When I was an adolescent, bursting with adolescent wanderlust and adolescent appetites – but adolescently deficient in cash and mechanized transportation – I discovered, to my delight, that the range of my explorations was increasing. I suppose the rate of change was a factor of, and roughly proportional to, the length of my legs’ adolescent growth spurt – but, at the time, it simply meant freedom.
For about a quarter, I could buy an entire loaf of dark pumpernickel, unsliced, which – if torn, or bitten, off judiciously – could fuel a few extra miles of aimless wandering. I rarely had a destination because the world was new, and wandering was its own reward.
In some ways, I still feel that way about travel -- although I’m considerably less interested in pursuing long-distance expeditions on foot. My distance from adolescence is much greater than my behavior would suggest.
On one of these trips, at the end of a long uphill grade, I came upon a sort of luncheonette.
There was no thought of going in, of course. That would have required actual cash.
However, perpendicular to the luncheonette’s front wall -- hence clearly visible to me, all the way up the hill toward it – was a long red vertical sign board. In yellow letters, out-lined in black (for better visibility and the barest suggestion of substantial three-dimensionality), was a partial listing of the offerings on their menu.
Being adolescent, and hungry, and penniless, I lingered over the seductive names of each and every dish. Had I possessed the wherewithal, I could have easily eaten my way down the entire list, but one item in particular kept me staring at the sign.
You must understand that this was long before semiotics was even imagined – and, even if it existed, there’s no way this ambulatory stomach would have known enough about Derrida and Barthes to have been distracted by it. A sign was merely a sign, signifying no more, nor less, than the words it bore.
Still, the sign held me with a strange power.
I think that power was pure ignorance, amplified by hunger. My eyes never wandered from something near the bottom of the sign. They were only two enigmatic words, but they were enough to stop me in my proverbial tracks.
Just “Pastrami” and “Sand” -- just the two words.
What could they mean? I was vaguely aware that pastrami was some kind of cured meat, ‘though I’d never tasted it. It was the “sand” that puzzled me.
Was sand somehow involved in the curing process?
Was “pastrami” a mere adjective to “sand’s” noun?
Did “sand” refer to some obscure mode of preparation?
Was “pastrami sand” a pile of cured meat, minced exceeding fine, like dust, an incomparably delicate and airy essence of pure meat flavor? There was nothing to suggest its degree of opulence or unattainability – yet, in my mind, this was a dish so exquisite that I could never even imagine being given the chance to taste it.
A galantine of peacock, stuffed with ortolans, and garnished with lark’s tongues, would be coarse peasant food compared with the dish that existed only in my adolescent fantasy.
Of course, no reality can compare with the magically indistinct dreams that only the naïve can conjure. Even today -- when prosaic experience knows that the sign listed only a plebian sandwich, and that some sign-painter’s lack of foresight left not enough room for even an explanatory period -- even today, I long to have intimate knowledge of that ethereal dish of pastrami sand.