Is there any one thing more tightly woven into the fabric of American cuisine than the sandwich? Sandwiches, like just about everything edible in recent years, have undergone a transformation. Now, in the hands of a new generation sandwicheurs, they’re no longer limited to the once ubiquitous combination of highly-processed meat, cheese, condiment and bread meant only to quell the angry rumblings of hunger. These nouveau sandwiches are on a mission: Their makers are driven to deliver an experience as much as a meal.
Would it be a stretch to posit that sandwiches are so ubiquitous to our culinary consciousness that they can function as a bellweather, humming a harmonic reflection of the broader tastes and trends at work in a particular place, at a particular time? Probably, but so what? In search of grand presumptions to extrapolate from the current state of the nation’s favorite lunch vehicle, we spoke with a couple of Brooklynites whose lives are currently consumed by the art of making sandwiches.
First stop? Black Tree Sandwich Shop, a new hyper-seasonal sandwich shop incubating at the Bar at Crown Inn in Crown Heights. Black Tree is challenging local sandwich fiends with an ever-changing menu driven by what’s being harvested from the ground right here, right now. We spoke with co-owner Sandy Hall about their sandwiches, and the Black Tree mission.
So Sandy, tell us about what you’re up to here at Black Tree. Local, seasonal sandwiches and a constantly changing menu?
Yeah. At Black Tree, we’re trying to implement a completely local and seasonal sandwich menu, partly as a way to educate people about what’s actually available and in season here, partly because local stuff is generally fresher, and fresher stuff is better for you and tastes better; and partly because it’s just fun to have a menu that keeps changing with the seasons.
It just seemed like a good way to try to do the best thing we could for the local economy, by sourcing everything from small farms, mostly upstate, and for our customers – by serving them really fresh, seasonal stuff, on sandwiches. It’s just better for everyone this way.
So is every sandwich will be made with completely seasonal ingredients? That’s pretty hardcore.
Yes – at least with completely local ingredients that we sometimes preserve when they are in season to use later in the year. When we first opened, I didn’t want to scare people too much – I kept the first menu intact for a few weeks. But it’s going to be much more dynamic moving forward. Most sandwiches will only be on for a few weeks, because the season for most of the ingredients we’ll be using is only a few weeks long each year.
We did a fiddlehead fern sandwich, with bacon, sautéed onion and garlic last week. Fiddleheads are gone now…and so is the sandwich. We did a bulgogi sandwich, with short rib braised in a pear jus, served with a spicy pear jam I made last pear season and with local spinach. It’s obviously not pear season now, but I made the spicy pear jam last season, and I’m out of it, so it’s going off the menu.
It’s a little worrisome – it’s our best-selling sandwich. It’s tempting to keep things on the menu, but to do that you’d have to get stuff from places that are far away, or from California. We have a mission here, and you just have to stick with it and go for it. I have confidence that people will understand and appreciate what we’re doing, even if they don’t like not being able to get their favorite sandwich all year long.
People like to have their thing. And they like to be able to get that thing whenever they want it. For a lot of people, if they have a favorite sandwich they like to get somewhere, that’s their thing and they expect to be able to get it all year long. I think that thing here at Black Tree doesn’t have to be a specific sandwich – it can just be knowing that there will always be something new and exciting on the menu. And if you really love something, when it does go off the menu you know it’ll probably be back in nine months or so, when the season brings it back.
You mentioned that you were using a spicy pear jam on the bulgogi sandwich – so you’ll be extending the seasons a bit by preserving things when they are in season to use later in the year?
Yes. Proteins are less seasonal, so you’ll see certain meats on the menu for longer periods of time. I’ll be preserving and jamming some things to keep using throughout the year, until I run out. But during spring, summer and fall, all the sandwiches will feature a fresh seasonal ingredient and those will change all the time.
And although proteins are less seasonal than produce, we work with whole animals here. It’s important to work with whole animals. If you just serve brisket, what’s happening to the rest of the animal? That annoys me. I like to get whole animals and find ways to use all the cuts. I’m getting a lamb in from upstate next week, and I’ll break it down and use the chops for a sandwich with a chimichurri sauce and some local feta. I’ll use the scraps to make lamb sliders. I think that approach is important. It’s not exactly a seasonal thing, but it’s another way to challenge people, to get them to think about why things come and go from the menu – why we do or don’t have something in any given week or month. When we eventually get our own space, we won’t have lemons or limes to go with your seltzer, because they’re not from around here. People might get pissed off, but it’s part of our mission to get people to think about that sort of thing.
