My grandmother once told me to never eat anything bigger than my head, advice I have long eschewed, especially when beef is involved.
Tommy’s Joynt is an oldschool carvery with a sandwhich that would make my grandmother nervous. The place packed on Friday night, there is a long line ending at a cafeteria-style counter. Instead of scooping mounds of steam table instant mashed potatoes, the cooks at Tommy’s Joynt slice enormous slabs of roast beef and barbecued pork to order. They lay casually across wooden counter tops, glistening with fat.
“What’ll it be?” asks the burly man behind the counter. I tell him I’ll have a BBQ beef sandwich ($6) before he takes an arm-sized knife and parts thick, steaming slices from an enormous roast. The butcher, smiling, places on a sourdough roll a portion fit for a healthy tiger.
“That it?” he asks.
“Yes,” I respond “that will be plenty.”
I hurry to the upstairs dining room to devour my prize. It hovers with diners smacking sauce-stained lips, sauce dripping onto t-shirts and fingers. The sandwich is served alongside a small boat filled with sweet barbecue sauce, which will surely make its way onto the checkered vinyl table cloth. Lacking the ability to unhinge my jaw, I need to compress the sandwich with my hands and open my mouth wide in order to take a first bite. The bread is fresh and the meat is perfectly seasoned.
At my table’s corner there sit three different mustards, one unmarked in a glass mason jar, the other two labeled mild and hot in brown, lidded earthenware containers. I spread a spoonful on a corner of my sandwich and take a viking bite. The hot mustard is not mislabeled. The horseradish sting sets fire to my sinuses, singing my nose upon ingestion. My eyes water like tubs overflowing and I hastily add more to my sandwich.
The reason my grandmother advised me to never eat anything bigger than my head was grounded more in concern for my image than safety. To take a bite of something so enormous is a barbarous affair. Juice and sauce streams down my hands, mouth open so wide, my eyes close. I open them to let loose a stream of horseradish tears. My cheeks bulge with bread and meat, upper lip now mustached with spots of mustard and barbecue sauce. Everyone around me looks the same, feeling no shame over the warm, hearty rush of animal parts.
Eating a head-sized object sets for its diner an entirely different code of etiquette. To eat a mammoth, drippy sandwich with Victorian poise is impossible. You will spatter the tablecloth and articles of clothing. To attempt otherwise is to only delay the inevitable. You might as well enjoy the many layers of meat, fat, bread and sauce. No one else can see you; their eyes are closed.