There’s a diner perched on the cliffs of Ft Lee, NJ, overlooking the Hudson River, George Washington Bridge and the skyline of Manhattan. It’s an unassuming establishment, but the locals love it dearly.
They specialize in the fare of lunch; soups and salads and (especially) sandwiches.
Here Reubens and Clubs are both so simple and so savory as to be almost paradoxical.
Long before farm-to-table or artisan foods found their way into the popular vernacular, the proprietor of this diner understood the near sacred importance of provenance and preparation of meats, cheeses, vegetables, herbs and spices. Without fanfare he sought and found ingredients that gave their food a singularity of character. And almost unawares, they calibrated perfect proportions and parts.
Call it happenstance, but the folks of Bergen County knew it was truly sublime.
One such item on the menu was their BLT. Down 4 from the top on their sandwich list, one could nearly fail to notice it whatsoever. But, having tasted the tang of sourdough and mayo awash in the sweet pop of tomato, crisp butter lettuce and etherial applewood bacon, one could not henceforth overlook it easily. If not a miracle, it was at least a phenomenon.
And, for the most part, only the initiated understood the diner for what it was, until one day when everything changed.
The food and restaurant critic for the New York Times was on an assignment of discovering culinary gems outside the Five Boroughs. The diner had come to his attention. His visit was planned. For better or worse, the diner’s reputation would forever be cemented far and wide.
The days leading up were electric to the point of stifling. Never before had the diner aspired to such heights, and the prospect had the effect of vertigo.
The proprietor had once run the kitchen, but had long since entrusted the day-to-day kitchen operations to a sous-chef.. More recently, they had hired a junior sous-chef. All 3 would be on hand for the day of the visit, if for no other reason than to revel in the experience and, hopefully, in their share of the acclaim.
So on that Friday lunch hour when the critic slipped in, the team of chefs were poised for action.
They watched as he was seated, and as he received the menu. The glance was cursory. The order was placed. Time lurched intolerably by as the waitress scribbled down the order and nervously made small talk. Green guest-check in hand, she turned and made her way back to the ubiquitous stainless steel check-wheel. She clipped it on, and the proprietor spun the order back.
Clear and bold were the three letters B, L and T. A shiver of excitement went through the kitchen.
They turned excitedly toward the prep-board, ready to deftly assemble the item that had become a near extension of themselves.
First came the crackle of bacon on the griller. Then came the gratifying sound of butter lettuce being chopped. The earthy scent of toasting sourdough perfumed the room. Ripe tomatoes were brought out to be cut with a freshly sharpened blade.
Then a gasp!
All eyes turned to the senior sous-chef, now slicing a tomato. What was wrong?
Looking up he muttered, “Flawless.”
Recognition dawned slowly on the faces of the others. Perceiving this, he spoke again, “It’s flawless!” Excitement pulsed from his eyes. Large, eager grins sprung to the faces of all.
“Could it be?” asked the proprietor; his thoughts trailing into wonder.
The pieces began finding their way to the prep-board for assembly, when the senior sous-chef continued, “We must add more tomato.”
Again, recognition came slowly. Again, he repeated himself, “We must add more tomato!”
The junior sous-chef calmly replied, “We know the sandwich is best in it’s current proportions. Let’s not change things. Not today.”
His senior excitedly answered, “We have never had tomatoes like these. It would be a mistake not to double them… maybe even triple them!”
At this point the proprietor spoke up. “Could the critic even fit a bite into his mouth if we did so?”
The senior sous-chef assimilated this statement and seemed struck by it’s reasoning. The junior sous-chef stood ready to begin the assembly.
The senior sous-chef spoke: “You’re right. It would be too large. We will need to remove something.”
At this statement, the proprietor was nonplussed; the junior sous-chef shaken.
“Re-remove what?” asked the junior.
“Either the bacon, or the lettuce. Maybe both.” the senior stated tersely. “There isn’t a moment to lose!”
Frantic, the junior exclaimed, “It’s a BLT! A B-L-T. That’s not possible. It can’t be done.”
“It can be done. It must.” Said the senior, and he began gathering a stack of tomatoes.
“It’s a BLT,” the junior exclaimed again. “The bacon and lettuce matter—they matter! They can’t just be removed!”
“What are you saying,” asked the senior. “That the bread and tomato don’t’ matter’? I believe they all matter!”
“Of course I’m not saying that. No one is saying that! No one is talking about removing the bread or tomato…”
“Well I should hope not!” the senior retorted.
“But you are talking about removing the bacon and lettuce. What I’m saying is that you can’t do that! It’s a B-L-T… the bacon and lettuce matter! They’re— indispensable!”
At this point the proprietor jolted back into the moment.
“Hey!” he began. “Watch the way you talk to your superior. I don’t like the tone of what you’re saying.”
Stunned, the junior gaped, “Are you serious? Do you hear what he’s saying?”
“Do you hear what he’s saying? He’s saying ‘all of it matters’…”
“So am I!”
“No. You’re saying the bacon and lettuce matter.”
“Exactly,” agreed the senior.
“How can you question the importance of tomatoes? Or bread? It’s a sandwich, son!”
“I have no idea what to tell you,” the junior stammered. “Have either of you heard me say we should remove bread or tomatoes; that they don’t matter?”
“You’ve said as much,” said the senior. The proprietor now nodding in agreement.
“Ok, then why is the fact that you want to remove both bacon and lettuce to put on more tomato not the issue here?”
“Settle down! You’re getting too worked up,” interjected the proprietor. “What’s wrong with you! I don’t get why your attitude is so defensive. Is it the food critic? Maybe I shouldn’t have had you come in today.”
“I don’t know. I… Do you think maybe the food critic is having any effect on him?” said the junior, pointing at the senior.
“Unbelievable!” said the senior, throwing up his hands. The proprietor shooting an aggravated glance at the junior.
The wait staff fretfully mill around the service window.
“Can we just back up a bit?” offers the junior.
“We don’t have time for that. You’ve already wasted valuable time. He’s been waiting out there for 10 minutes … for a BLT!” The proprietor blurts angrily, motioning to the dining room.
“Yes! It’s called a ‘BLT’, that’s what it’s called, right?”
“Here we go again,” says the senior. “You’ve made your point. Now we have to get this order out!”
The junior’s face has gone blank. He glances back and forth at the two men in front of him, then over to the frantic waitress—her eyes filled with pleading.
“I just want to make it known that it is a B-L-T, and that bacon and lettuce really do matter…” the junior stutters.
“Right! And bread and tomato don’t. We get it!” the proprietor interrupts. “And let me make it known to you that I’m stunned and disappointed by your conduct today young man. And if this costs us a 4-star review, I place the blame on you!”
“Let’s get this order out!” yells the senior, heaping a pile of tomatoes onto the two slices of bread. The junior looks on incredulously.
The bell dings, and the waitress snaps the plate out of the window. A bewildered look washes over her face having observed the sandwich. She glances questioningly up at the kitchen staff; they are rigid, agitated.
Her mouth is open, as if to say something. But then she shuts it.
Turning, she makes her way across the diner. The critic looks up at her approach.