We judge others, and are judged, by what we eat. That makes the American diner equal parts courtroom and psychologist’s office for those who think they glean everything they need to know about a person from how they like their eggs prepared or what type of toast they prefer. You know, the normal stuff.
Then there are people like Poppy, Adina Verson’s “Only Murders in the Building” mystery hiding in plain sight. Poppy presents herself as an introverted woman with a Bettie Page haircut and huge glasses – a mousy urban intellectual. She is a type, formulated by one’s picture of what a certain person would look like, how they would think . . . and their taste level.
When you break down Poppy that way, the lunchtime order that gives her away is completely understandable. Quirky sophisticates know a restaurant’s specialties, including the choices that aren’t listed on the menu. So it’s a forgone conclusion that when Poppy visits The Pickle Diner, she’s going to ask for its “Off Menu” Special, which is The No. 14 Sandwich: Liverwurst and Marmalade.
When our sleuthing trio hears her place that order before stepping away to take a phone call, they react as most people probably would.
“OH my GOD,” Oliver says, wincing.
“That’s horrible,” Mabel adds in agreement.
Then Charles asks their regular waiter, Ivan, “Liverwurst and marmalade. Is that a thing?”
“It’s the owner’s sister’s favorite sandwich,” Ivan replies. “Bunny was so disgusted we had it on the menu – she called it ‘freak food’!”
Boom! Between a convenient DNA match on the murder weapon and Mabel’s realization that she misheard Bunny’s last words – “14 Savage,” Mabel thought Bunny said – they had their murderer.
Turns out that Bunny might have been on to something. Maybe Poppy is a freak.
But to a person who loves experimenting with flavors that don’t sound like they go together, the No. 14 Sandwich’s ingredient combo sounds . . . intriguing.
Bunny (Jayne Houdyshell) in “Only Murders In The Building” (Patrick Harbron/Hulu)
Liverwurst never had a place in my refrigerator, or in my affections, for reasons that probably don’t require much explaining. Although sausage lovers associate the term “wurst” with delicious grillables, appending it to an organ meat negates all of its appeal.
Rebrand liverwurst as pâté, however, and suddenly many more people’s yummy detectors light up. But when it comes down to brass tacks, liverwurst? Pâté? it’s pretty much all offal. (Don’t @ me.) Liverwurst is a boiled sausage typically made with pork liver that originated in Germany, while pâté can be made with duck, chicken, pork, fish or game. It’s also spreadable.
When it comes down to brass tacks, it’s all offal.
Since it’s French, chic diners view pâté as a gourmet food as opposed to the reputation liverwurst or its smoked and spiced cousin Braunschweiger carry. Gen Xers and Boomers typically encountered some of either during the odd visit with their grandparents or their Midwestern cousins.
A dollop of pâté, on the other hand, is not out of place on upscale charcuterie boards presented at gastropubs or other fine dining establishments, where it might be served with a fig jam, a grainy mustard and other appetizing accompaniments.
In other words, the No. 14 sandwich isn’t necessarily “freak food.” The Pickle Diner menu, which explains that it’s a family favorite, is also right to call it “an acquired taste for sure!”
The question, what type of person would want to acquire it?
Obviously the clerk at my local grocery store did not expect that person to be me. He was scanning other pre-packaged lunchmeats when I walked up to him and asked if the store carried liverwurst.
The man’s response was to glance at me before reaching to an less-than-obvious nook to produce a plastic-encased roll. He unenthusiastically held it up while saying, “We got Braunschweiger,” before putting it back where he got it and listlessly resuming his task.
I paused for a moment in annoyance, then asked, “Can I have one, please?”
Then he turned and really took in the sight of me, a slight tug of confusion yanking one eyebrow skyward while disgust simultaneously curled his upper lip. He retrieved the roll again and gave to me without a peep while seeming to wonder what type of demon I must be.
Honestly, reader? It was not terrible. Nor did it make me want to murder anybody.
The marmalade was an easier score. I completed my shopping mission by obtaining a loaf of sliced sourdough and headed back to my mad scientist’s lab (read: my kitchen) to construct my monster.
On one bread slice I placed two thin slices of Braunschweiger. On the other I slathered a healthy but not overpowering dollop of marmalade, enough to win the approval of Paddington but not enough to make him weep at knowing it was going to be pressed against ground-up liver. At the suggestion of a cooking blog’s recipe for a pâté and jam sandwich, I tossed a modest pile of arugula between the two.
Then came the moment of truth. I took a bite.
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Honestly, reader? It was not terrible. Nor did it make me want to murder anybody. The arugula amplified the pepper in the Braunschweiger, and the liver taste actually played nicely with the bitter sweetness of the citrus peel in the marmalade.
Would I add it into my regular menu rotation? Absolutely not. Did I finish the sandwich? Yes . . . but only because I was ravenous.
Poppy (Adina Verson) in “Only Murders In The Building” (Patrick Harbron/Hulu)
And that is the part of this experience that tells us what we need to know about Poppy, the alias for a woman who faked her own murder to escape a life she didn’t want and killed Bunny in a twisted quest to create a podcast that would make her famous. Ordering the No. 14 Sandwich doesn’t make Poppy or anyone else who acquires that taste a freak.
But it might mean they have a hole inside of them they’re willing to fill with anything, especially if what they consume makes them seem a little more interesting.
Looking at it that way perhaps Oliver, Charles and Mabel might not have been as disgusted at the notion of that flavor combo. After all, only the hungriest people have what it takes to make it in New York City.
All episodes of “Only Murders in the Building” are currently streaming on Hulu.
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