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An Unpretentious Ham and Cheese Recalls the Simple Pleasure of a Sandwich

Critic Robert Sietsema tries to recreate a ham sandwich from a 1940s movie

The lunch counter classic ham and cheese
The lunch counter classic as made by Hello Deli

It is my intention to celebrate the sandwich this year by finding as many tasty examples as possible, with a special emphasis on fringe styles, but also presenting sandwiches that were considered more normal 30 years ago that now seem quaint. I will do this weekly and periodically present round-ups of the ones I consider best.

In the 1947 film noir Out of the Past, starring Kirk Douglas as a mobster and Robert Mitchum as a private eye, the server at a small town lunch counter makes a sandwich for a local cop. She does it on a cutting board, taking two slices of white bread and liberally buttering them with a sharp knife. She pulls a couple of slices of boiled ham off a towering stack and places them on the bottom piece of bread, then adds a single slice of yellow American cheese. No lettuce, no tomato, no onions, and no condiments, save the butter.

Strange how the ham and butter combo is something usually associated with baguette sandwiches in France, where your lunch at a bakery or coffee shop often means ham, cheese, or ham and cheese on a buttered baguette. How magnificently simple! No rummaging through the sandwich case and examining dozens of choices, or lingering by the deli counter as you weigh hundreds of options.

The Hello Deli says “Hello!”
The Hello Deli says “Hello!”

I decided to try to recreate the sandwich from the movie, in an attempt to see what it felt like to eat a sandwich in America in the late 1940s. The first thing I discovered was that sandwiches have become much bigger in the interim, and so, I guess, have Americans. So I dropped by Hello Deli, right around the corner from the Ed Sullivan Theater just north of Times Square, owned by Rupert Jee and made famous by the Late Show With David Letterman.

I ordered a ham and cheese on white with butter and immediately got some guff from the woman at the counter. “Don’t you want some veggies with that? Lettuce and onion, or maybe some tomato? You’ve got to eat your vegetables,” she pleaded. “No, I hate vegetables,” I lied. “I’ll eat them tonight with dinner.”

At $8.45, the sandwich was a little more expensive than I’d expected for something so pared down. Still, it had twice as much rubbery boiled ham and gleaming yellow cheese as its ‘40s prototype, so I lifted the top slice of bread and gingerly removed three slices of ham and one slice of cheese. Now, the historic sandwich was accurately rendered.

It was not the most exciting sandwich I’d eaten lately, I thought as I dispatched the thing in seven or eight bites. Still, there was an honesty about it, and it made me wonder, what is it about the modern age that compels us to maximize the enjoyment of everything we eat? Can’t a sandwich be just a sandwich? 213 West 53rd St., between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, Times Square

Here’s what my replica sandwich from the 40s looked like.
Here’s what my replica sandwich from the 40s looked like.

Rupert Jee's Hello Deli

213 W 53rd St, New York, NY 10019 (212) 489-7832 Visit Website