[R&K’s Plates of the Union series features great dishes and storytelling from around America. Other dispatches in the series: technicolor tacos at Tito’s in LA, In-and-Out’s Double-Double Animal Style, or chicken liver in Louisville. Those and more on our Plates of the Union page.]
I‘ll talk about the sandwich, but first, a little politics. Among the more vexing of Paul Ryan’s many elisions in his Wednesday night speech to the Republican National Convention in Tampa was the idea that the Obama stimulus only added to joblessness, when in fact plenty of experts say that the stimulus prevented a full-throated depression.
It’s as if Ryan and Romney, who constantly invokes the Great Depression because it’s the last time anyone in his family had to work a crappy job, refuse to see the difference between the sluggish economy we have and the depression we were headed for in late 2008. To hear the RNC’s version of Obama’s America, you’d think the whole country is in one long breadline, when actually we’re dusting ourselves off quite well. Time’s Michael Grunwald corrected the stimulus record deftly enough in the world of fact. I, however, chose to deal with my frustration by eating.
In particular, I went to eat at the depression-era Los Angeles food icon, Philippe the Original. What better place to contemplate what a real economic cataclysm might look like? After all, this is the place Bukowski wrote about in Ham on Rye, a few paragraphs after he said there were no jobs anywhere for any man in Depression-era Los Angeles:
Philippe’s was nice too. You could get a cup of coffee for three cents with all the refills you wanted. You could sit in there all day drinking coffee and they never asked you to leave no matter how bad you looked. They just asked the bums not to bring in their wine and drink it. Places like that gave you hope when there wasn’t much hope.
Those hard times are written into the DNA of Philippe’s. The signature French Dipped sandwich is a straight-ahead poor-man’s dish: a pile of stewed meat on a roll that has been dipped, like a calorie-sponge, into the bottom of the roasting pan. It’s a pure protein play, obviously meant for men who might not have much more in a day. They say the French Dip was invented there, or perhaps at Cole’s nearby. But either way, Philippe’s still has soup kitchen pricing (or the modern equivalent: $6 for a filling sandwich with real ingredients). It still has sawdust on the floor and communal tables. Tom Joad could walk in and feel at home.
That is, if we were in a depression. On the day of Ryan’s grim speech, the mood at Philippe’s was light, buoyant even. The crowd was mixed, and included a heavy dose of tourists and fans looking to eat at a place they see so often on the Food Network. Woody Guthrie need not write a song about this crowd.
The offerings have changed somewhat, too. They still sell pig’s trotters and eggs pickled in beet juice, but Richard Binder, a descendant of the brothers who bought out the original Philippe in 1927, began bringing wines into the deli. Now you can get Atlas Peak Sangiovese or Silver Oak Cabernet with your sandwich and slaw.
Myself, I ordered a beer. I got the lamb sandwich, double dip—you can choose single or double dip, with roast beef, roast pork, leg of lamb, turkey or ham.
It was as simple as it sounds. There’s a rich flavor from the mirepoix that is the base of the meat juice. And there’s a mulekick from the very spicy mustard they make on the premises. But beyond that, it’s just very good meat (mine was real leg of lamb, perfectly cooked) and a decent roll.
But this week, my experience of eating at Philippe’s was one of gratitude. There is no doubt that many people are struggling, but look around Phillipe’s and know that this is still a country where a lot of people can afford to buy a $6 or $8 sandwich for lunch, and dip it, not once, but twice, in delicious meat juice. These are tough times, but not desperate.
This is America 2012. This is French Dip by choice, not by necessity. This is, in fact, Obama’s America.