The Sandwich Manifesto: Cooking the Books with David Edison

When I first met David Edison, he was silver.

That is, David was dressed for a masquerade, wearing glittering things from head to toe (including mirrored pants). He was beautiful. And then we began to speak, and, dear reader, I realized that the beauty wasn’t a costume. David is one of those people who glitters, even without mirrored pants.

His first book, The Waking Engine, is strikingly beautiful too. And Cooking the Books is lucky enough to have David as a guest during his debut week, in part thanks to another guest, E.C. Myers, who realized that David’s opinions on sandwiches would be a perfect topic for us to munch on. So it is, friends. So it is.

The Waking Engine is available for order now. We’ve tried to keep spoilers at bay, below, and I think we’ve done a pretty good job.

A warning, before we begin. What started out as a mild-mannered interview about food turned into something much more important – a manifesto on the true nature of sandwiches. Please enjoy, and we hope that you’ll comment with your own thoughts at the end, and enjoy The Waking Engine, by David Edison.

I’ll be putting sandwiches on the Cooking the Books dinner party menu, for sure.

Buttered toast, apples, coldcumbre sandwiches. In The Waking Engine, these are foods your main character, Cooper, first encounters when waking up dead (he thinks) in the City Unspoken.  What made these foods special?

I grew up with a luggage tag around my wrist. If the parents in Lemony Snicket had taken their children along for the ride, they would have had my childhood.  (NB: they also would have lived, and I have anecdotes to prove it.)  But no matter how bizarre my surroundings became, there was always some smell that would ground me: the smell of buttered toast is almost universal, and even where it isn’t, you have frying flatbread or roti or pancakes.

Hot starch, I guess I am saying, is the culinary equivalent of ruby slippers.

Apples, in particular, are described as “Tasting like apples are supposed to taste.” This is a great grounding moment in a very jarring scene in The Waking Engine. Why do apples taste and look the same in this city as they do in our world, when so much else is so beautifully strange?

Cold fruit! The corollary to the Hot Starch argument.  I remember being on an island in Thailand and biting into something that I thought was an apple, only it tasted like dates and had the consistency of raw potato.  I loved it and cannot find it again to save my life.  So much of writing The Waking Engine involved me grappling with the weirdness and alien-ness of the city I’d dreamed up. I became obsessed with inserting as much life as I could into a tale about death, and finding moments where Cooper could chill out and ground himself.  Food and sex and drugs are ways we ground ourselves in real life, and there’s something about the sense of taste/smell that has a specific magic all its own, even on the page.

Tell me about the pomegranates we see occasionally in The Waking Engine.

Well, I’m a mythology buff and a longtime Tarot reader.  In both, of course, the pomegranate is a symbol of life and fertility.  As Persephone’s casual snack, however, it’s responsible for the “death” of the natural world each winter…  How can you write a book about death and not include pomegranates?  I’m a monster, not a Philistine. Or maybe I’ve got that backward…

And coldcumbre sandwiches? Where do those come from? They seem tightly associated with casual murder, for at least one character.

I don’t know where coldcumbres came from, exactly–the word landed on my shoulder one day, as words do, and I kept it.  But coldcumbre sandwiches are, of course, a metaversial variation on the cucumber sandwich, one of the very few Evil Sandwiches.  And it’s not the sandwich’s fault, because the cucumber sandwich is delicious, but is evil by association with colonial imperialism.  Never has a more geometrically perfect sandwich been made.  Never a crust more carefully segregated from triangles of white, white bread, whiter cream cheese, and a vegetable that will literally turn into mush if it has to do an honest day’s work in the sun: no wonder you can find cucumber sandwiches laid out carefully throughout the developing world, at high tea throughout the remains of the British Empire, and on stage with many of the best Sondheim productions.  That’s the devil’s food!

For Cooper, sandwiches — and a particular kind of sandwich — has emotional resonance. Why?

I am one of those writers who received acting training and therefore feels no shame ransacking his own emotional history for source material, and the sandwich in question is precisely lifted from my own emotional reality.  More importantly, it hasn’t been bastardized or deformed to fit the story, as happens with most of my memory-based inspirations.  Sandwiches are super-duper important to me, and the Sandwich In Question is as important to me as it is to Cooper, for precisely the same reason.

What are your favorite sandwiches?

Lobster roll, a thanksgiving sammy with cranberry sauce (my local favorite, from Ike’s in San Francisco, adds Sriracha as well), a good grilled cheese.  A cuban.  A Mexican torta with beans and jalepenos.  A French baguette (in France. this doesn’t work outside of Europe) with butter AND cheese, but nothing else.  A good veggie sandwich on grainy bread with sprouts and avocado and rehabilitated cucumber.  I think the Monte Cristo deserves a Nobel Prize.  A breakfast sandwich covered in cheese on a bagel…now I miss New York…   And of course, the Sandwich In Question, which readers will not be able to miss.

Least favorite?

For obvious reasons the cucumber sandwich is not in good standing.  And despite melted cheese and sufficient mayonnaise, I think the tuna melt is an abomination.

If the tuna melt were a character from a book, it’d be grown-up Alia Atreides, right at the point where you realize that Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam was right about her from the start.

Oh, one time on British Airways the flight attendant gave me something that said “Shrimp Salad Sandwich” on it, and I’m still trying to figure out if that was an act of terrorism or if someone somewhere was just testing me.  I passed, I think.  I certainly passed on the alleged “sandwich.”  The really scary part is that everyone else had one, including my parents, whom I thought I could trust.  Worst-smelling airplane ever.

