Glorious snack

by Timothy W. Donohoe

Heroes (Issue II/2018)


Can a hero be eaten? In metro New York, surely. The common term for an Italianesque baguette-style sandwich, stuffed with cold cuts and cheeses, is hero. Most Europeans know the tubular sandwich as a sub[marine], from fast-food-chain Subway. While other appellations exist in the USA, the legend of the original name – "hero" – apparently runs back to 1936, as the formidable food critic for the daily New York Herald-Tribune, Clementine Paddleford, archly declared at a tasting, "You'd have to be a ‘hero’ to finish one."

The name for the oversized sandwich stuck; helped, undoubtedly, by an American fascination with superheroes, chief among them Superman, headquartered in NYC. Following World War Two, hero sandwich shops abounded in the Big Apple, which in turn, as America's cultural capital, needed but a generation to uplift its culinary "hero" to linguistic éclat. By the early 1950s, the "beats" were utilizing "hero sandwich" as a campy idiom for "cool" or "hip". America's literati soon took heed. Diverse publications, e.g. the New Yorker, began employing "hero sandwich" as an expression for "eclectically superlative". A hero sandwich propels a plot in path-breaking Brooklyn author Hubert Selby Jr.'s short story Double Feature (1959); award-winning Harlem author Alice Childress penned A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich, a coming-of-age novel of ghetto heroin addiction, in 1973. The following year, beat novelist William S. Burroughs spoke in Esquire magazine of "hero sandwich journalism", wherein elements of history, sociology, folklore and fable spicily flavor sports reporting.

While the sandwiches themselves had long lengthened to the superhuman-sized bread rolls and beyond – a terminal highpoint for the figurative term "hero sandwich" had been reached. 1979 saw the début of "Hot Hero Sandwich",  a TV-variety show based in New York City, aimed at teens. The series won an Emmy, lasted but one season. From there, the lettered "hero sandwich" descended to the satiric-sarcastic. Hans-Jürgen Syberberg's documentary Hitler: A Film from Germany was described in the progressive periodical The Nation as a "three-foot hero sandwich (calling) attention to itself more by its absurd size than by the discriminating selection of its ingredients. "Phew. "Today's Esperanto is a hero sandwich of world languages" ragged Virginia Country magazine in 1987; "a hero sandwich of good intentions" lamented renowned economist Peter Drucker in Managing the Nonprofit Organization: Practices and Principles, anno 1990.

Then the metaphor melted away, just as its colloquial culinary use constricted to the New York environs. Gone are the days in which Playboy magazine would review, as it did in 1968, an anthology featuring America's preëminent writers – among them Isaac Bashevis Singer, Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer – as "a hero sandwich of a volume." Today, a hero ain't nothing but a sandwich – at least in New York City, where the label still superhumanly reigns for an elongated baguette meal, based on Italian-style lunch meats and cheeses. Here is one "heroic" recipe, again from Playboy, vintage 1968:

Tucked between layers of French bread
(are) such succulent stuffing as
prosciutto, mortadella, capricollo, provolone,
Gruyère, Genoa salami, ham, tomato,
lettuce, anchovies and pimentos.

Yes, the original of New York legend. Douse with Italian vinaigrette (onions optional!), and you're ready to eat a hero.



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