I arrived with a song on my lips, or at the very least a mysterious lyric from a song. Shortly before our departure from Freiburg, Jethro Tull, still one of my favorite groups of all time, had just released its fifth studio album, Thick As a Brick. It was not your traditional album but a concept album (some think a spoof thereof) consisting of a single 44-minute composition full of curious and impressionistic images framed with an odd assortment of British colloquialisms, many of which I frankly had never heard before. One more than any other caught my attention – "while queueing for sarnies at the office canteen." Now what the hell could this mean? At the time I was not even familiar with the term "to queue" - to line up - which the British tend to do when waiting for a bus or a taxi etc.. More than this, I had not the slightest notion what a "sarnie" was. It would not be long before I found out.
After settling in at the local youth hostel in Dover my companion and I strolled through town looking for something to eat. As we walked back toward the waterfront I figured we would end up at a Wimpy Bar for a helping of greasy burgers and chips (french fries), or perhaps a fish and chips shop. The shops we passed by, including a well worn Wimpy Bar we finally discovered on a back street, were all less than appealing to the eye and we assumed equally unwelcome to the palate. The search for a suitable meal continued.
We were practically back to the waterfront when I by chance spied a corner café offering sarnies. And there was a queue in front and so I took this to be a good sign. That mysterious lyric - queueing for sarnies at the office canteen - still stuck in my head I had the perfect opportunity to find out what a sarnie was. And perhaps eat one or two, if they appeared at all appetizing on first blush. Nothing I had spied so far came close to that. We wandered inside and grabbed an empty table near the window where we could watch the activity on the waterfront.
So what is a sarnie you ask? There were no photographs on the menu card and so I inquired with our spike mohawked wait person. It turned out there was no real mystery at all; a sarnie is nothing more than a bacon sandwich. Two slices of nothing fancy white bread slathered with butter or mayo to which one adds several slices of back bacon (what we in America commonly refer to as Canadian bacon). Streaky bacon, which is more similar to what we are familiar with in the USA, is also perfectly acceptable. Whichever, just include plenty of it. To this one often adds ketchup, but the traditional British brown sauce (my favorite is HP) is considered essential by many like myself who take their sarnies seriously (even though I had never really had one like the British serve them). The bread can be toasted, but why bother? One does not eat a sarnie to enjoy the bread; it’s only there to keep the bacon orderly. Stated simply, a sarnie is a BLT without all the unnecessary healthy accouterment!
That evening I had my first sarnie. I did not have to queue for it (as it happened the queue outside was for take away fish and chips); rather I ordered it and it was brought to my table. And I was not the only one there eating one that evening although my travel companion opted for the sit down fish and chips and wish he hadn’t). And it would not be the last one I would enjoy during that first visit to England. Nothing flashy about a sarnie. Why does there need to be? Plenty of bacon, that’s all. Plenty of bacon! Walking back to our hostel later that evening I kept thinking of that once mysterious lyric. Now I finally knew what it meant.
After Dover we continued to London where we spent a week sharing a room near Victoria Station with a fellow I took to be roughly the same age as ourselves. He told us he worked at a bookstore in Charing Cross Road and he was an interesting chap to talk to over breakfast in the morning (frequently sarnies) although we both thought he had the oddest British accent we had ever heard . . . sort of a mix of George Harrison (Liverpool), Sean Connery (Scotland), Michael Caine (East London), and Mick Jagger (Kent). Turned out he was just as American as the two of us, hailing from a small town in western Nebraska. I discovered this when he did not know what a sarnie was.
Any self-respecting Brit worth a jot knows what a sarnie is. Her Royal Majesty, who has probably never eaten one or even seen one up close, knows what a sarnie is! It is the comfort food and the guilty pleasure of an entire nation whether it be called a sarnie, a bacon butty, a bacon bap, or a rasher sandwich. Whether it is made with back or streaky bacon, it is a fully serviceable meal. Not only will it satisfy one’s hunger as a meal or in between snack, it is also highly recommended as a cure for too many pints at the pub the night before. The bread and grease soak up the excess alcohol while the bacon nourishes your debauched soul.
I must confess I had more than my fair share of sarnies whilst in London. I saw people queueing for them here and there and I took my place in line. It was usually worth the wait. Back in Dover after an early morning train from Victoria Station and while waiting for the ferry that would return us across the Channel to France I found myself once again queueing for a couple sarnies at the wharf canteen.
Note Bene: While in London my friend and I attended Jethro Tull in concert at the Royal Albert Hall. They played an abridged version of "Thick as a Brick," including that once mysterious lyric that now had a special place in my heart.