In Los Angeles, I’ve stood in line for shaky brisket, tacos, and French fries smeared in mayonnaise; for chiles rellenos and warm pastries; for fried chicken, ice cream, and bagels. On the other hand, I had to wait for a rainbow sandwich for half an hour on a recent Saturday morning.
It was not the kind of sandwich I remember from when I was a vegetarian in college; those were the sandwiches that were served cold, on the dry side, with dense, crumbling breads; they were stuffed with sprouts that were on the verge of withering; they were faintly spotted with discoloration; and they were wrapped a little too tightly so that tomato seeds and browning avocado squelched against the plastic wrap.
This rainbow sandwich was not premade; rather, it was created to order, smeared with a mixture of sunflower seeds and garlic confit, and stuffed with cucumbers, beets, carrots, and a lot of alfalfa sprouts from the farmers’ market, along with some turmeric-stained fried tofu. It was wrapped in sourdough that was both fresh and excellent.
In its whole, it was agreeable, soft, colourful, and evocative of something you could have purchased at your local health food shop or a cult-run vegetarian café in, say, 1975, 1985, or 1995 — except it was better. What was it doing right now at this location? Despite the fact that Zach Jarrett invented it in September of last year for the new restaurant wing of the bakery Bub and Grandma’s, it had the feel of a sandwich that was detached from the passage of time.
A decent rainbow sandwich will always appear this way here, as will the closely related, overlapping hippie, avocado, and California sandwiches, all of which derive their inspiration from a mishmash of historical culinary obsessions that never really went away, but settled in and changed over time.
The sandwiches may or may not be vegan, but they will almost surely include a variety of veggies and sprouts — a large mass of sprouts that has been delicately compressed to produce a cushion of fine floss that is crispy, juicy, and strongly flavorful of the colour green.
Although sprouts have been used for centuries, according to Jonathan Kauffman’s new book “Hippie Food,” published in 2019, only those living in Southern California used raw alfalfa sprouts up until the 1970s. Recipes for alfalfa sprout sandwiches were a local craze as well, and they first appeared in promotional booklets issued in 1953 by El Molino, a historic stone-ground mill business in Alhambra, California, that supplied grain and flour to health food stores.
The greatest sprout sandwiches are now intricate and one-of-a-kind creations that are the result of obsessive chefs who have a true fondness for the subcategory. Some people remember their parents going through a phase in which they would stuff sprouts between dense slices of toasted wheat, but they have enough distance from the health food trends of the 1970s in the United States to think of the sandwiches with fondness and to reimagine them with pleasure in mind.
However, that dish from the beginning of the El Molino booklet was simple and easy to follow. It was composed of two slices of rye bread that had mayonnaise put on them. In between the two slices was a layer of fresh alfalfa sprouts, and slices of tomato were an optional addition. And even here, in the book’s exuberant how-to section, which instructed readers how to start their own sprout supply at home, the writers provided a warning: “It may take a little time to learn to truly enjoy the distinctive flavour.”