Sunday, March 30, 2008

Home is the sambo, home from the pub

In the family pub as I grew through childhood and my early teens, I recall sandwich making duty as a daily chore.

The bread was catering size white sliced pan. The fillings were thin cut on a silver electric slicer, either from orange-crumbed hams delivered by a vanman from McCarrens in Limerick, or from catering-sized blocks of Galtee cheese that came in soft-wood boxes.

It was simple fare. The perfectly square slices of bread smeared corner to corner with butter which had been slightly melted to make the job more efficient. A slap of ham or cheese, the ham slice usually larger than the bread and hanging out the sides.

The results were stored in glass cabinets on the bar counter, the pan heels on top of the sandwich piles to stop the bread underneath from drying out and curling. It wasn't a real danger most of the time, because the three buses that came through each morning would have enough hungry passengers to clean out the supplies before lunch. Making the job a recurring one for the evening buses coming back.

On occasions such as the Punchestown Races it was 'all hands' the night before, family and staff, making many multiples of the normal requirements. The made sandwiches were repacked in the pan wrappers to keep them fresh overnight. Virtually everyone on their way through Kilcullen to the event stopped at The Hideout for nourishment before the afternoon's tournament with the turf accountants. Those who elected to take their sandwiches away, got them in small greaseproof paper bags which we closed by holding the top corners and swinging the bag and contents through two or three loops.

Even after the Hideout began providing more sophisticated fare, steaks and pork chops done on a grill, chips freshy cut and sizzled in a deep fryer, and the place became famous throughout the country and beyond for its food, the ham sandwich always remained available for the traveller not requiring a full meal. It was a true staple.

In subsequent years, when I'd be motoring the roads myself, there were other places where I remember the ham sandwich being simple but essential fare for roadgoers like myself.

The original Red Cow pub, for instance. The last place to stop before leaving Dublin proper, they had a particularly good ham sambo that went very well with a Club Cola (the pub was a last stand against the more expensive Coca Cola import).

Morrisseys of Abbeyleix was another, where the proprietor would slice the ham or cheese as required and make the sandwich up fresh. The Black Horse in Inchicore did a rare good one too.

Some places used home-cooked ham. But that could be dodgy, sometimes cut too thick and with annoying chunks of fat. The 'real' ham sandwich was always made with commercial pressed hams.

Most small rural pubs didn't officially do sandwiches. But if someone came along around lunchtime and looked for one, the barperson might happily go next door to the grocer and acquire the needed ingredients. This was even easier if, as was often enough the case, the pub and grocery were part of the same operation.

What prompted this recent meander through memory is the realisation that, as far as I know, there's no pub in Kilcullen any more where one can get a simple ham sandwich through the day and the evening.

Either they're into the full restaurant business or the Bill of Fare stops at crisps and peanuts. Those that provide bar food offer exotic imported concepts like paninis, usually with rabbit food trimmings, but the ordinary sandwich, plain or toasted, is apparently unavailable.

In Fallons, you can get a ham 'sandwich' at lunchtime, up to 3pm. But though very tasty, it is of the fancy 'open' kind, which really doesn't qualify at all for what the Earl of Sandwich is supposed to have invented. It's the kind of food you have to attack with a knife and fork, because it doesn't have the form that you can lift with two hands and chomp on it. And it certainly wouldn't survive a swing in a greaseproof bag ...

Next door in McTernans, the situation is simple; 'no food of any kind at all', except the crisps and peanuts. Fair enough, though it wasn't how Joe used to do things.

In Bardons, you get plates of sandwiches gratis on some crowded occasions, and just recently there are available from a new bar food menu what are hopeful sounding 'doorstep' sandwiches. But only until 3pm.

Billy Dowling in The Spout isn't in the food business either. But nobody expects it. It's a sports pub, where the screens and access to Ladbrokes are the important things.

Then there's the Hideout, where this all started. You can get a sambo at lunchtime, until the Coffee 'n Cakes section closes at 3pm. After that, though, it's either the starter or the full meal.

For most of us looking for parallel nourishment as we down our quota of pints or wine, a simple food option is all we want. No chips ... or even 'french fries'. No chicken wings on Ceaser salad. No lasangne starter portions.

Just two slices of plain bread with our filling of choice. And preferably not with a handful of crisps on the side. A bottle of Chef brown sauce, or a dollop of English mustard, would be a welcome bonus.

There's a national worry about overweight. Amongst us in the drinking class, I blame this partly on the necessity to eat more than we want, because what we want isn't available. The result can be all too often a fat-focussed side-trip to the take-away on the journey home.

The local pub that could give me the ham 'sanger' on demand, which I remember from my youth, is the one that would get pretty well all of my business these days.

But meantime I keep a slab of cheese at home in my fridge, along with a quarter pound of sliced ham, and the plain pan in the pantry cupboard. Because too often I have to wait until I get home to make for myself what I want.

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