The Whole Foods market near my office makes a sandwich to which I’ve grown partial. They call it the Hawthorne–after the trendy old SE Portland street or neighborhood, not the prickly tree with healing properties. It’s a folded pita slathered with hummus, tahini, and horseradish and stuffed with falafel, tomato, lettuce, and red onion. It’s cheap, it’s tasty, it’s almost heavenly, and fills me to the gills.
For the last week they’ve been out of falafel, so no Hawthornes. They don’t make the falafel themselves, even though they have a full kitchen behind the prepared foods counter. Apparently, it’s produced by a serendipitous little falafel maker in parts unknown, who ships it frozen in little roughhewn green brown briquettes, the kind you might use to build a cozy desert doll house (where you could pretend they ate their way out of house and home). Every day I showed up at the sandwich counter. The sandwich makers came to know me by my woe and no longer asked, just shook their heads.
I’m not a vegetarian. I have other choices. I just really like those sandwiches. I don’t care if they put something in them that makes me suffer in silence when I can’t have one.
Today, I showed up just to follow the ritual–I to nod, they to shake their heads, I to shrug and shuffle off. But today, the two sandwich makers were too busy to look at me. Customers 10 deep pressed in near silence against the sandwich counter. All around the sandwich-making space, shiny rectangular steel bins were stacked with falafel as high as gravity allowed and perched wherever space allowed. The makers were so pressed by falafel they rubbed hard against each other every time they reached for ingredients, behavior that under normal conditions would surely be an HR violation. From their muttering (and cursing) I learned that they had received an elephantine delivery of falafel: a semi-full; a falafelapooza; a robust fellowship of falafel; falafel for the politely fidgeting masses. There had been a falafel backup between the source and store that a capable shipping agent had finally unclogged.
I managed to slip between bodies in the crowd till I reached the counter. We were like the faithful present at the resurrection, but civilized about it, focused on our goal, meditative, patient, doing nothing that would cause the makers to delay delivery of the body to our lips and tongue. They should server communion falafel at church–attendance would increase 100-fold.
The makers, for their part, were more than generous in distributing falafel. Every sandwich was stuffed with a double helping and for every steel bin emptied and kicked under the counter, the makers whooped. My favorite maker, she of the dark-rimmed lenses, cherubic nose, and twist of dark hair that she constantly puffed out of her face, delivered me first, pressing a brown paper bundle twice as fat as usual into my hands like precious cargo, her eyes wishing me away. The crowd murmured and pressed the counter harder while I squeezed out to the registers.
The cashier proclaimed, “Man dude, that is one sandwich!” and punched my sandwich card twice (buy 10 get one free).
I cradled the bundle all 5 blocks back to my office, slid my door shut, unscrewed my bottle of green tea, and, with sharp office scissors–the kind people sometimes run with–I sliced open the wrapper. It fell in half like the unclasping of two hands revealing treasures of the Orient. The sandwich rested sensuously on my desk not like a baby (I’m no cannibal!) but a fat beautiful brown breast–with food stuck to it–waiting my hungry mouth.
And I wrapped my hands around it, squeezing gently on the ends to keep the ingredients in place. And so spread the middle like a open-mouthed smile or a crowning birth canal. Falafel, previously held in by friction, burst free like fireworks, hit the floor, and exploded, scattering tiny fragrant golden brown fried chickpea kernels over my shoes, under my desk, everywhere but in my mouth. Later I estimated seven large pieces (one for each letter in falafel). I sat on the floor in the middle of the golden carpet, finished the sandwich with four pieces of falafel, and tomato, onion, lettuce, hummus, tahini, and horseradish, then spent the rest of my lunch hour collecting the grains by hand for the trash.
Falafel. A word meant to explode across the floor. A food that cannot be packaged in a single metaphor. A place in the universe where a little brown person (or people) sits rolling and frying balls of spiced chickpeas, has no time for the folly of Western gluttony, and perhaps is not beyond teaching a lesson.