Whenever I eat something that I really like, I don’t respond by saying, “quack, quack,” nor, thankfully, does anyone I know. Apparently there must have been some sort of precedent for such a reaction by the late 1930s, when a local company began making packaged sandwiches of the type that could be bought off the counter at convenience stores. The sandwich line was called “Mrs. Drake.” The sandwiches were sold wrapped in cellophane with the two halves arranged side by side forming a triangle. At the top was a label with the image of a yellow Momma Drake, wearing a chef’s hat, and four little drakelings at her side. An ad for the product included the line “quacking good sandwiches.”
Philosophers and gastronomes alike have been vague on the subject of at what level of excellence is quacking good achieved. I grew up eating the sandwiches because I went to a grade school that didn’t have a cafeteria, but that sold Mrs. Drake products instead. Even at an early pre-acne age, I could talk with expertise about the choices. The tuna was the most tasteless, the Swiss cheese was too chewy (both existed primarily to appease Catholics who couldn’t eat meat on Fridays). Far more interesting was the luncheon meat and potato salad; though the salad was rather bland, it certainly was no threat to counteract the lonely thin meat slice. Leading the flavor list was the classic luncheon meat-and-pickle sandwich made with the meat slice and a spread that seemed to be a combination of mayonnaise and mustard. It was the pickle, though, that elevated the dish to its level of excellence. It was sweet and crunchy, delivering more bang to the mouth’s gustatory cells than any other item on the counter.
Then came the big day.
Every so often there’s a cosmic moment that tilts the world’s spin, but in a good way, making the planet a better place to live.
In New Orleans it happened the day that Mrs. Drake introduced a new and revolutionary sandwich, the “Lil’ Barbecue.”
Here the chefs de cuisine in the Mrs. Drake kitchen dared to be different. Instead of sliced bread they used buns. Inside was ladeled with some sort of meat enhanced by some sort of barbecue sauce. (In retrospect I don’t remember what type of meat it was. We kids didn’t read labels much back then.) And then on top of the heap was – yes, it’s true – a pickle slice just like in the luncheon meat sandwich, providing the same wonderment.
When the Lil’ Barbecue was first introduced, there probably wasn’t much point in making the other sliced bread-based varieties (except on Fridays) because few would want anything else. Mrs. Drake had taken a new step and there was no turning back.
But then my life changed. When I went off to high school I discovered that there were places with cafeterias that served hot gourmet dishes, such as shepherd’s pie and spaghetti with meat sauce. Life changed for the sandwich business, too.
Convenience stores became fewer; fast food places became more plentiful. Mrs. Drake eventually disappeared from the counter, as would its traditional side dish, Dickey’s potato chips, and its long-time nectar, Big Shot Cola – all locally made.
Maybe when something is “quacking good,” that means that people will still be remembering it years later.