Maybe it’s the age of Photoshop, or because of the Internet, or because of our parents, but whatever it is, we’ve become obsessed at obsessing over our faults. It’s a lot easier to scorn our shortcomings, to put flaws and faults under the most magnifying of microscopes. Even in the age of trophies for participation and older generations worried about children having the effect of the “You can do anything!” mentality, overall, the fear of failure seems to loom more than ever. And it’s in our wiring—those failures will always hurt so, so much more than the validation of excelling at something will make us feel better, which is a shame, because everyone excels doing least one thing, certainly, even if it’s card counting or parallel parking or building a fire or creating perfectly symmetrical, intricately woven hair braids. Or making the perfect sandwich.
What if you were the best in the world at something that seems completely mundane and ordinary, like say… making ham sandwiches.
If you are to believe Mark Bittman of the New York Times, a few guidebooks, and a whole mess of travel website reviewers, the best ham sandwich in the world, can supposedly be found at Café Viena in Barcelona, Spain. Everything about Café Viena smacks of the ordinary at first—an unassuming café in the heart of the touristy Ramblas, serving a ham sandwich without even cheese. Just ham and bread. And this is the icon among the rest of the fair, more bocadillos and hamburguesas and beer. The establishment even has an ordinary name. There are restaurants with the same name in Timisoara, Romania; Belo Horizonte, Brazil and Hualtuco, Mexico, and that’s just on the first page of an internet search.
The sandwich itself, called a flauta for the flutelike roll it’s served in, is ham, cured only with salt, air and water, and a crisp, passed-down-through-the-generations secret bread recipe. It’s steep for a sandwich, but worth it according to most. The way the ham has been described borders on erotica, or art criticism, as food writing often does. The thick overcoat of fat, stark white like the waves crashing on Barceloneta beach, stark against the regal purple of the ham. Look for the next sensual bestseller soon in the hands of none-too-discreet commuters. Fifty Shades of Ham.
There are plenty of challengers to Café Viena’s porky throne. Primanti Brothers in Pittsburgh, which has been mentioned in this column before, boasts an impressive, Esquire-lauded ham-and-cheese. Devotees of Cam’s Ham in Huntington, West Virginia make a pretty compelling case for their local’s shaved ham sandwich. The taxi shelter cafés in London, from what I understand, can whip up a pretty mean ham butty, which tastes a lot more appetizing than its name may indicate.
What makes Café Viena’s ham so special, so we’re told, is the use of Jabugo ham. Jabugo wasn’t even available in the United States until midway through the last decade; it was $75 a pound on arrival and may be much more now. The Black Iberian pigs, the cerdos negros, who produce this worth-its-weight-in-gold meat, are said to be more closely related to the peninsula’s native wild boars than their relatives who are often assigned to the customary fate of spending eternity suspended above a pintxos bar. Conventional explanations say the Black Iberian pig is the result of years of crossbreeding between the pigs the Phoenicians brought with them to Spain and the local wild boar population. They are typically raised on at least a hectare of dehesa land, roaming freely and able to snooze and socialize under oak trees, to roam as if they have conquered this land themselves, marched from Mesopotamia to overtake it. They are fed a diet of acorns from those trees during the fattening process. It’s certainly a far cry from the troughs and the Don Bluth-animated version of farm life; seems more like a blissful pastoral retirement before the eventual entering of the next life into a sandwich. Perhaps the pigs know they’re special; they strut around Huelva Province with snouts raised to the air; they know their noble bloodlines, the dust of empires settling beneath cloven hooves.
It’s crazy, isn’t it? How quickly such a simple act—creating a ham sandwich—becomes this storied, iconic thing with acorn-fed hogs and a sandwich that is written of in the same breath as Catalan cooking giant Ferran Adria. In the case of the sandwich artists at Café Viena, I imagine they hold great respect for the pigs from whence their ham comes, and likewise for the ingredients in their bread, but I can’t imagine being among the best ham sandwich crafters in the world is something hung on their wall in neon, a la the “World’s Best Cup of Coffee” sign that dupes poor Will Ferrell in Elf.
I don’t think this notion of better ingredients for excellence in the mundane can necessarily be applied to all the things—you could be the best in the world at parallel parking, but at the end of the day, you’re going to have to still park the car, whether it’s a Bentley or a rusting Oldsmobile Cutlass.
There are two ways we can look at all of this to live as though nothing is miraculous, that at the end of the day, even the best of things are still pretty mundane, and at the end of the day, a sandwich is still a sandwich, and ham sandwiches won’t save the world, or whatever. Or to live as though everything requires some kind of magic, some kind of craft and great feat.
A ham sandwich is never just a ham sandwich—even when it isn’t comprised of top-grade Iberian ham, it’s still the only foodstuff that can inspire a mathematical theorem, go down in history as a murder weapon and be implicated in one of the greatest acronyms in rap parlance. It’s banned in at least two major religions, which must account for something. Maybe if we incorporated the second view more, it could be applied to our view of other creative works and accomplishments and the larger cultural discourse could shift from how everything is awful all the time to, “oh hey, look at this awesome thing that just happened.” And internally, people may make the shift from focusing on faults to accomplishments. If you’re the best parallel parker, the best shirt-folder—own it, because there will be times under pressure, where someone will wish they had your mad skills.