There is, of course, something tiresome about those people who only ever order the same thing at restaurants. It can evidence a striking lack of originality and even a childish attachment to things that are known. Which makes all the more awkward my confession that I am one of those people who usually orders the same thing in restaurants, though not, I hope, for bad reasons.
My preferred fare is a club sandwich. Quintessentially American, this unpretentious yet elegant design is thought to have originated in a gentlemen’s gambling club in upstate New York in the late 1800s. As everyone knows, a club is made of toasted bread, tomato, lettuce, mayo, bacon, and fowl (typically chicken, but turkey is also acceptable). The straightforward recipe ensures a near-global familiarity, and one is as likely to find it in a greasy spoon diner in Iowa as in a luxury hotel bar in Singapore.
But within that basic framework lies infinite room for variation and craftsmanship. There is a world of difference between slimy deli meat squished together with watery lettuce and flimsy bacon, say, and thick slices of chicken, fresh vegetables, and crispy fatback. While the careless cook simply throws the contents between two slices of bread, the discerning chef realizes the added middle layer of bread lends both stability and identity to the dish. It is almost always a physically large sandwich, but there is a subtle if unmistakable point at which it becomes too large for civilized consumption. And unlike other sandwiches that may leave one with a single strong impression (a cheesesteak or corned beef, for instance) or else an overwhelming array of flavors that fight for attention (the Dagwood or Muffuletta or a sub), the club’s particular combination of constituent pieces allows each to contribute harmoniously to a cohesive whole. A truly great club, then, calls for a delicate balance of well-formed parts, demands enthusiasm tempered by restraint, and succeeds because—not in spite—of its unironic simplicity.
It is not too much to say, then, that the craftsmanship of a club sandwich requires similar virtues to those that mark the well-ordered soul. Learning to flourish within set limits is in one sense the definition of the Christian life. We are creatures hemmed in by nature and circumstance, but capable of ennoblement through attentiveness and a care for excellence. Crucially, we possess within ourselves the ingredients—simple as they may be—for greatness; when we fail in this task, we fall somehow radically short of our own natural capacities, but yet still uniquely resemble that which we are supposed to be.
Many, including many cooks, look at the club as just another plain pub plate, to be washed down with some cheap domestic brew. They would do well to remember the words of St. Josemaria Escriva, who chided his reader, “Don't say: ‘That's the way I'm made . . . it's my character.' It's your lack of character: Be a man.”
Making, and thus appreciating, a good club requires a sort of manly determination to abide by rules you did not pick, and to find poetry in the everyday.
Even if you admit that all this points to the virtue of a well-crafted club sandwich, you may still confine yourself only to ordering clubs at restaurants known to make them well. Why should one repeatedly order them in ever-new settings? Why subject yourself to that sort of risk? One quite practical reason is because much can be learned about a restaurant by how it serves its club sandwich—does it cut corners, or invest in good ingredients? Does it take pride in the dignity of a little thing well done, or abuse an easy trust through shoddy workmanship? If one measure of a man is how he treats those not in a position to retaliate, then one sure measure of a restaurant is how it prepares a common club.
But even more significantly, repeating a food order trains one to respond to the delicate rhythms of chance. It is a small acknowledgement that—even in modern restaurants, with the illusion of infinite choice they offer—one is still largely dependent on the work of others. It can be an exercise too in patience and forgiveness: We often order our food with the expectation that it must be just perfect, and if it’s not, we become indignant; meanwhile a great club satisfies but can hardly be said to enrapture, while likewise a bad one disappoints but can hardly be said to devastate. Many go through life failing to learn how to choose contentment; they’re always looking for the perfect lunch, as it were. But habits of the body and mind offer in their repetitiveness a metaphor for the spiritual life—try, fail; try, succeed; try, nearly succeed; try, fail again; and so on. Each attempt stands on its own, until the point at which practice predisposes us to recognize and seek excellence in little ways, and to realize that our battles are won in the smallest of details.
One learns by this little ritual to practice peace, to stop looking over one’s shoulder. Again it is St. Josemaria who tells us that it is through “jealousy [that] one's imagination easily becomes escapist and seeks refuge in [the] fantasy” of what could have been. This is a real and deadly temptation, as much in one’s eating habits as in one’s spiritual life.
We are what we eat—and for that reason we should enthusiastically partake of the club sandwich; we are also, we might add, what we do—and for that reason we should partake often.
Travis LaCouter graduated from the College of the Holy Cross.