You don’t really find the whole seasonal thing applied to sandwiches very often, so it’s just an interesting way to do it. Another cool thing about doing this kind of food on a sandwich instead of on a plate is that you can do it less expensively, and you can convert some of that savings back to the customer. If you took the ingredients we use in a sandwich and served them on a plate in a restaurant, that dish would cost twice as much as the sandwich. With a sandwich, the ingredients can be just as well prepared and just as good, but you don’t have to use as much and you don’t have to spend as much time and care on pretty presentation and plating and all that. So you can pass that savings along to the customer.
Tell us about a couple of other sandwiches you’ve done so far.
We’ve done a bunch. We did a smoked duck Banh Mi, which I made with duck we smoked here, duck pate, duck cracklins, pickles and ramps. When ramp season is gone and peach season gets here I’m going to do a peach jam and serve that with the duck on a sandwich. It’s strawberry season, so I made a strawberry balsamic jam. We’re serving that with quartered strawberries and sliced Portobello mushrooms and goat cheese until strawberry season is gone. I’m doing an asparagus sandwich that will just be around for a few weeks too…It’ll change a lot. It’s fun and dynamic, and I think people will appreciate the fact that they’re going to a place where they might know the people making the food, but the menu will keep changing. I think people will come along for the ride.
Our second stop? Depanneur, a new-ish provisions shop in Williamsburg where Spasia Dinkovski, a Brit who upon landing on our shores became obsessed with our own obsession with meat and cheese between bread, has found herself in the role of Chief Sandwich Maker.
So Spasia, tell us about the sandwiches here at Depanneur.
The reason I love sandwiches is that they’re something everyone loves, and they’re quite simple to get right. I really enjoy making sandwiches for people. You know, sandwiches are a comfort food, and I feel like that’s how they should be done. There’s a sort of nostalgic thing to a great sandwich. You should respect that.
A lot of people come in for our sandwiches at lunchtime, and they’re having that midday slump. They’re tired and grumpy and they want something to make them feel happy again. So that’s what I aim for with the specials – keep them fun and surprising, but comforting and nostalgic and really good to eat.
I do have to say that I think a good sandwich almost always involves some kind of melted cheese. Just about every special I’ve ever done has a melted cheese on it. I really enjoy taking the classic grilled cheese sandwich and putting a twist on it. If you have a really great cheese and you combine that with a few other really great ingredients, they can all work together quite brilliantly in a sandwich.
Tell us about the specials program – you have a lot of new sandwiches rotating through the menu, don’t you?
I always find myself unable to sleep at night, thinking about sandwiches, and ideas for special sandwiches. The original plan was to have a special sandwich each week, and to have it available all week, but we’ll often do a few more than that. If we’re struck by inspiration to do something, we’ll do it.
We do a lot of them. We did a Bahn Mi – called it Banh Mi Oh My – with Lime and sesame pork – it was just reduced down with sugar, vinegar and lots of spices – and Harissa mayo, spicy chipotle carrots, pickled cabbage, cucumber and jalapeno. I’m from England and you can’t get Vietnamese sandwiches in England, so when I first had them over here I totally fell in love with them and wanted to do my own take on them.
There was the ‘Pissed Pork’ – a meaty pulled pork grilled cheese with this boozy bacon marmalade we make in-house, fontina cheese, tomato and arugula.
And we like to work seasonal things into the sandwiches too. We recently made an asparagus and pickled plum chutney for a sandwich with goat cheese and arugula. We made a ramp and miso aioli that we did on a sandwich with turkey, fontina, barbeque potato chips, our house-pickled carrots and some arugula…we’re always doing something new with the sandwiches.
And how did you end up making sandwiches?
Like I said, I’m from England. I came here for a part-time food writing job. When that ended I started working as a cheesemonger here at Depanneur. I had worked in kitchens in England and I wanted to get back to that, and that’s how I ended up making the sandwiches here.
Sandwiches have become really important to me since I came to America. In England, they weren’t a big deal, but the seemed to be such a big part of daily life here so I started trying as many different sandwiches as I could here and I became obsessed. Completely obsessed.