Great Sandwiches by Susan Costner

Great Sandwiches is out of print but can be found second hand.


Published: November 24, 1991, New York Times
ONCE A BED GETS INTO the act, there’s always a chance for tumult, for conflict amid desire. The leftover birthday cake beckons. Should you succumb or not? Well, maybe have the cold spaghetti first. . . .

As the hour grows later, food takes on greater weight: an indispensable ritual in preparation for the abyss of night, an important sense of satiation at day’s end. But bedtime snacking has to be done right or it will get out of hand.

Rose Levy Beranbaum, a cookbook writer who specializes in pastries and sweets, remembers the time she lost control. She’d just made brownies in preparation for the visit of a good friend. At 1 A.M., Beranbaum felt the hunger message begin. Soon she was up and at one of those big beauties. “A carrot or something would have been better,” she says, “but a carrot wouldn’t do it — no way.”

Her best solution is the age-old bedtime snack, a cookie. And her best candidate for cookie of the night is an almond crescent with cinnamon sugar. A batch of the crescents was in her freezer even as we talked the other day, ready for quick defrosting. Another Beranbaum choice is a piece of chiffon cake — just about any flavor — because chiffon cakes are light, freeze well and can be sliced easily while frozen.

In the broader historical context, a cookie or a slice of cake as part of a bedtime ritual falls into the grand sweep of change that overtook the modern world when electric lighting made the night more available for amusement. After theater or the ball, says Margaret Visser, a scholar whose latest book is “The Rituals of Dinner,” English aristocrats would find themselves in need of a little something to carry them toward slumber. Then, it was a “supper.”

“Aristocrats all used to eat in bed,” Visser says, “and a very luxurious behavior it is, lying down to eat, so very chic.” One result is the English bedtime fondness for a malted drink called Horlick’s, which, significantly, is also widely seen as a children’s health snack. “There’s the whole psychological infantile aspect of eating in bed,” Visser says. “After all, that’s what so much of the aristocratic experience is, pampering.”

Late-night eating has since become an international habit, entrenched among those whose styles of life allow them to stay up long enough to indulge in it. In Rome, for instance, partygoers often feel the need to top off all their earlier eating with some pasta before bed.

Edward Giobbi, an American artist and cookbook writer who often visits Rome, is a great believer in nighttime pasta (when he stays up late enough to consider it). Pastas in vegetable sauces strike him as especially suitable. Somehow, he says, the sight of pasta revives the appetite even after a big meal.

As it happens, he is right in line with much current scientific thinking. At bedtime, carbohydrates, like those found in pasta, pastries or bread, are likely to induce drowsiness if eaten in the absence of protein. The reasoning — propounded by two Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers, Richard and Judith Wurtman — is that carbohydrates depress the blood levels of amino acids, except for tryptophan. Tryptophan is an amino acid that is converted in the brain to a potent chemical, serotonin, which appears to diminish one’s sensitivity to outside stimuli and usher in sleep.

If one is trying to achieve this biochemical effect at bedtime, the trick is to prepare a dish in which carbohydrates are overwhelmingly dominant, according to Bonnie Spring, who is a professor of psychology at the University of Health Sciences, the Chicago Medical School. The meal has to be protein poor (no more than 5 percent, says Spring) because the protein in meat or cheese will provide so many different amino acids that they will compete with the tryptophan in getting to the brain.

Yet many people report that milk, which contains tryptophan but is protein-rich, helps them get to sleep. Richard Wurtman suspects it’s the cake that often goes with the milk that should be getting the credit. But Bonnie Spring says the milk habit is evidence of the potent psychological aspect of late-night eating. People who drink milk at no other time of day will drink it at night, and then it is as comforting as a familiar quilt.

Susan Costner, the author of “Great Sandwiches,” revels in both the infantilism of late-night eating and the luxuriousness of it. Sometimes she’ll cut a Granny Smith apple into six or eight rounds and smear them with peanut butter and coconut, then reassemble the apple. When she’s feeling a bit more romantic, she tends toward a sandwich of sauteed asparagus and scrambled eggs on toasted Italian bread. “There’s something sensuous about scrambled eggs at night,” she says.

Whatever its rationale, Costner’s sandwich, like Giobbi’s pasta and Beranbaum’s cake and cookies, manages to satisfy some of the most important requirements of bedtime food. Nobody, after all, wants to cook elaborately just before falling asleep, and no one with any sense wants to use these last waking moments to assault the digestive system. The idea is to snack without stress or mess — and rest easy.


1/2 pound asparagus (preferably pencil-thin)

4 tablespoons olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

4 large eggs

1/2 16-inch loaf Italian bread.

1. Wash the asparagus under cold running water. Snap off and discard the tough bottom portion. If using thicker asparagus, scrape each stalk to remove the skin, then cut it into thirds lengthwise, leaving the the asparagus head intact.

2. In a medium-size saucepan, heat the oil until just warm. Add the asparagus and salt. Saute over medium heat, stirring, for about 2 minutes. Cover and cook for another 2 minutes, shaking the pan or stirring occasionally.

3. Meanwhile, break the eggs into a bowl and beat, adding a pinch of salt and pepper. Cut the bread in half lengthwise. Remove the soft, doughy part and toast the loaf slightly.

4. Uncover the asparagus, raise the heat slightly and add the eggs, stirring. Cook for 1 minute, or until the eggs are set. Scoop onto the bread and cut in half.

Yield: Two sandwiches. Richard Flaste is working on a book and a television series on American cooking with the chef Pierre Franey.


One response to “Great Sandwiches by Susan Costner

  1. Pingback: Pillow Talk « LUNCH ENCOUNTER

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