My father was some kind of sandwich genius. In fact, he was remarkably intelligent in many ways, even brilliant, some would say. A Presbyterian minister by training, he was a ruthless and determined chess player. He read more books in a month than I read in a year—and he remembered them in uncanny detail. And when he took the MENSA qualifying exam just for fun, he passed—easily. Of course, he never pursued membership because doing so would have been arrogant, and he was modest to a fault. Notably, he didn’t regard his intellect as an accident of genetics or a gift from his Creator. Rather, he viewed his brain as a muscle that required regular, vigorous exercise. And so my father constantly challenged himself with logic tests, crossword puzzles, and memory exercises—one of which was to memorize an entire deck of cards in order. He became so admired for his intelligence that one of his parishioners openly speculated that he wrote his sermons in ancient Greek. It wasn’t true, of course—though his first drafts, typically scrawled in longhand on yellow legal pads, looked as indecipherable as Greek.
Food, however, brought out a different side of my father. One might expect a man like him to have researched all the healthiest foods and adhered to a regimen that optimized his physical and mental fitness.
He ate foods that made him happy. And, considering how much misfortune he faced, it’s no surprise he exempted eating from his otherwise rigorous approach to life. This was a man who jumped out of airplanes in World War II and crossed the Rhine under heavy fire. He lost his mother to suicide when he was in his thirties and his wife to breast cancer when he was in his forties. Life knocked him around quite a lot. But each time he took a beating, he managed to stand back up and keep trudging along. No doubt his faith made him resilient, and his reading of great thinkers gave him a broader perspective on suffering.
Somewhere along the way, my dad developed a particular ability that I admired as a son and emulated as a father: He had an extraordinary knack for celebrating the most inconsequential moments in life. Ask any of my siblings and they’ll share their own stories about how our father made some random Tuesday afternoon feel like Christmas. There was the time, for example, when he and I were running errands in his green Oldsmobile Eighty-Eight and he leaned over and said, “Hey, if you promise not to tell anyone, let’s you and I get some ice cream.” I was probably 10 years old at the time and, back then, ice cream was reserved for birthdays and skinned knees. But, on that unremarkable afternoon in late March, he and I headed to the Baskin-Robbins on Krameria Street and ordered single scoops of chocolate-chip on sugar cones—just because we wanted to. Then we drove around Park Hill—ostensibly to finish our errands—just talking and eating. For a kid who’d lost his mother two years earlier, there was nothing more therapeutic than eating ice cream with his father.
Which brings me to my father’s talent with sandwiches.
Generally my dad wasn’t around during the day, and he worked late many evenings. But on the occasional Saturday, after finishing his lawn work, he would offer to fix us both a peanut-butter sandwich. This is where his artistry was on full display. First of all, he objected to “polluting” peanut butter with jelly; and he wasn’t satisfied with a couple slices of Pepperidge Farm, either. Instead, he favored so-called “shepherd’s bread” from the local King Soopers grocery store. To kick things off, he’d remove that football-sized loaf of doughy whiteness from its bag and, with a serrated bread knife, saw off four oblong slices. These were big slices: Each one had to be nearly ten inches long and half an inch thick. Then he’d take a stick of rock-hard butter from the fridge and cut from it thick, lardy chunks, pressing them into the shepherd’s bread like paving stones. Only when this foundation was complete did the Skippy make its appearance; and there was artistry even in how he smeared the PB over those chunks of Land O Lakes—thoughtfully, from crust to crust, with sufficient pressure to tease out buttery yellow swirls on that redolent, peanutty landscape. God, it was masterful.
After he topped off his creation with another slice of bread, he cut the behemoth in half, grabbed a fistful of Lays potato chips (this was before they called them “Classic Lays”), and poured a glass of milk the size of a beer stein.
This, my friends, was heaven on a plate.
All this took place before any of those annoying advisories came out to limit one’s intake of animal fat. Not that it would have made a difference, although he did have a “healthy” variant on this recipe that substituted mayonnaise and lettuce for butter. It tasted better than it sounds.
The Joy of Animal Fat
Some form of animal fat typically underlay all my father’s masterpieces. His Monte Cristo sandwiches, which he fixed rarely but to great anticipation, involved ham, cheese, and bread, all dipped in egg and fried on a griddle like French toast. One bite of this heart-stopper, with all that melting cheese, and I’d nearly pass out from gustatory bliss. Similarly, his hamburgers were never merely patties of ground beef on store-bought buns. Oh, no. A proper burger in the Hill house involved an English muffin slathered in mayonnaise—along with a perfunctory layer of iceberg lettuce (for crunch, not flavor).
Burger King puts mayo on the Whopper, by the way. So who is imitating whom?
My father also perfected breakfast—the meal for which he was best known—by smearing strawberry preserves over a melting pat of butter on a freshly toasted Bays English muffin. Now, in full disclosure, he actually preferred orange marmalade on his muffins, but I can forgive him that one lapse in judgement. Every great artist has his blindspot.
I’ve gone on a bit, I realize, about his sandwich masterpieces—probably because I had a light lunch and I’m feeling sentimental about this remarkable man who died seven years ago. Even as I describe his food, though, I recall my doctor’s advice not to overdo it on animal fats because I have high cholesterol and I’m not so young anymore and…
I remind myself that my father lived to be 88 and, even after losing his third wife to lupus, never lost that ability to celebrate a random Tuesday with an ice cream cone or to savor a peanut-butter-and-butter sandwich. Then, I read yet another CNN article about the raging COVID pandemic. I look out at the slate-gray northeastern sky, growing dark at just after 4 o’clock, and I think, screw it. Where did we put that Skippy, anyway?