Lost on the Tour de Hamdel? Click here to find out more. Last time I had the Nuts & Bolts.
The Undergrad—lean hot corned beef, melted Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, onions, and mustard on a toasted hero—seduced me. From the first bite of pliant bread, meat, and ridiculously gooey cheese, I felt both all grown up and immersed in childhood memories. This is not the Reuben of my childhood—eliminating Russian dressing and rye completely changes the equation. Instead, mustard and a toasted hero take this classic sandwich beyond conventionality into unexplored territory. Why putz with an already masterful sandwich? Why have an affair with an older woman? If the Undergrad constitutes Hamdel’s coming of age story, then this creation seems like an adolescent experiment, a wild thrust at originality. Luckily, adolescence and the raw illusion of maturity feel refreshingly fun; the Undergrad retains enough familiarity to stimulate the brain’s nostalgic pleasure centers while still challenging tradition; just like Oedipal sex, the tension between comfort and novelty proves particularity tantalizing.
Despite typically lackluster ingredients including flat kraut, stale bread, and a gloppy, astringent heap of generic mustard, the Undergrad possesses one redeeming quality: the interplay of juicy corned beef and Swiss. Classically sweet and salty, this combination tastes magical on an unseasonably warm fall day. With Morningside Park casting a dramatic backdrop of volcanic foliage, a soft breeze rifling spent sandwich papers, and midterm exams completed, the Undergraduate’s corned beef and Swiss seems like a true comfort food; I ate such sandwiches as a kid, and re-encountering them as an undergraduate gives me a forgotten taste of schooldays and St. Louis delis. Without rye though, I find the sandwich a mere trace of a glorious past.
Of course, all undergraduates (except career students) must eventually graduate and face reality outside the ivory tower. When Benjamin Braddock encounters the “real world,” he retreats into a fantasy of immaturity, a regressive and static world of escape. Similarly, the Undergrad is a sandwich that comes before adult life, a rebellious denial of the Reuben, an attempt to resist the fascist regime of well-understood sandwiches. Hamdel serves no hero named “the Graduate,” but I wonder whether mustard might evolve into that missing Russian dressing, that soggy bread into toasted rye. I would order the Undergrad again, if only to explore alternatives to the stodgy world of Reubens eaten in cafeterias on mechanically precise lunch breaks. After all, I like to be seduced by promises of revolution as much as the next undergraduate.
Next: the Let It Ride (chicken cutlet, melted Swiss cheese, onion rings, brown gravy on a garlic toasted hero).