Muffuletta sandwich
Photo: Tara Donne
Would you ask a total stranger for a bite of his lunch? Tired, ravenous, and wedged in next to a man eating that glorious New Orleans specialty the muffuletta, the author comes face-to-face with a few truths about food, love, and shared humanity.
Today I'm boarding a big gray airbus at Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans, where I live. The plane is heading for New York City. Every last seat, I'm told, will be occupied. Oh, the glamour of travel! Pushing, ducking, and turning sideways, I make my way down a crowded aisle, hoisting an illegal number of carry-on bags. I have an empty feeling in my stomach because, in this pack-mule condition, there's been no time to even think about eating.

"Excuse me" and "thank you," I say to the man seated on the aisle as I step over him into the middle seat. But I don't say more because we've both adopted the pretense of solitude that strangers fall into so readily when crowded together in certain environments. This is not antagonism. It's just a way of saying, "I have my uncracked issues of BookForum and House Beautiful, you're halfway through The Tipping Point, and why spoil three good hours of captive reading?"

But then something happens that I have not bargained for.

Once the plane is airborne, the guy stands, opens his knapsack, and pulls out an enormous muffuletta sandwich wrapped in oil-stained white paper. I grew up eating muffulettas, so I know exactly what it is even before he unwraps it. I can practically taste it.

One of the lustiest inventions in the world, the muffuletta is said to have been created about a century ago at Central Grocery in New Orleans's French Quarter. Sicilian farmers selling their vegetables at the nearby French Market wanted a tasty, compact lunch reminiscent of the old country—something they could eat while sitting on a barrel. Central Grocery is still around and, except for its now-touristy clientele, seems wondrously unchanged: a beloved relic of the days when the French Quarter was the closest thing New Orleans had to a Little Italy. (During the past three centuries, the Quarter has, by turns, been dominated by French, Spanish, and Italian communities, and each of them has put a stamp on it.) In a room crowded with hanging prosciuttos di Parma, sacks of dried fava beans, and polychrome cans of Italian olive oil, employees still make muffulettas one by one at a patient, old-world pace. The flavors in the muffuletta are exuberantly Sicilian—briny, garlicky, vinegary, pungent—with not a hint of Creole influence, and the sandwiches are such a popular item among locals and tourists that many other restaurants, groceries, and caterers around town make their own versions too.

Recipes vary, but a classic muffuletta consists of a round, seeded pillow of Italian bread split and layered with garlic-spiked olive salad, spicy capicola ham, Genoa salami, and a pile of thinly sliced provolone and Swiss cheeses. The most faithful versions also include slices of mortadella sausage studded with white gemstones of pork fat.

From a hedonist's perspective, the muffuletta is a beatific thing and not to be messed with. But I've also tasted pastrami muffulettas (not bad) and vegetarian muffulettas with double the cheese (if you must). Sometimes at home I make organic turkey muffulettas on crusty whole grain bread, an adaptation prompted by nebulous health and weight concerns, and one that passes muster for a weekday lunch. Some people heat muffulettas until the cheese melts, and some consider heating them a sacrilege.

It's the olive salad that can't, under any circumstances, be omitted. This relish of lightly crushed olives, minced garlic, chopped green onion, chopped giardiniera (a mixture of pickled vegetables), celery, parsley, capers, and spices is spooned out of an olive oil and vinegar bath that soaks into the bread.

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