After seven decades plus of a serendipitous and fulfilling if ordinary life, I turned 75 last fall with one major goal unmet: I wanted to have a sandwich named for me.
Truly, I am a man of modest skills and average talent. I shun grandiosity, and so I would never have dreamt of crossing the Bart Bridge or flying into the Bart Airport. I don’t fantasize about a Bart Monument or a Bart Museum. In my mind’s eye, my grandchildren will never play in Bart Park, cheer for their team in Bart Stadium, swim in Lake Bart or paddle a canoe on the Bart River.
No! I only want my name on a sandwich. The Bart.
This desire took root 30 years ago, while I was in New York City as a Post reporter covering the labor strike that shut down the National Football League. I took all my meals in the city’s delicatessens. I ate mostly sandwiches, and it seemed that the best of them were named for people. I remember distinctly the Bob Hope and the Ed Koch (the latter then the city’s mayor). There might have been a Milton Berle and a Bing Crosby, I’m not sure.
As often as twice a day, back then, I was eating a deli sandwich. It was the gustatory summit of my life. As I lingered over my pastrami on rye, my corned beef on pumpernickel, my lox on bagel, my mind wandered. In the scenario of my imagination, I saw hungry men and women in delis from New York to San Francisco looking up from their menus thousands of times every day and declaring, as if with one voice, “I’ll have a Bart.” Would that it could ever come true.
Nov. 3 was the 75th anniversary of my birth, and my daughter, Kate, offered to give me a party. Here’s the chance I’ve been waiting for, I thought. I shall ask my family and friends to create my sandwich.
I wanted it to be like me: modest, average, ordinary. But, well, maybe a little bit special.
I wanted a Reuben-class sandwich. Reuben is my culinary idol. Most people have never heard of him. But everyone knows his sandwich, although there is disagreement on when, where and how it was created.
As serious eaters know, the Reuben is a grilled or griddled sandwich consisting of corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and Russian dressing on rye bread. I have one friend, a Nebraskan, who insists that the Reuben was created by a chef of that name at a hotel in Lincoln. There’s another account that credits an Omaha grocer named Reuben Kulakofsky, according to What’sCookingAmerica.net, the Web site of cookbook author and food historian Linda Stradley. Still other stories, according to Stradley, have the Reuben being invented in New York by delicatessen owner Arnold Reuben or by an accountant named William Hamerly.
Whatever its provenance, the Reuben is a delicious sandwich, and I am a sandwich type of guy. Relatives and friends would not use my name in the same sentence with chilled lobster and caviar, pâté de foie gras or watercress.
I decided to have the guests at my 75th birthday party design, create and bring with them their nominations for the Bart sandwich.
To pick the winner, I recruited a panel of three food aficionados: Jennifer Wilkinson, a former magazine food and wine editor; Kirsten Poole, a former Silver Spring caterer and restaurateur; and my son, David Barnes, who once ran a pizza parlor in Indiana. They were directed to operate within a few ground rules. Gluten-free sandwiches were prohibited, and croissants were discouraged because they’re effete.
There were 30 entries — not counting my birthday cake, which was made to look like a sandwich. In fact, it was a chocolate cake sandwich on white bread, but the bread was white frosting. There was an olive “garnish” (also frosting) and “bread crumbs” on the sides (you guessed it). My daughter designed the cake. A professional baker produced it.
One contestant, David Deutsch, a retired director of “NewsHour With Jim Lehrer,” prefaced his submission with a paraphrase from the Gospel of Matthew: “Man shall not live by bread alone, unless he has peanut butter.”
In fact, there were two peanut butter-based nominations: one with bacon, on toast, by an old college roommate and a PB&J by my 9-year-old grandson, Hugo. The former — PB on T, we called it — was a staple, served by an eatery known as George and Harry’s in New Haven, Conn., more than a half-century ago; the latter, a third-grade school lunch favorite.
There was a Kosher Bart. Ethnically I am a WASP, but I have been blessed with Jewish in-laws, one of whom, Kira Messinger, thought I deserved a kosher sandwich. It was equal parts pastrami and corned beef, with mustard and Thousand Island dressing between two slices of bread, pan-fried and topped off with olives and pimentos. “No cheese, no dairy products,” said Kira.
My friends Jenny and Steve Lindsay wrapped their sandwich in an obituary page of The Washington Post, because I wrote obits at The Post for 20 years. “This is to die for,” they said. Their sandwich was toasted sourdough bread filled with brie, thinly sliced roast beef, arugula, caramelized Vidalia onions, mayonnaise and horseradish. It finished in second place.
From La Jolla, Calif., came an absentee entry from a long-standing friend, Ann Craig. She called it the Ultimate Bart: bologna, apple and radishes, all chopped into quarter-inch dice and mixed with tartar sauce. Delicious. As was true for many entries, the first letters of the sandwich’s ingredients spelled my name.
Debbie Danielson, who runs the Forecast, a women’s clothing boutique across the street from Eastern Market on Seventh Street SE, produced another BART acronym sandwich: bacon, avocado, ’rugula and tomato on white bread. “You’re a white-bread kind of guy,” she told me. I’m not exactly sure what that means. Debbie had to cancel out of the contest at the last minute, but she still serves her Bart to selected customers at her shop.
Turkey was an ingredient in more than one of the sandwiches, in part, I suppose, because T is the last letter of my name. But there might have been a more subtle message. Karen Getman, a Capitol Hill neighbor and friend, wrote on her entry: “Bart was born in November, so the turkey must be his favorite bird. Humorous innuendos could also be considered part of the theme.”
Smoked trout was a dominant ingredient in the sandwich of Rich Rubenstein, an author and professor at George Mason University. But one of the judges busted Rich’s sandwich.
“That’s too sophisticated for Bart,” Jennifer said.
It was Mark Crowdis, the president of his own green energy company, who created the winning sandwich. He knows I love baseball and hot weather, and he tried to reflect that in his entry. It featured many tentacles of thinly sliced, pan-fried all-beef ballpark franks plus onion, bell pepper, sweet pickles, Jamaican hot pepper sauce and extra-sharp cheddar cheese — all between thick slabs of jalapeno cheese bread.
I liked it, although I got to eat only a quarter of it. The judges ate the rest. They liked it, too — for its spiciness, its sharpness and its zest.
“It tasted good . . . . It was all about flavor,” said Kirsten Poole. “That’s why they made it the Bart,” she said. But there was another reason as well: what Kirsten described as a “whimsical nature” about it, which she said reflected my personality.
I hadn’t known I was whimsical.
Of course, there were complaints about the verdict. “MY sandwich was better. You should try MINE,” or words to that effect, was a litany I have heard a dozen times since that night.
So that’s what I’m doing. I have all the recipes. I’m saving the Bart for last.
But I cannot help thinking of the old Latin maxim “de gustibus non est disputandum,” which, loosely translated, means “there is no accounting for taste.”
Barnes lives on Capitol Hill. He writes obituaries on a contract basis for The Post.
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