Nonetheless, I will, with all humility, try to give you a sense of what this sandwich is.

It consists of thinly sliced portions of beef, on an Italian roll that has been dipped in the very broth that the beef was simmered in. It is then topped with spicy giardiniera. Some like to add cheese or forego the spice and add sweet peppers. This is acceptable, but not promoted, behavior. And one may never – ever – add ketchup. Adding ketchup to a beef sandwich is a disgrace, an abomination. If you ever see a beef sandwich with ketchup on it, please do the right thing. Put it out of its misery and ask the diner to eat it fast for it need not suffer any longer than necessary, and other patrons should not have to see such a thing. Honestly! People are eating.

There is no such thing as just an OK beef sandwich. They are either really good or really bad. This is due to the fact that there are relatively few ingredients. Chances are you will notice mistakes. Anyone can throw a burger on the grill. Not so with a beef. It is intensive work that requires years of practice. It includes roasting a large piece of meat with the right combination of garlic, oregano and other seasonings, a broth that will hold and continue to tenderize the shavings from the roast, giardiniera that provides a crunchy textural contrast to the very moist sandwich, and firm bread that will absorb the delicious juice but not fall apart. The components of a perfect beef mingle together, in harmony, and dance in your mouth.

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As I try to describe this sandwich, I think of what heaven would be like, knowing that my pious friends will be frolicking in the clouds with the angels while I am somewhere else. But then I take a bite of a beef and, for those few precious minutes, know I am already there.

Othman loves his food. What can he say?