Dark Passenger

Traveling southbound in the springtime is the derelict’s time machine. As the miles flit by, leaves ripen to maturity and the sun bakes the bone-warming heat into the glad rocks. Ordinarily, spring breezes make for easy enough sailing, but inside the aptly-named Hecate Strait, the breath of dead sailors roused from their tormented slumber pitched Dave’s creaky old sloop more than I might have liked, considering the valuable cargo we carried belowdecks.

“The weather started getting rough, Sam.”

“The tiny ship was tossed, Dave.”

“Feeling fearless, Sam?”

“I believe I can summon the requisite courage, Dave. We now have our Dawn Wells, but we’re still short a Tina Louise, a Jim Backus, a Natalie, um…”

“Woods?”

“Schafer.”

“So who are you, Gilligan or The Professor?”

“Gilligan, no question.” I recollected some old Tarot interpretations I’d once read. “Gilligan is the naught, the Holy Fool, the wanderer. In the Tao tradition, he’s the Uncarved Block.”

“The Skipper would have called him a blockhead.”

“Quite so, Dave. I suppose this entire trip was a bit blockheaded. Chasing dreams is nothing if not a fool’s errand.”

“Prepare to tack.” Dave wrapped the mainsheet around his free hand. “Easy now.”

We gracefully beat to, not so much as a murmur from the boom. “Gentle and quick, Dave. Just the way I like it.”

“That, in the parlance of our times, is what she said, Sam.”

“I hope you refer not to our muddy ward down-ladder. I might take that as a personal smirch on my honor, good sir.”

“Merely a jape. This and nothing but. Let good Puck make amends.”

“All is well.” My guts gurgled. “Nearly all. I believe my tract is informing me of its displeasure at being scorned so long.”

“I think we’re good for a while. Check the galley.”

I obliged. There I found some preserved mutton, half a loaf of pumpernickel, a jar of pickles, and three gallons of pungent sauerkraut in a five-gallon crock. I called up to the helm, “ahoy, got any cheese? I think I have ersatz Reuben ingredients.”

“There’s a bilge locker amidships. I might have some pantysgawn in there.”

“What am I looking for now? Panties? Ladies’ undergarments?”

“Welsh goat cheese. I think I managed to mimic the recipe.”

“Goat cheese on a Reuben is a bit of a stretch.”

“It’s the end of the world, Sam. Don’t tell me you’re a purist.”

When it comes to the mighty Reuben, I am a bit of a purist. “I’m hungry enough to take what I can get, but let me tell you why I chafe at the misappropriation of the name.”

I could hear the smirk in Dave’s voice. “Do enlighten me.”

“The Reuben, sir, is the closest thing the American continent will ever know to royalty. It is the king of sandwiches.”

“That’s a bit of a stretch. Have you ever had a shooter’s sandwich? Steak and mushrooms. It’ll knock your socks off.”

“You misunderstand. I don’t mean ‘king’ as in ‘heir to the throne’. I mean it as in the scabby barbarian brute who took the the sword to subjugate the land and its peoples. A shooter’s sandwich is an aristocrat’s meal. A Reuben is transformed, elevated peasant food.”

“You have piqued my interest. Pray continue.”

I found a hefty cast iron skillet, a pot of lard, and the portable ship’s stove. “Consider first the ingredients.” I hauled my little load topside. “The bread is canonically rye, marbled if possible. What can you tell me about cultivating rye?”

“Pliny the Elder described it as emergency food, a lot like the millet the farmers ate at the beginning of Seven Samurai. Generally unfit for human consumption except during famine.”

“Right. It’s a staple grain of northern and central Europe. The higher-status wheat is grown to the south. It also has a distinctive bouquet. If you grow up with it, you love it. Otherwise, it’s a bit of an acquired taste.”

“How does that make it peasant food?”

“Think for a moment about the sorts of immigrants the US got from the lands that regularly cultivated rye. They weren’t serfs, were they?”

“I think I see where you’re going with this. They were Jewish. Refugees from pogroms and the like, yes?”

“There were a few waves of East Europe immigration. The Reuben was probably invented by a Jewish Lithuanian immigrant.”

“Just like our passenger.” Dave seemed even more animated, seeing a connection in an irrelevant coincidence.

“Not exactly. She has Baltic blood. Her ancestors would have been the ones conducting the pogroms.”

“Yikes.”

“Yikes, but it’s unlikely our ancestors had very clean hands.”

Dave nodded solemnly. “Quite so.”

“At any rate, the taste for rye arises from agrarian limitations. Sure, you can attempt to grow wheat in Estonia, but it comes at more expense than it’s really worth. That brings us to the sauerkraut.”

“You wish to discuss the condiments before the substance?”

I checked my temper at his innocent, ignorant remark.”My friend, there are no ‘condiments’ on a Reuben. Each ingredient is as indispensable as the last. Is the flute a ‘condiment’ in the orchestra? Is the fullback a ‘condiment on the offensive team? All must work in harmony, lest the entire enterprise fail.”

