"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.
Now coach class is filling up with the bracing aroma of an Italian market, and it seems to me that manna has come tumbling out of an overhead bin—alas, to a place just out of my reach.
I have never in my life remotely considered asking a stranger for food. But being in the air makes me believe the laws of etiquette could flex a bit, as if the Mile High Club might have a strictly culinary chapter I could join. This has never happened to me; emotionally, I find myself helplessly, hopelessly riveted to another person's sandwich. Finally, after a doomed battle with myself, I jettison a lifetime's lessons in propriety and turn to him.
"Did you hear that?" I ask.
"Hear what?" he says.
"It was my stomach growling. Forgive me. It's just that your sandwich smells divine."
Without missing a beat, the man breaks into a smile and hands over a quarter of his sandwich, the whole of which is designed to feed two very hungry people or four less-hungry ones. I take it and eat. Never has a muffuletta tasted so delicious. In no time, we are discussing several of New Orleans's best restaurants, for which he has a neophyte's unbridled enthusiasm. We summon a flight attendant and order minibottles of Merlot. This leads to off-the-cuff philosophizing about the mysteries of why we live where we do—in his case, Manhattan.
When I graduate to asking more personal questions, he tells me he is a concert producer and that for seven years he was married to a woman he loved. Then, a year ago, she died of breast cancer. He is still grieving. The trip to New Orleans was designed as a distraction and a way for him to reconnect with some of the basic things that make him happy, great food ranking high on that list. I tell him about the ins and outs of the relationship I am in, and in doing so, I realize that, as all friends do, we have found our essential subjects: food and love, two inexhaustible larders. He offers me a second quarter of his sandwich, and I take it. He's eating a second piece too.
Soon he and I will disembark. Sadly, I will lose his business card and never be able to send him a thank-you note for reminding me that the most banal, cramped milieus can turn out to be quite comfortable—as long as someone is willing to show a little imagination, a little style, a little heart.
Next time, I'll pack the lunch and hope for a congenial, hungry seatmate. I'll have my magazines, too, just in case. And I'll try to remember that the limitations of a stingy environment can push us to connect when we don't really want to: to reach out, to ask, to give, to take. What a relief it is when walls come down and we find that we can talk to strangers in the down-to-earth language of food. That, in fact, they aren't strangers at all.