I listened to a story teller a few nights back. Not a man telling a story, but a man whose entire being and was occupied with the business of weaving his tale.
His cadence was long and loping but deliberate, and it suited his southern drawl. The words meandered along the way to their destination, unhurried. If I squinted my eyes, it wasn't hard to imagine those words puffing out from his lips and into the air like smoke upon an exhale from a cigar.
The effect was entirely soothing, but so riveting was its interest that you could not help but hang onto every word. A hypnotist's lullaby.
He was really good.
When he stopped, I wanted to linger there in his phrases. To climb inside and stay a while.
Pulling me out of the blissful lethargy of his words was hunger. In this story, at the heart of it all, he used a sandwich as the embodiment of all he felt familiar.
By the end of that story, he made a sandwich sound really, very good.
He had been talking about New Orleans, and talking about po' boys. Talking about a sandwich that is messy, sloppy and soaked. He liked his with gravy, with the bread making valiant efforts to sop up as much as it could but failing, so that juice drips from that bump right where the heel of your palm ends and your wrist begins. A sandwich that requires your elbows on the table to provide proper purchase.
Without the necessary components of his ideal on hand, I turned to another, equally sodden sandwich to appease my yearning - pan bagnat.
It starts with good bread. You need a boule with a crust substantial enough to stand up to the richness and literal weight of the filling. In this version, it's spread with tapenade then covered in whole basil leaves. Tiles of hard boiled egg are arranged next, then chunks of oil-packed tuna dressed in an assertive vinaigrette. Sliced red onion and cucumber are last in the instructions, but I added mixed greens for substantial crunch (and again, all of these were bathed in the vinaigrette as well).
The whole thing is wrapped tight and pressed, with the layers evening out and settling in. I should say your sandwich will be prettier than mine; I was so eager to share a slice with you that I hardly waited to snap the photo. Be patient. It needs that rest.
After a few hours the bread swells with the moisture and becomes softly chewy. Bite in, and there are layers of salt and acidity, of flavours and texture. The fatty blandness of the egg yolk melts into the seasoned tuna and rounds out the vinegar. The basil emerges from the murky depth of the tapenade, two big flavours in balance. The salad on top of it all is refreshing and palate clearing and gets the mouth ready for the next greedy bite.
And oh, a few bites in, you'll be able to move from two elbows to one firmly planted on the table. But, that said, keep this isn't a sandwich to be put down once you've begun eating. If you try, things will get complicated. Don't worry, now with the free hand you can grab a glass of cold, cold wine.
You won't need much else. Maybe a napkin. And a good story, if you're lucky.
From Everyday Food: Fresh Flavor Fast(Random House Canada, 2010). I have just started cooking with this book, but for those who might be familiar with it's predecessor,Everyday Food: Great Food Fast, this title follows much the same style and feel.
Recipe, via Martha Stewart.