Today’s sandwich is “Ham Italian” from Rusty’s Grocery in Topsham. It combines ham, American cheese, green peppers, onions, tomatoes, pickles, and oil on a sub roll.
Location: 2 Tedford Road, Topsham
Notes: If it weren’t for the Pepsi-sponsored plastic sign out front, advertising “Steamed Hot Dogs and Fast Foods,” I never would have suspected the peeling red clapboarded-building in front of me of serving food. Even as I pulled into the parking lot, I wasn’t 100% sure that Rusty’s was still in business; it was only a lit “Budweiser” neon and a vinyl sign congratulating owner Rusty Rancour on his forty years in business, that suggested there might be anyone alive inside.
Rusty’s is an ideal example of the small town, independently owned Maine convenience store, a place that makes 90% of its money on cans of beer, loose rolling tobacco, and prepackaged cream horns. It has the air of being somewhat on the decline, though it’s hard to tell at first glance if that is based on the actual economics of the store, or the sagging motivation levels of its owners. The rear half of the store holds a stainless steel refrigerator case, where cold cuts must have, at some point, been served. Now, it is nothing more than brightly-lit storage for a few unlabeled plastic containers and soggy cardboard boxes of goodness-knows-what. To navigate to the cold drinks, you have to walk your way around the wrapped pallets of warm drinks that are in storage in the middle of the room. There are no menus, no signage anywhere inside indicating that this might be a place where food is prepared.
Assuming that Rusty’s best “Pizza, Italians, Steak Subs, and Hot Dog” days were long behind it, I pulled a drink from the cooler and made my way back through the bags of Andy Capp’s Hot Fries and Hostess Sno-Balls, past the two-tiered, freestanding rack of beef jerky (PLEASE USE TONGS!), and placed my drink on the counter next to a stack of Uncle Henry’s classified magazines and a pile of whoopie pies. Trying to hide my disappointment at the seeming lack of a deli case, any kind of food preparation area, or sandwich offerings of any sort, I casually laid my hand on the stainless steel box to the right of the register. A hot, burning sensation shot through my wrist.
“Jeez,” I cried out, only then noticing the handwritten sign on the front of the steel container that read, “HOT.”
The lady behind the counter didn’t raise a painted eyebrow. “See, the funny thing about that,” she explained, “is that we can’t get the tape to stick to the hot side of the hot dog steamer. So we have to put it on the side of the box that’s NOT hot.”
Hot dog steamer? A clue! I asked hopefully if the store served sandwiches, and got a nod in reply. No menu was presented, and I wasn’t informed of any further options, but I knew if Rusty’s was serving anything at all, it was serving the classic Maine Ham Italian. Another nod confirmed this.
The counterperson disappeared in the back briefly, and re-emerged juggling the equipment she needed to get my sandwich put together: a few giant plastic Double Bubble chewing gum containers, doing double-duty as food storage and presumably full of ham and cheese, a small Tupperware container of something white, and some vegetables. “Everything on it,” she asked, which anyone who has spent time in Maine knows indicates onions, green peppers, tomatoes, olives, and oil. It was my turn to nod politely. A few minutes worth of chitchat about the weather later, my sandwich was wrapped in wax paper, and I was on my way.
The surprise ending to this tale? The sandwich was pretty great. Okay, to qualify, I don’t mean “great” as in, “made with care from wonderful ingredients.” But based on the atmosphere inside the store, and based on the fact that I had entered almost certain that the place didn’t even serve food, I was pleasantly surprised by the results. In this case, this was exactly the kind of junk food ham Italian you want from this kind of partially-defunct roadside grocery store. Impossibly soft, hyper-processed white bread, like a dense Wonder bread, or a gigantic oversized split-top hot dog bun, that was perfectly fresh and chewy, held a thin layer of boiled ham, and a thickish layer of creamy white American cheese. There were no olives, but I enjoyed the sharp bite of the sour pickles, and the juices from the surprisingly fresh tomatoes. The oil was a little heavy, as is often the case with these sandwiches, but overall, I was very, very pleasantly surprised by the quality of this sandwich.
In small towns across Maine, places like Rusty’s exist. In a world where every independent owner has seen his store bulldozed to install another sterile, soul-less Subway franchise, places like Rusty’s have continued to enjoy their relative levels of success because they do one thing well, and everyone in town knows it. They don’t have to advertise, and they don’t have to muck around with things like, say, signs, or menus, or refrigeration. They don’t have any reviews on Yelp, and Urbanspoon has never heard of them. They don’t have Facebook pages. They’re not going to follow you on Twitter. They are very specifically built to serve the community they are in, to be supported by the people that have been going there for generations. A place to stop in for a two liter bottle of Pepsi or a pack of Zig Zags, and, if you know enough to ask, a place that might just put together one of the best Italian sandwiches you’ve had in a while.