The Greatest Snack Ever Invented

April 26, 2010 · 14 comments

A perfect midday snack.

I come from a long line of noshers; when I was very little, I remember my father sitting down to watch The College Bowl (during which he would shout “Wrong! Wrong! That child is WRONG!” repeatedly at the top of his lungs for the duration of the show) with the added benefit of a sleeve of Mallomars, which would be demolished before the first commercial break. My mother, who is thin as a wisp to this day, would eat plain salad with a squeeze of lemon for dinner, and then I’d get up in the morning to find nothing but crumbs in the Entenmann’s donut box.

It is what it is, as they say, but oddly, I somehow managed to avoid this fate. I’ve never been much of a nosher (which translates loosely to snacker, or one who grazes), and I was also born without a sweet tooth, which makes my family scratch their heads and wonder if I was switched at birth with the real Elissa Altman—the one who loves ice cream and cake and cookies and eating round the clock— who is running around out there somewhere, looking like a female Fernand Point and buying her clothes in the unfortunately named Manhattan dress shop, The Forgotten Woman.

All of this said, there are certain snacks that I do brake for because I mostly can’t help myself: a warm pretzel or a bag of hot chestnuts on a chilly day on Fifth Avenue; a Gray’s Papaya dog, well-done, extra sauerkraut, subversively eaten before nine in the morning on Broadway and 72nd Street; a fingertip-burning pumpernickel bagel from H&H up near Zabar’s. These are the snacks that stop me in my tracks, without fail, because on the one hand, they’re delicious, cheap, and quick; and on the other hand, because they’re unquestionably wrapped up in a kind of romantic inclination.

But one day last fall, Susan and I were traipsing around the remarkable Brooklyn Flea in Dumbo, and we stumbled upon perhaps the most perfect snack either of us has ever had. This sine qua non of quick fixes, this small bit of mind-bogglingly luscious goodness jumped out at us amidst a market filled with high-end taco trucks, artisanal bbq purveyors, makers of miniscule cupcakes that are too cute to eat. No, this was no trend waiting for recognition. This was simplicity at its most extreme: this snack was comprised of three ingredients.

Good bread.

Thick, magnificent, full-fat ricotta.

La Quercia prosciutto Americano.

And that’s it.

We stopped at a makeshift counter, where a young woman was slicing the ham by hand. Someone else handed her a piece of Sullivan Street Pane Pugliese spread with a hefty amount of the ricotta, which she then topped with the ham. She wrapped it loosely in a napkin, and handed it to me. I could have handed her a hundred dollar bill and told her to keep the change, it was that good, and we stood there, the market swirling around us, noshing on our tartines, happy as clams, and oblivious to the world.

And I started thinking: why don’t Americans snack this way more? Why do we always go for the bag of chips and the jar of salsa, or the prefab cupcake and milk product drink? Why do we head for the beer nuts or the Taco Bell burrito? Why does snacking run parallel to other activities like, in the case of our former president, watching television (during which the poor man couldn’t manage to watch a sports event and eat a pretzel at the same time)? Are we pre-programmed to believe that snacking must always translate to salt or crunch (or salt and crunch), to cake and milk, or to prefabricated, unwrap-and-heat fast food?

Doesn’t a simple tartine of ricotta and prosciutto also translate to fast food? How much more basic—or fast— could it possibly get?

That of course is the beauty of the tartine. It’s elemental. It’s faultless and reasonably guilt-free. If you produce it from limited ingredients, but you make those ingredients the most exquisite you can find (ramps and an olive oil-fried duck egg? top quality ricotta and a little ham? roasted tomato jam and some minced, sauteed shallot?), the tartine can elevate the concept of snacking to a very different place, and one that we’re not necessarily accustomed to in our culture. Granted, Susan and I had our tartine standing up in a flea market in Brooklyn surrounded by hipsters wearing big plastic glasses. But still.

Recently, we were home on a Sunday afternoon and at work trying to go through the clutter that seems to have piled up around us over the years. We took a break midday, and, feeling a little peckish, started to graze: the day before, we’d had lunch with Andrea Nguyen at Caseus Fromagerie and Bistro in New Haven, and came home with a tub of Naragansett Creamery Ricotta and some Jamon Serrano. Not even bothering to toast the country bread we had in the house, we fashioned ourselves a lovely afternoon snack, which we had with a small glass of wine, and then we went back to work.¬†We’ll never look at a bag of chips and dip the same way again.

What would your ideal tartine consist of?