Everything — everyone — has layers. That can be complicated. Sometimes it is perfectly simple. Take the club sandwich, which always has three. It is a number that satisfies an unrest, an uneasiness, in the human breast. It appears in all of our oldest stories: Folktale protagonists get three wishes, Peter denies Jesus three times. Three has solidity and balance, like a triangle. Three contains sliced turkey, crisp bacon, tomato, iceberg with its watery crunch, a lush, fatty smear of mayonnaise. If the holy trinity of Cajun cooking is onions, peppers, and celery, the holy trinity of white-bread America is the club sandwich.
Some date it to 1889, when the newspaper The Evening World referenced it, attributing it to the Union Club in New York. According to Bee Wilson, author of “Sandwich: A Global History,” it has been around since 1894 or ’95. Perhaps it originated on the club cars of the trains that traversed the country. Perhaps it was an invention of the Saratoga Club House, now known as the Canfield Casino, “a beautiful event venue that also happens to be haunted,” per Saratoga.com. (Why so much supernatural activity? Maybe the woman in the Victorian gown who roams the corridors is a hungry ghost, in search of a sandwich made by an occult hand.)
The club sandwich’s first appearance in The Boston Globe appears to have been in 1900, in an item about an Atlantic City hotel: “This is one of the newest evolutions of a dish that promises to rival hash as a general mixing up of foods,” the story read. “The addition of mayonnaise dressing with broiled ham seems rather startling, but under the mysterious influence of the toast, presumably, it has obtained a reputation among the hotel’s patrons.” In 1902, the Globe ran a recipe for the club sandwich in the Housekeepers’ Department, alongside instructions for tatting point lace. Other recipes included: onion gruel, Economical Meat Pie, egg daisies, and frozen Macedonia.
What is certain is that over more than a century, the club sandwich has scarcely changed. It has never needed to. It is special in its very ordinariness. There is no unusual vocabulary required to order it, although you might need to choose between white or wheat. It is almost always the best choice when it comes to hotel room service. It is the perfect thing to eat beside a pool, anywhere in the world, because no matter how far away from home you might be, it is always on the poolside menu. The tang of chlorine on the fingers, the kiss of sun from above act as condiments, further enhancing the club sandwich experience. It is the ultimate diner food, available across the country, across the decades, sitting on a Formica counter beside a thick white mug filled with mediocre coffee.
Sometimes I want to know the provenance of my oysters, and eat dishes that fuse ingredients from Asia and South America, and ponder whether there is indeed cardamom in my food or my taste buds are playing a trick on me.
Sometimes I want to eat a turkey club. Sometimes I want the comfort of the familiar, the thing I have eaten so many times over the course of my life I can’t even begin to count.
Then I head to Knotty Pine Lunch in Auburndale, which has been run by the same family for more than 30 years. The Formica counters are red and worn by elbows, there’s breakfast on the griddle all day, and the booths are taken by kids and workers and guys in suits and old couples and young couples. Everything is edged in chrome, and the walls are paneled in wood, although I couldn’t tell you whether it’s pine or not. Signs hang on the wall: “Sports spoken here.” “Bacon makes everything better.” “Everyone is entitled to my opinion!” “It’s nice to be important but it’s more important to be nice.” Together the messages are the perfect summation of all that the Knotty Pine is.
I sit on a stool at the counter and order coffee and a turkey club. The sandwich here comes with crinkle-cut fries. Each of its four triangles is held together by one of those toothpicks capped in plastic frills. Thank goodness some company somewhere still makes those toothpicks. When they stop, it is entirely possible the world’s spinning will too.
Tula Kourtis and sons Billy and Nick hold down the fort. It’s always a rush. There’s ongoing patter: “I’ve got five minutes to eat. I gotta go, gotta go!” “How’s the baby? Big?” “Did you want the chicken cutlet or the chicken salad?” “Salad, but if you made the cutlet I’ll eat it.” There are a lot of regulars. They talk sports as seriously as if they were discussing the fate of the business.
Because I’m eating in a different era, I put away my phone and pull out an actual paperback. It feels luxurious, this: sitting at a counter, drinking coffee, reading as I wait for my order. I’m rereading Philip Roth these days, because I’m sentimental like that. Today it’s “Goodbye, Columbus.” A club sandwich is just the thing myopic Brenda would have ordered up at the Green Lane Country Club in suburban New Jersey.
And now mine arrives, resplendent on its oval plate, perched on a golden crown of crinkle-cut fries. My blood jumps.
295 Auburn St., Auburndale, 617-527-9864, www.theknottypinelunch.comDevra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.