Sep 01, 2015, 10:23AM

The BLT Isn’t the Denali of American Cuisine

A strange article from The Federalist.

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My friend Chris Beck, who scours Twitter far more compulsively than most—he actually makes comments about entertainment awards shows!—alerted me to a very odd post on Monday from The Federalist, a more or less conservative political website that features a lot of quality writing, especially Mollie Hemingway’s. Robert Tracinski, whose political articles are always worth reading, apparently convinced his editors to allow him a “summer piece.” The result, Tracinski’s musing on how to make the “perfect BLT, isn’t awful—his BLT is probably outstanding—but it reminds me more of an Esquire take, or, more obviously, any one of the ludicrously popular websites of the moment that live on soft fodder such as this.

Reading the first paragraph made me wince: Tracinski, writing as if it were 1980, lets readers know that American cuisine has made great strides since the “bad old days,” presumably when Chinese food was chop suey and pasta was called spaghetti. I’m not joking. In addition, he says, “America, in general, does not glory in its own cuisine,” which is silly. Pizza from New York comes to mind (although that staple’s been compromised in the past two decades), as does lobster, chowder and fried Ipswich clams from New England, Maryland crabcakes, and the steaks and ribs that’ve been popular in the Midwest ever since there was a Midwest.

I’ll give Tracinski credit for a lack of snootiness: he advises buying Wright bacon from Walmart, using Miracle Whip (rather than an artisan mayo) as a condiment, and isn’t a fan of the “healthy” whole wheat bread, since it competes with the “main ingredients.” Nevertheless, more than 2000 words on the appetizing, but let’s face it, pedestrian BLT is just too long. It’s not like he reveals much: late summer is the best time for tomatoes, Tracinski (who grows his own, which was probably the impetus for his article, a touch of braggadocio on a slow day) writes, as if his readers were simpletons.

As a kid, growing up on Long Island, the late-summer produce, harvested further East than my hometown of Huntington, was dazzling, and really elevated my mom’s usual fare that relied on canned/frozen/instant foods along with a meat (never fish) that was usually burnt. (Although in the case of Spam, that was the preferred preparation.) Our refrigerator was stocked with peaches, plums, nectarines, silver queen corn, strawberries and fat, ripe beefsteak tomatoes. (And in late-September and October there was a six-week window for McIntosh and Winesap apples, both of which are still fairly peculiar to upstate New York.) I still get a kick out of recalling my mother making a tomato and Hellmann’s sandwich on Wonder Bread, and paying no mind at all to the juices sliding down her chin and onto a blouse. Didn’t faze her: after all, the washing machine was always going, so what was the harm? Our BLTs in the 1960s wouldn’t satisfy the Galloping Gourmet Tracinski—cheap bacon that shriveled down to strips in the frying pan, iceberg lettuce (who’d even heard of Bibb or Romaine?) and bread that I wouldn’t eat today, but it was darn good eating.

Tracinski ends with absurd hyperbole: “[The BLT] is a sophisticated sandwich involving a complex and delicate balance of flavors: the smoky, meaty bacon; the fresh, sweet brightness of the tomato; the crisp salad flavor of the lettuce with its tangy dressing of mayo; the nutty highlight of the toasted bread… It should also help rekindle your pride in America’s home-grown culinary traditions.”

Now, that’s really spreading the mayo too thick! We’re talking a simple sandwich—yes, best in the summer—not a tureen of terrapin soup.

—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER1955

  • I appreciate you reading that so I didn't have to. Agree with you about Mollie and Tracinski writing about politics. Both are quite good.

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  • You know, if it were 500 words, without the rhapsodies of his garden, that'd be fine. But more than 2000 words? The Federalist is better than that.

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  • Thanks Russ. Now I can't get Billy Crystal in Princess Bride out of my mind MLT Mutton, lettuce and tomato. I'm also want bacon now but I'm always in the mood for bacon.

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  • For starters, thanks for the shutout Russ. Your readers would probably have been interested to know that the award show tweet of mine you referenced pretty much went viral. The retweets were off the charts. No, it certainly wasn't your run of the mill VMA tweet. Okay, as for the article, this is something that belongs on a personal blog, alongside your cats pics etc. Whew,talk about amateur hour. Having read many hundreds of food-related articles, I can safely say this was easily the worst I've ever read. It actually explains how to make a crappy BLT, which is not easy to do. What would make it crappy is the Miracle Whip he suggests, unless you enjoy a sweet salad dressing on the sandwich rather than Hellman's mayo. He uses the terms "Miracle Whip" and "mayo" interchangeably, essentially conflating one with the other. Wrong. Miracle whip is not mayo,nor does it even claim to be. Chefs don't keep this in their kitchens, while actual commercial mayo like Hellman's is commonplace in them. Laughably, the writer says that he spreads the abomination on the bread, and then puts the lettuce down first, because the Miracle stuff is the "dressing" for the lettuce. Oh really? Then mustard must be the "dressing" for a ham and cheese. Anyway, as you should put mayo on both pieces of bread, this advice is even more absurd. Why should you toast the bread lightly? Medium is no good? No explanation is offered so I'm confused. The bacon advice he gave was good - pros do cook it in the oven, but it is easy to burn that way so it's probably not worth it for the home cook. No one is going to go out and look for the brand of bacon he uses to make a BLT, so that was unhelpful. As for the tomatoes, putting salt on them is a good idea, so at least he got that thing right, using 1500 words. He was even wrong about the lettuce because if you want crisp, as he says he does, you go with iceberg. You nailed it in saying that he is writing like it was 20 years ago.I wonder where he lives if he thinks Americans don't celebrate their food? Around here every other restaurant is southern cuisine with fried green tomatoes, shrimp and grits etc. The farm to table movement is huge, and that's all about celebrating local food. Sounds like he lives in a bubble.

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  • To sum it up, the article could have been written with one sentence: "Try putting salt on the tomatoes in your next BLT, because tomatoes really call for salt."

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