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Just Saying: Steamy days in Vermont

When it comes to sandwiches, the number one at STARs Café probably rates as one of the world’s top productions. The number one (appropriately at the top of the menu board), for those unacquainted, is the turkey club, assembled with turkey, avocado some other stuff, but most important, bacon.

Bacon, despite its bad dietary rap, is what makes this sandwich go, just as it does to wherever it is included in the sandwich kingdom. I have on occasion eaten the whole thing myself but usually split it with Jane, who has become mildly addicted to it. It is the only thing I have ever eaten at STARs, the mild-mannered treasure in the Heights.

Recently, after consuming a STARs’ turkey club, I found myself reminiscing about my long ago days as a sandwich-maker. As with many of my favorite memories, this takes place in Vermont, where I had gone to ski bum after my Navy tour on a destroyer before heading to San Francisco for law school.

The law school had other ideas and I wound up spending nearly all of the 1970s in the Green Mountain State.

I started as a bellhop at the Sugarbush Inn, then a dishwasher, back kitchen guy and a broiler cook, overseeing a massive grill in the dining room, pumping out various cuts of meats and boiling lobsters. Those were the days.

The 1970s were snowy times in Vermont, but in 1972 it hardly snowed at all and we ski bums had to scramble. I can’t reconstruct why, but I decided to get my real estate salesman’s license. I knew a guy at a new real estate shop and he said if I passed the state test I could sit at a desk and see if I could sell anything.

I wound up showing a zillion rental properties instead, with one major exception: I sold my friend’s partner’s wife’s house. I drooled at the thought of the commission, but the partner, a hard-nosed ex-New Yorker, wouldn’t give me the 6% I thought I’d earned, but a much lower flat fee that he said was, unbeknownst to me, part of the listing deal. This is mostly why my real estate career was short-lived.

But back to sandwiches. The real estate office was in a former house at the foot of the mountain road that took you to the Sugarbush ski area. The hard-nosed guy thought that the basement could be used for some commercial venture, given the high-traffic location. He decided on a sandwich shop and I was going to be the sandwich baron. He told me to figure it out.

I came up with the name, The Sub Cellar, got a sign made, found a meat slicer and a deli meat distributor. Bread was the problem. Back in those days, before Vermont became an artisanal food powerhouse, the only bread source for the subs that I planned to sell was in Burlington, the state’s biggest city, 40 miles away. So once or twice a week, my 1967 VW beetle and I got up early to make the schlep to a commercial bakery to load the back of car with dozens of still-warm sub loaves. It was paradise if you are one of those people who yearn to have your car crammed with steaming bread.

I’ve never owned a VW beetle since, but back then, the so-called heating system was a joke. There was a lever that, by pushing it forward, was supposed to get the heat going. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect all the lever did was open up a conduit to allow the heat pouring out of the rear-mounted engine to move into the passenger cabin. In the best of times, in mid-winter, the heating system defroster produced a softball-sized area of clear glass low and to the left that you had to bend over to see out of.

With a car full of moist bread, the passenger cabin became an Amazonian wonderland, with no perception of the outside world, let alone Interstate 89, remotely possible. Running with the windows down was the only way to see, but at 5 degrees Fahrenheit, was a total disaster.

The Sub Cellar actually did a decent business among the locals. But one day my biggest nightmare came true: A tour bus pulled in the parking lot. They cleaned me out of salami, ham, cheese, bread, the whole works. It wasn’t long after that I moved on from my real estate career and The Sub Cellar and became a newspaperman.

Sandwich-maker regrets? Not a single one.