There’s a photo we have, in our album from 2002, that captures the exact moment my parents and Jenny’s parents saw Phoebe for the first time. Jenny’s in the hospital bed, all wired up and groggy from surgery, head slightly elevated, and she’s holding Phoebe in her arms. Phoebe is swaddled, purple-faced, about thirty minutes old. Thirty minutes old. All four of our parents are lined up on one side of the bed, leaning in, as though peering off the edge of a cliff. The expression on Jenny’s mom’s face is one of those amazing, ecstatic expressions you see in life’s happiest moments – such as the birth of your daughter’s first child – or on the front page of the New York Times, in the grief-stricken face of the person who has just walked away from some kind of life-altering natural disaster. For real, her expression has that kind of emotional weight to it. Stripped of context, it could be an illustration of the most sublime kind of joy, or the most warping kind of pain. In this case, thank god, it was joy. I remember taking that picture — standing off to the side in my scrubs with my old-fashioned film (!) camera — and the one that came a few seconds after it (above) when all four parents had moved one step closer to Jenny and that primal expression had morphed into something more closely resembling tears of joy. When I think of Phoebe’s birth, I think of that moment, and how little we really understood about, you know, what it all meant.
I have a bunch of these kinds of memories from the day Phoebe was born, flash-frozen moments floating through my head, mostly intact, ten years later – writing a rambling journal entry, as Jenny was in labor, on the Esquire notepad I’d stolen from my place of work, though God, I could never ever bring myself to read it now; standing in the waiting room in my white sterile booties, waiting to be reunited with Jenny as she was being prepped for surgery; being so incredibly confused when we realized Phoebe was a girl because we’d been so firmly convinced that Phoebe was a boy (something about the angle of the bump); I even think I remember what it felt like to hold Phoebe for the first time, though if I really focus on it now and try to conjure it up, I can’t be sure.
If it sounds like I’m protesting too much, that’s probably because I feel some weirdness around the fact that so much of what I remember about those four days in the hospital has to do with food. It’s bizarre – and might point to a larger problem — but I can remember pretty much everything I ate, and how I felt when I ate it. The hamburger and Tanqueray-and-tonic I devoured at the legendary JG Melon’s with my in-laws, six hours after Phoebe’s birth. The bagel (plain, with scallion cream cheese) and coffee I bought at Eli’s, and ate on a bench on Madison Avenue the morning after: the bagel and coffee were average, and I hadn’t slept a wink, what with the baby in the room and my rolled-up jacket as a pillow, but the sky was so incredibly blue and I’d never felt that kind of euphoria before in my life. If someone could bottle that feeling, I would eat it, inject it, and snort it. I would snuggle it to death. I would be king of the… that was a heartbreakingly good morning. The turkey ragu I made when I raced back to our apartment the next afternoon, and froze in batches, to be eaten when we returned home. The O’Henry bar I bought in the gift shop. The bottle of Bordeaux my brother-in-law brought over, and which we took down in short order, with a corkscrew I ran out to buy at a wine store down the block. The chicken consommé and lime jell-o I plucked from Jenny’s hospital tray as the Percocets worked their magic. The dinner we had, on the third night, when my aunt Patty – whom we’ve written about on this blog before – dropped by to see the baby. She brought a white paper bag with her.
“What’s in the bag?” I asked.
“William Poll,” she said.
“What’s William Poll?” I asked.
“Jesus, nephew,” she said. “It’s only the best deli ON THE PLANET.”
Out of the bag came two neatly-wrapped sandwiches: chicken salad with bacon on pumpernickel bread that had been sliced about ¼ inch thick. “These things cost a fortune,” Patty said.
“How much?” I asked.
“You don’t want to know,” she said.
We sat there in the hospital room, by flourescent light, and ate. I’d had a lot of chicken salad in my life, but this was insane. I was in a heightened state and susceptible to hyperbole, but no: this was not normal. The crispy bacon, the impossibly-thin bread, the unabashed, almost gleeful use of mayonnaise: YES. Patty, being a food genius, had also brought a Dr. Brown’s cream soda, which only added to the experience.
Twenty months later, when Abby was born, I walked over to William Poll to get some dinner and arrived just as they were closing. The man who let me in, it turned out, was the son or grandson of the person who had founded the place, and I explained to him that my wife had just had a baby and I was hoping to bring her back a chicken salad and bacon sandwich since I’d had one when my first daughter was born two years ago and it had made a mockery of every chicken salad sandwich I’d ever had in my life, and I’d had some good chicken salad before, too. He said he was just about to close for the night, but okay, why not, come on in and I’ll set you up. I got the feeling he had done this before, that he was possibly a Fixture in this neighborhood. (Turns out, he was: Joan Crawford was a fan of his sandwiches, too.) It was just the two of us. He arranged the bread. He pulled out this white plastic tub, covered in saran wrap, and spooned out the chicken salad. The bacon, in another carefully-wrapped container, was placed on top. When he was done, he turned to the glass-fronted refrigerator behind him, and pulled out what looked like a cup of yogurt. “Lemon curd,” he said. “It’s delicious. Take it.” I took it, and he was right: it was delicious. As were the sandwiches. Which were not cheap, either. (You don’t want to know.)
I realize I have written a thousand words about a chicken salad sandwich. But this was not just a chicken salad sandwich, just as this was not just another time in our lives, and I think about that every time we make it. — Andy
Chicken Salad Sandwiches with Bacon
Makes 4 Sandwiches
Bring 4 cups salted water to a low boil in a large saucepan. Add 3 halved large chicken breasts, and simmer, uncovered, 12-15 minutes until cooked through. Transfer chicken to a plate and cool. Chop into small pieces. While chicken is cooling, whisk together 3 large dollops of mayonnaise, 1 tablespoon sweet pickle juice, a squeeze of brown mustard, salt, and pepper in a large bowl. Add chicken, and a handful of finely chopped sweet pickles. Serve on thin pumpernickel toast with — crucial step — two slices of bacon on each sandwich. Lettuce, if you must.