2000s Archive

Once Upon a Market

Originally Published February 2001
In the south of France, one man recaptures the glory of the perfect tuna sandwich.

In the scene that I’ve replayed in my mind for many years, I’m standing in a market in Nice. (Yes, I realize that in many of the scenes that I replay in my mind I am standing in a market somewhere; I have no control over that.) In this case, I’m in the produce and flower market that runs down the center of the Cours Saleya six days a week. The Cours Saleya is an elongated plaza that’s used as a sort of pedestrian boulevard in Old Nice, just inland from Nice’s world-famous beach–a wide strip of jagged stones that an American accustomed to the great sandy edges of Long Island or Southern California might at first mistake for an unpaved parking lot that happens to have an ocean next to it. In the scene it’s 1983. Our family is staying in a house in Tourrettes-sur-Loup, not far away; this is before our daughters made good on their implicit threat to grow up and lead lives of their own. Feeling a twinge of hunger late in the morning—being in a market, particularly a market anywhere near the Mediterranean, tends to do that to me—I step up to a serving window over a display case and ask for a pan bagnat.

The woman behind the case reaches in and withdraws a sandwich that’s on a large circular bun—a bun that looks large enough to accommodate the sort of outsize hamburger you might fashion for Popeye’s friend Wimpy. She removes the top of the bun, revealing a damp mélange of canned tuna and chopped onions and lettuce and tomatoes and olives and hard-boiled eggs. She pours on some olive oil, presumably to make up for whatever might have evaporated since she prepared the sandwich earlier that morning. She hands the finished product over the counter. I pay her and take the first bite before I’ve moved an inch. I turn to my wife, Alice. “If I could speak French, I would say, ‘Mon Dieu!’ ” I tell her. But even as I work my way through the huge sandwich, it begins to dawn on me that leaving the Nice area will mean giving up pan bagnat; I have never eaten one anywhere else. I can see myself adding it to the list of favorite dishes that never seem to appear outside their place of origin—the list I call the Register of Frustration and Deprivation.

I am momentarily saddened, but then it occurs to me that a pan bagnat is not something that requires rare ingredients or some special oven; we’re essentially talking here about a tuna-fish sandwich. How long could it be before the pan bagnat catches on in America? After all, it’s 1983; previously unknown Italian breads or previously unknown Chinese provincial cuisines sweep over Manhattan almost weekly. As I finish the last bite and begin to deal with the olive-oil stains on my shirt, I am buoyed by the thought that the sort of New York joints that once went from being totally squidless to being buried in fried calamari will soon pan bagnat as a familiar menu item. Having to go to Nice to get a pan bagnat will be told as a tale from the Model-T days of pre-globalized eating, when you had to go to Italy for sun-dried tomatoes and couldn’t find sourdough bread outside the confines of San Francisco.

Wrong. Last summer, I realized that I hadn’t had a pan bagnat in 17 years. I can’t imagine why sandwiches, which seem eminently transportable, are so often tethered to the place where they were created. I have never seen an Italian beef sandwich outside of Chicago or a beef-on-weck outside of Buffalo—although I was once told that homesick Buffalonians who have settled in the vicinity of Hollywood, Florida, hold a beef-on-weck banquet every winter to stave off melancholy. The tension of which sandwich to have on a short stopover in New Orleans—an oyster loaf at Casamento’s, a muffuletta at Central Grocery, a Ferdi’s Special at Mother’s, a shrimp po’ boy at Uglesich’s— is intensified by the certain knowledge that you’re not going to get the precise match for any of them outside of Louisiana. Several months ago, I was surprised to spot pan bagnat listed on the lunch menu of a pleasant-looking bistro not far from where I live, in Greenwich Village. Naturally, I stopped in. What I was given was a cooked patty on a square bun—what I would call a tuna burger. “I don’t crave a take on a pan bagnat,” I told Alice. “I don’t crave a statement on the pan bagnat theme. I crave a pan bagnat. We’d better go to Nice.”

"This is not exactly what I had in mind,” I said to Alice. I had taken a couple of bites from a pan bagnat and had yet to reach what I believe rocket scientists call the payload. The bread was dry, even after the last-minute spray of olive oil. I inspected the small mound of tuna and fixings that formed an island in the middle of the vast whiteness of the lower bun. I suppose you have to admire the enterprise of someone who, at the height of the tomato season in the south of France, manages to find the precise equivalent of those American supermarket tomatoes that have a six-month shelf life, but I was reminded of the phrase a serious eater I know in Paris had used to describe a run-of-the-mill pan bagnat: “yesterday’s salade niçoise on a bun.” This pan bagnat had been handed to me through a window over a display case—perhaps not precisely the same window as in 1983, but, still, a window on the Cours Saleya in Nice. It seemed to constitute disquieting evidence that some people I’d talked to before leaving New York were correct in saying that it’s becoming difficult to put your hands on a decent pan bagnat, even in the heart of Nice. I tried to remain calm.

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