Dave generously humored me. “I see. Please continue.”

“You’ve clearly made sauerkraut yourself. This is an enormous stash.”

“Hell yeah, I make it myself. I tried it once for fun and discovered that the store-bought stuff I had as a kid was like eating library paste. Homemade sauerkraut is in-friggin-credible.”

“I assume that you grew your cabbages on San Juan Island.”

“Of course.”

“How would you react if I told you that the cabbages of eastern and central Europe are far superior to their cousins in the New World by a wide margin?”

“In what respect?”

“Flavor, texture, aroma, and hardiness, mostly. The cabbages grown here are weedy simpletons compared to their genetic superiors. Still, the preservation process masks many of these deficiencies. Well-prepared sauerkraut is another staple of immigrants accustomed to supplemental gardening.”

“Supplemental gardening, eh? What about the Thousand Island dressing? Can you grow that in a garden?”

“Nope, and that what changes the preparation from mere immigrant fare to the very soul of American cuisine.”

“I thought barbecue brisket was the soul of American cuisine.”

“It’s close. Dry rub brisket is the heart of the culture. Thousand Island is a combination of the four most popular American table condiments: mustard, ketchup, mayonnaise, and pickle relish.” I paused for a moment. “Well, most popular at the time the Reuben was invented. I think salsa surpassed ketchup sometime in the 1990s.”

“Yes, and?” There was little impatience or annoyance in his prompt. A touch of curiosity perhaps, as if he were watching a spider weave a drunken web.

“Consider mustard. Originally native to Mediterranean climates, long cultivation has produced plants that thrive in more temperate climates. It isn’t uncommon to find mustard grown for greens in a backyard garden, but seeing it grown for condiment purposes at home is nearly unheard-of. Commercial farming and economies of scale produce mustard as we know it.”

“So you need to have access to scaled-up production and exchange. So what?”

“So East European serfs rarely had such access. You can grow mustard plants next to your potatoes, but not enough to justify slathering mustard all over your pig knuckles for lunch. Mustard is a bourgeois condiment, far too luxurious for subsistence farmers at risk of starvation when the local lord gets in a snit with his neighbors.”

“So it’s a combination of peasant and bourgeois?”

“Yeah, much like the country itself. Cosmopolitan peasants living in cheap replicas of London and Paris.”

“Cheap? I beg to differ.”

“Tastes vary. I never had much stomach for most American cities.”

“Likewise, but I never had much taste for cities of any stripe. Explains this old girl.” He patted the hull of his beloved vessel.

“The same is largely true of the ketchup. The uniformly-red ketchup we know here in old North America is a factory product. European ketchup is usually brown with chunks in it. You need powerful pureeing gear and strong pumps to take out those pesky seeds. It ain’t something you can easily do at home with a strainer and some cheesecloth.”

“Okay, but people make pickles at home. And isn’t mayonnaise made from whipping egg whites or something?”

“Exactly.” I beamed. “It’s half-and-half. Half the ingredients you can make yourself, the other half it’s almost always better to buy at the store. Cosmopolitan bourgeois peasants. The soul of America. The perfect sandwich.”

“And you haven’t even gotten to the meat and the cheese yet.”

“And now let me get to the meat and the cheese.” I talked over him. “Corned beef may be made from the cheapest, toughest cut of the cow, but it’s still beef. It’s still a prestige animal. Dilettantes can raise chickens, goats, even sheep and pigs in the yard, but cattle require actual pasture.” I hastened to add, “especially beef cattle. Corned beef is the poor person’s version of rich person food. Again, a nearly perfect metaphor for America.”

“And the cheese?”

“Beats me. Swiss cheese tastes good. I don’t know about this panty cheese you got here.”

“Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it, Sam.”

I prepared the sandwiches in the manner to which I am accustomed: squeezing the sauerkraut dry, heating the meat at the same time as the cabbage, balancing the quantity of these ingredients by a 3:4 ratio. One slice of cheese on each piece of bread. Ordinarily, I would first apply just enough dressing directly to the bread so that I might still barely see the whorl pattern. However, thinly-sliced pickle had to counterbalance the umami of the preserved mutton. Grill in fat until incipient evidence of the Maillard reaction is visible at the edge of the bread. Flip, repeat.

“Not a bad sandwich, dude.”

I had to agree. “Not bad, but not a Reuben.”

“I’m cool with that if you are.”

“When the world still stood, I used this recipe as the bellwether for any new restaurant. It is a demanding meal, requiring a great deal of attention to preparation, execution, and presentation. You can’t cut corners or be sloppy and expect a good Reuben to come out the other side. It is not a club sandwich. If a line cook can be bothered to put out a good Reuben, he can be trusted with anything else on the menu. Don’t trust a cook who lacks respect for the symbol of the nation.”

“The world ain’t like that no more, Sam.”

Quite so, Dave.

Quite so.

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