You basically cover everything in mayonnaise, mustard, and Cheez Whiz until it seems like something you might want to shove in your mouth
Le pain sandwich is a traditional Quebecois dish that looks repulsive at first glance but maybe isn’t so bad once you give it a shot. It is basically a loaf composed of a chicken salad sandwich, egg salad sandwich, and mashed up ham with pickles, layered on top of one another. Then the whole thing gets coated in Cheez Whiz. The dish is also sometimes called “pain étagé,” which translates to “leveled bread,” and also “pain sandwich de fantaisie,” meaning “sandwich bread of fantasy.”
I had never come across one in real life, but I had seen many photos and heard rumors about the tradition. It is customary at Christmas time, and much like the fruit cake, it is a weird thing that people bring to parties for some reason.
The thought of it made me squeamish, but I needed to try it since it was so rare and weird. So I took it upon myself to build one from scratch.
The trickiest part of the recipe was by far the bread itself. It appears to be regular sandwich bread, however the slices are cut horizontally instead of vertically. Where does one acquire such a basic and rectangular loaf, unscathed? It made me wonder about the origins of the pain sandwich because everything about it seems very nuclear and commercial, except for this slicing method. Did you have to know someone at the bread factory who would give you processed white bread without slices? I ended up going to a relatively upscale bakery, asking for a bread with the “sharpest corners possible.” Cutting the loaf at home was not such an easy task either, considering I didn’t have a proper bread knife, where creating enough room for three layers of filling while maintaining straight lines required extreme focus.
I wasn’t sure about the level of liberty people generally took with the inside fillings of the pain sandwich. There is definitely variation in terms of the decorating—people really seem to pride themselves on their ability to design and decorate the outside—but as for the insides, it wasn’t so clear. For instance, is it always a three-tiered ham mash, egg salad, chicken salad mix? Are there reasons for the number of tiers in the pain sandwich, or is it arbitrary? Since I was already taking liberties opting for the quality of meat products, I figured it was best to stick with the solid ham, egg, chicken trifecta.
Besides boiling and peeling the eggs, the whole thing went very quickly. You basically just cover everything in mayonnaise and mustard until it seems like something you might want to shove in your mouth. In true holiday fashion, I had to rush the preparations because I was already running late for the dinner party and I still needed to pick out my outfit (!!!!!!). After the base layers were assembled I slapped on some Cheez Whiz, covering all the sides (the smell of that much Cheez Whiz up close is revolting by the way) and haphazardly pushed dill flowers and red peppers into it, in an attempt to appear festive.
In the Uber on the way to the dinner party, holding the stinky fake cheese loaf in my lap, I started to feel guilty, wondering if I was committing an atrocity by bringing this thing to a group of living people.
Upon arrival, I offered my creation to the host. “Oh my god, is this le pain sandwich?” they said. Instantly backpedaling, I said, “Yes, but please don’t feel compelled to eat it.”
We ate the pain sandwich as a sort of appetizer, with cucumber gin martinis, which matched its mid-century vibe. I was shocked by how little I hated it. In fact, we all seemed to not hate it. The only thing truly disagreeable about the pain sandwich was the Cheez Whiz, which I realize, could have been easily substituted with cream cheese or fondue. (One of the dinner guests actually suggested sea urchins.) (We also joked about how nice it would be for Joe Beef to make a gratuitously expensive variant of the pain sandwich.) Overall, I was reminded of my relationship with poutine; how at first, when poutine was described to me, it sounded disgusting, but then after moving to Quebec eventually it became an integral part of my diet.
As the dinner party wore on, the edges of the pain sandwich drooped in a very spectacular way. Our party transported to another venue, and the pain sandwich was left behind on the dining room table. In the morning, I received a message from the host saying the pain sandwich turned out to be the perfect drunk food.