Do you favor a certain kind of bread over other kinds? Any particular breads you loathe?

Dutch crunch, San Francisco sourdough, pumpernickel, rye, pan de mie, baguette, brioche.. (Oh Fran, what are you doing to me? I’m a diabetic, for heaven’s sake!)

It’s hard for me to loathe bread, but anything sliced too thin isn’t fit to feed pigeons.  While I love burritos (O, chile relleno burrito, come to me…), I am not a fan of most wraps, because they are fraudulent finger foods infiltrating the House of Sandwich, and they should be ashamed of themselves.  A good caesar salad wrap is the rare exception.

The Waking Engine debuted this week- what’s that feel like? Are you touring? Where can people find The Waking Engine? And you?

It feels freaking terrifying. Everyone keeps asking me if I’m enjoying this time and the truth is, YES OMIGOD YES IT’S AMAZING but also?  In addition to amazing?  It’s freaking terrifying.  I mean, you put yourself in a room for years – four or five, in my case – and then at the end of that time you trot yourself out and try to act like a person, a likable and relevant person, no less, and your mission is to sell books.  Which is a great mission!  But it is at odds with being the sort of person who can successfully spend years alone in the dark, working perpendicular to reality.  That is my most flattering angle.

I am not touring, because they don’t like to do that unless people know who you are, and I’m still figuring that part out myself.

I am having a launch party in San Francisco at Borderlands Books on February 15th, and Tor is throwing a party in NYC for its February debuts, which include me, Brian Stavely, Ramona Wheeler and James Cambias.

Then, in St Louis, where I grew up, my mother is throwing something that purports to be a book launch party, but looks more like a nightmare torture machine in which every high school teacher, parent, and former classmate has been invited to a country club that would not otherwise admit me, amid a culture that is highly parodied in the book itself.  I am going to a book launch party inside the Dome, basically, and I am the only one who realizes it.  Which is probably fitting.  When you see me at ICFA, give me a hug.

[Editor's note: Packing one hug for David Edison, for ICFA. Possibly more than one.]

Could you share a recipe with us? (hopefully for a sandwich…)

I am no sandwich fundamentalist – I believe that the perfect sandwich is an verb, and that each sandwichian must forge her own path to the masters.  That said, there are some guidelines that, in my personal experience, might make your journey easier:

 :: THE SANDWICH MANIFESTO BEGINS ::

Toast your goddamn bread, people.  This isn’t kindergarten!  And if you don’t rub the toasted bread with a garlic clove, you don’t love yourself.  (Try a shallot or elephant garlic for a milder taste!)  These two acts will transform your sandwich.

Next, go to a NYC deli and ask them to make you a ham and cheese sandwich.  Watch them add a fistful of meat and a single slice of cheese. Now dedicate yourself to never, ever, ever making a sandwich like this, because this is the sandwichian equivalent of putting sugar in someone’s gas tank.

Think about avocado, and why you’d ever want to make a sandwich without it—exceptions are part of the rules, naturally, but you want to be really wise about the exception.  Not liking avocados is a good reason, if you want to go to Sandwich Hell for blasphemy.  A better reason is a reuben, which is one of my favorite sandwiches ever.  I forgot to mention that one.

If you’ve toasted and scrubbed your bread, you’re off to a great start: any condiment you add will now smack of heat and garlic, more or less ensuring you the best base from which to construct your masterpiece.

When layering ingredients, remember that you need not follow any sandwich-maker who came before you.  Alternate those meats and cheeses, or hide the lettuce somewhere it cannot create a mid-wich blowout, which is the kryptonite of sandwichkind.

In honor of your editor and our mutual gal pal, Miriam Weinberg, I should remind the world that the radish exists, and is sad because we keep forgetting that it should be thinly-sliced and added to the list of potential ingredients. It is a particularly crunchy replacement for cucumber slices, if you oppose those for ethical reasons.

David, thank you so much for joining us at Cooking the Books!

Thank you, Fran Wilde, for hosting my fringe theories about sandwiches. We must get the word out!

Indeed, readers. Indeed. What are your theories about sandwiches? Get thee to the comments!


davidEauthorphotoDavid Edison was born in Saint Louis, Missouri. In other lives, he has worked in many flavors of journalism and is editor of the LGBTQ video game news site GayGamer.net. He currently divides his time between New York City and San Francisco. The Waking Engine is his first novel. You can find him at DavidEdison.com and on Twitter.

Read more Cooking the Books – The updated library of interviews is here.

8 comments

  1. Thanks, David.

    Can you even get a good rye in San Francisco? Is that legal? :)

    I’ve had difficulty finding good rye type breads here in Minneapolis–although, oddly, found some good dark bread down in Cedar Rapids. Czech country.

    1. Thank you, Paul!

      Short answer: no, but the quality of the sourdough more than compensates. Long answer: kinda, but it’s not as good as it should be, which is why we use the short answer instead. ^_^

  2. A side note to garlic-rubbing – this should only be done with peanut butter if sriracha is also present, thus creating an appropriate environment for the recidivist cucumber to find redemption. Note the absence of marmalade from the same zip code.

      1. Ok! Thank you – my storm-addled brains were stuck on Jif, crunchy. And not on peanut sauce. Which is wrong, but somehow I couldn’t get sriracha in the mix.

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