Oral History of a Sandwich, by Jon Wolper

Before Sandwich, McElroy’s Deli was in trouble. Cold cuts became slimy. Sauces congealed. Produce spoiled after going unused for days. The deli needed a jolt of life or it would shut down. Then, from the primordial broth, something new emerged.

Ham (cold cut): It started organically. It happened without anyone realizing how it happened, you know?

Chicken Breast (meat): I think we all look back pretty fondly on Sandwich. It really represented something—there was an incredible melding of talent, abilities, and umami. Something was in the air that day. We could all feel it.

Baconnaise (condiment): I’d been in my bottle for weeks. I was really hoping I could stretch my legs a little.

Kale (superfood): It had to happen. We needed a victory.

Rye (bread): I guess if I had to trace it back to the beginning, this whole thing—this whole thing—really started with Rob.

Rob McElroy (owner): Hi, I’m Rob.

After receiving an order shortly past 1 p.m. on July 15, McElroy got to work. He flung open the protective glass covering and reached for the chicken breast. He didn’t realize at the time the enormous impact his choices would make.

McElroy: It was a chicken breast sandwich. Some lettuce, onions. Turkey. A little bit of pepper, a lot of mustard. Honestly, I didn’t think much of it. Sounded tasty enough, but nothing game-changing.

Kale: He’s so modest.

Onion (vegetable): Everyone got pretty excited when Rob started working. He’s like a maestro up there, rifling through ingredients, beautifully arranging seasonings. I don’t know anyone in their right mind who wouldn’t want to work with Rob.

Breast: I was thrilled, are you kidding? Someone like Rob choosing me first? I didn’t even have to audition. But he’s always known what he wants; I guess he just wanted me to take the lead.

McElroy: The customer wanted a big piece of chicken. Also wanted his bread toasted real brown. Pretty much burnt to a crisp.

Rye: Next question.

Salt (flavoring): So Rob goes into this trance, pretty much, like a sandwich Beethoven composing a sonata, except the bread was his musical staff, and cold cuts were his notes, and the fact that Hootie and the Blowfish’s “Only Wanna Be With You” was playing in the deli kind of ruins this metaphor.

Kale: His hands were flying everywhere. At one point, he knocked Ham into Turkey. And we all knew Ham and Turkey had this weird sexual tension going, so there was a big, knowing chuckle.

Turkey: Look, it wasn’t not awesome.

Onion: It was a mess. But that’s how these things go. You’re sitting around, not expecting anything, and all of the sudden there’s this flurry of activity, and then Mustard is everywhere.

Mustard (condiment): I think we all learned a little bit about ourselves that day.

Baconnaise: Honestly, I’m not sure what Mustard has that I don’t. But I dunno. Just stayed in my bottle. Waited for my turn.

Though its creation was messy, the ingredients agreed: Sandwich became much more than the sum of its parts.

Kale: You look back on these things fondly. It’s not often that something comes together and clicks so well. We were really firing on all cylinders that day.

Breast: I think Rob got so lost in the moment that he started adding all sorts of weird things. I think he threw Chutney in there. And he made it work. I swear, Rob’s a visionary.

Ham: We all have different personalities, different ways of looking at the world, different sodium contents. It’s amazing that we could work together that well. Actually, I think the condiments kept us going. They were the glue that kept us together.

Mustard: Props to the veggies. Those guys add real legitimacy.

Onion: It all goes back to Breast. He anchored the whole thing.

Breast: I know I had a big role in all this, but it was really a group effort.

Baconnaise: Seriously? Look, I know I’m not a sandwich staple, but I’m not some freak, lumbering around behind the deli counter and scaring the “pure” ingredients, or whatever. I’m tasty, damnit! I have value! I’m not just a lubricant, and I’m not just a dried meat! I’m both…AND MORE! Look at me! LOOK AT ME!

It was an unforgettable day, one that will be remembered not just by those involved, but by those looking to the past for some semblance of order in this chaotic life, by those searching for something to anchor themselves to an increasingly entropic and terrifying world.

Melissa Part (customer): What? I get a sandwich for lunch nearly every day. I’m sure it was fine, I dunno.

Time has passed. Rob—the reclusive genius that he is—hasn’t spoken to the ingredients since.

Ham: You can’t get offended about these things, you know? It was a beautiful moment. But it was just that: a moment.

Kale: We came together, and we came apart. Simple as that. I wouldn’t trade the experience for the world.

Turkey: I’ll carry that day with me for the rest of my life.

Rob: I went out of business last week.

Jon Wolper is a writer and journalist living in Washington, D.C. His writing has appeared on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, GQ.com, and several dusty corners of the internet. He tweets here.

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Oral History of a Sandwich, by Jon Wolper