This Friday, I spied a sandwich in the cafe near my office that I just had to have: a “Louisiana tuna melt”.
Mmm – doesn’t look that great, does it? And, no, it didn’t match the standards of the legendary Louisiana sandwiches that I’ve been lucky enough to eat over the years.
There’s the quarter-muffuletta from Central Grocery on Decatur, for example – I dare you to try to consume a whole, or even a half, one. I have a big appetite, but this New Orleans-special sandwich, reportedly invented at this very store by Sicilian immigrants many years ago, is bigger.
Done properly, it’s made of mortadella, salami, mozzarella, ham, and provolone, sandwiched together with olive salad on a round Italian sesame loaf with the crisp yet soft texture that’s characteristic of the city’s breads, and which makes them European and not-European at the same time.
It’s my leaving-New Orleans sandwich for some reason – I ate my first one in Memphis after the long train journey up the Mississippi; my second in Louis Armstrong Airport waiting for a flight to Houston; and my third when jetlagged at home in London, improvised from not-quite-right British ingredients but pulled together by a jar of Boscoli olive salad I’d received as a present and carried home in my suitcase.
Then there’s the smoked duck, cashew butter and pepper jelly sandwich served up at renowned New Orleans chef Susan Spicer’s restaurant Bayona. Now I have to confess that I’ve never had this one, but I’ve read so many delectable accounts of what it tastes like that I almost feel I have.
I particularly want to try this sandwich because duck is special in my family – we often have it for big-occasion meals, and it’s a favourite of my sister, who now lives very far away, even further from London than New Orleans. My dad, meanwhile, once served up duck to a nephew of a US president, but that’s a long story for another time.
I also crave this sandwich for the way of thinking it seems to represent as well as its flavour – when people write about what can sound like an overly jazzed-up take on a classic PB&J, they often comment that it’s actually simple and good value (currently $15) as well as delicious, which for me is an essential ingredient of truly good food.
Finally there’s my ultimate Louisiana sandwich, the one I go and have without fail as soon as I arrive in New Orleans: the fried shrimp and oyster po-boy from French Quarter deli Verti Marte. Former chef and writer Anthony Bourdain loves it; I love it, and, soft and crisp, spicy and sweet, it always makes me feel like the part of me that lives in New Orleans is home again.
So no, this London sandwich – a hot tuna and cheese combo on focaccia with some red chillis – didn’t quite compare. But actually, it wasn’t too bad. Eating fish on Friday always feels right to me. Melted cheddar on toasted bread is never a bad idea. And the gentle heat of the pepper slices was a tasty and unusual addition to a lunchtime standard.
It was warm and filling, familiar and yet surprising – a good end-of-the-week treat that made me a little bit happier. Its ingredients might differ from those you’d find in a real Louisiana sandwich, but these are certainly characteristics I associate with the food there that I love.