Bernard Malamud wrote, "Without heroes we're all plain people and don't know how far we can go." Johnny Apple is all about how far a man can go. He is a man of near infinite curiosities and many are laser trained on food and wine. I had the special pleasure of tailing along as he raced through the tropical streets of Miami in search of "the most perfect Cuban sandwich". He called me and said, "Can we meet at Latin America Cafeteria in forty minutes?" His voice is of unmistakable Yankee tenor and I can hear it when I read his columns on war, politics, food and wine in The New York Times.

I said sure and I, along with my wife Janet rode through the increasingly darkening skies of mid-afternoon day. When we got to the place it was a mob scene. Johnny came bounding out of a big Mercedes that his charming wife Betsey was about to manipulate into a tiny parking space. His notepad was in his hand and he put his elbows on Janet's side and, looking over his cockeyed reading glasses said, his voice rising at the end of most sentences in the way that does, "isn't this place GREAT!" It wasn't a question. "It's on ALL THREE of the lists I have for 'sandwich MUST EATS'".

The dining room is actually a tarp-covered patio. We were handed the large plastic covered menus, sat on plastic chairs and took it all in.

As we ordered juices and our sandwiches the skies opened and beat a tattoo on the tarp and created a rhythm section to match the samba scene of people coming and going, eating and laughing.The clientele was 99% Latin and 100% local. Despite that they treated us with patience as Johnny drilled them with questions. He quickly found the manager and, following over 40 years of a reporter's habit, got to the bottom of the story. He came back, tossed his notebook down in declaration and said, "I've got it! Each sentence a compressed Kodak image…500 sandwiches are made every 8 hours…two men work the sandwich presses…they cut the bread with long serrated knives and then use them like spatulas to flip the sandwiches around…the ham is from Virginia now not Spain…there are five restaurants in this chain…the chief difference is in the dough of the bread…horsemeat was used in earlier times on some of the sandwiches…." and so on…

He couldn't have been happier when the pieces of his culinary "Five W's" puzzle fit. Such joy was infectious and any conversation that might have been in process would be jumped from whomever's tracks without any hint of pushiness on his part. It was just Johnny Apple marveling at the quotidian world with the same verve a human might at a chapel or a mountain or of a hero showing us how far we can go.

I'm Norman Van Aken and that's my word on food.

Copyright © by Norman Van Aken, 2002 (2.7.02)

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