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Happiness is a Warm Sandwich

Mister Crunch

Happiness is a sticky business, a nebulous concept that we’re expected to strive for and somehow achieve in the midst of the mess of life. It’s a wonder we find it at all in the cacophony of the modern world, with the news screaming at us constantly about all that is wrong.

And there really is so very much wrong, isn’t there?

Then, if you’re like me, you make dubious choices in the quest for something like happiness. This week, for instance, I’ve been reading a book about slavery and a long, fascinating article about the Salem witch trials. And the news.

Oh, the dark foundation of misery on which we all stand! Oh, the inhumanity! How can there be enough air left in the world for life, let alone happiness?

And yet.

We must still find ways to pick the threads of happiness from the day. If we’re living at all, happiness finds us, even if fleetingly. Even when we barely notice. That’s the key, though — to notice.

The one thing that is reliably happy-making for me is a thing that many take for granted. Food. Sustenance. Cuisine. Grub. Three squares, at least seven if you’re a hobbit.

For instance, here’s a thing I get reliably excited about — my bowl of hot seven-grain mush with milk and maple syrup in the morning. I imagine it the night before, its warm mushiness like an embrace, the puddle of milk and syrup swirling on the surface until I stir. It makes me truly happy. Everyone else dismisses my love of mush, but it’s my chilly morning happiness.

Food can be relied upon in the darkest moments to conjure a bit of happy, or at least a happy memory. Think of comfort food or of the cakes and casseroles that show up in hard times. Think of the way festival is feast, the world over. It is life itself and, if you stop and notice, you’ll tap into the skein of happy that started when your first scream was answered with a breast or some facsimile.

I have my luckiest stars to thank for a husband who loves to cook, loves to study and plan and devise ways to delight his people with food. A husband who recently sent a message that read, “Two words. Croque Monsieur.” I knew immediately I’d be eating that thing very soon.

I like to cook and have been feeding an army forever, but I love to be cooked for. And so, this week, we had Croque Monsieur (which in French means fancy ham and cheese sandwich) and it was the pinnacle of happy.

I’m really not kidding here, you should try it.

First he bought “junk white bread”, but I’m sure the French have a prettier name for it. A name that makes you feel better about your dubious choices. He thinly and uniformly sliced ham off the bone leftover from a recent meal, and layered it on the pillowy bread with lots of gruyère (French for transcendent nutty Swiss) and fried it in a skillet with, I assume, a fair amount of butter. I say ‘assume’ because, at that point I was on the floor in front of the woodstove reading the aforementioned horror piece about Salem with a big glass of the wine that the wine lady said was “minerally” (which made our eyes get big and our wallets open, even though we have no bloody idea what that means) and would compliment the fancy sandwich beautifully.

Then, sometime before or after the perfect frying (nothing less than perfect), with my brilliant but temporarily broken son looking on and taking mental notes, the husband made a béchamel (French for not listening anymore).

The fried sandwiches were placed on a tray, topped with béchamel, layered with even more gruyère, and run under the flame of a broiler. I was then presented with a crispy sandwich that is more like a package, enrobed in hot, melted fatty happiness and requiring a fork and a knife.

We ate — the chef husband, the broken son, and I — dense and delicious French happiness alongside a salad tossed with the house dressing (dijon-heavy vinaigrette) and big glasses of ‘minerally’ Graves and we were, all three, happy.

Happy sounds from sated bodies, happy smells, a room full of happiness ferrying us gently into the evening. The perfectly happy communion of food.

Try this — the next time you eat something or drink something, close your eyes, slow down and pay attention.

Notice. Attend. Pay attention.

It just may bring your happy quotient up a little. You have to eat — make it soul sustenance as well as gut sustenance.

Oh, and it seems that in French, Croque Monsieur really means Crunchy Mister, depending on your source. Next time, I’m putting a fried egg on it, which makes it a Croque Madame. Of course.

Lisa Renee is a poet and essayist, living near a big lake in New York. Find her writing in Exposition Review, The Hairpin, The Billfold, and Linden Avenue Literary Journal. And, of course, here on Medium. She is also managing editor of nonfiction at daCunha.