Imagine a sandwich where the ingredients were breaded and fried strips of chicken, breaded and fried mozzarella sticks, salty French fries, lettuce, tomato, and marinara tomato sauce. Sounds patently disgusting, right? Back in 2006, I thought so. I was teaching freshman writing part time at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. I had just spent a few very miserable hours trying to grade about 50+ five page essays. I was sleepy, intensely bored, and starving all at the same time. I walked out of the English department and to the parking lot where Rutgers’ legendary “grease trucks” served what had to be the unhealthiest food imaginable. A “grease truck” is a mobile kitchen that’s also a truck or a van. Most of the food made in these vehicles were either submerged in hot oil or cooked on seldomly scrubbed grills. So, I stared the menu board and scratched my head at the absolutely ridiculous sandwiches offered. Most of them had either French fries stuffed into them, or the word “Fat” in the name. You had the “Fat cat,” the “Fat Darrell,” and so on. Secretly, I was both disgusted and enthralled. I wanted to denounce them as an evil source of heart disease and a dastardly cause of New Jersey obesity, but deep down, I secretly wanted one and all the culinary hedonism that came with it. So, did I order one? No. I ordered a rather safe-but-still-deep-fried-and-unhealthy falafel pita. I walked away from the grease truck thinking that Jersey folk will literally eat nearly anything if it’s surrounded by bread.
To this day, I have never eaten a Fat Darrell. My veins and arteries, while peeved at me for other bad eating habits and heavy smoking, are probably still thanking me. If I ever returned to New Brunswick, New Jersey, I probably still wouldn’t indulge in a “Fat Darrell,” even though I would secretly want to. The unconfirmed campus legend, regarding these “fat” sandwiches comes from a guy named Darrell Butler. Back in 1997, he was extremely drunk and argued for French fries, fried chicken, and fried mozzarella to be mixed together into a hoagie. “Dude,” he has been alleged to have said, “It’s all going to get mixed up in my stomach anyway!” As such, the grease truck owner relented. Darrell Butler was quite happy, and he stumbled away shoving the big, drippy mess into his face. Supposedly, this is how a Rutgers University legend was born.
That day in 2006 standing front of that grease truck seems like a different and distant lifetime. It’s completely alien to me, now. Back then, I was married, paying my mortgage on time, dreamed of writing a zombie novel, and my mother was not only alive, she was healthy with no foreshadowing of the grueling battle with cancer to come. Little did I know, that in just a year, severe and chronic sleep apnea would derail my professional life, permanently ruin my credit rating, cause a midlife crisis that lasted several years, and put me on a slow, twisting path towards starting life over in China many years later. While you can make plans for life, life will make wholly different plans for you.
I was thinking about this, recently, while having lunch at the newly renovated Wujin Monkey King Italian Restaurant in Changzhou. The last time I tried to eat there, it was completely on impulse. I had been walking around the Yancheng shopping / historic area and thought to poke my head it. To my surprise, the restaurant was being gutted. However, since I saw the Italian owner in there, I assumed the place was being revamped and remodeled. Turns out, I was right. One month later, I strolled around Yancheng after visiting the Wujin Museum, saw The Monkey King had reopened, and opted for an impromptu lunch.
While the restaurant didn’t look all that bad originally, the remodel gave it a classier, more upscale atmosphere. Given Monkey King’s prices, it seemed more of a case of the décor matching the expensive quality of the food. The kitchen had been moved to the back – instead of right next to the door. Locked display cases showcased expensive bottles of European wine. The floor had been ripped up and replaced. Over all, the color of the inside seemed much more brown and wood toned. The menu options, however, hadn’t changed one bit.
This relaxed me a little as a perused my lunch options. The New Jersey in me screamed for a sandwich or a Panini. Of course, that severely limited my options. Italian food is always more about saucy noodles and not surrounding something with bread in the name of a “handheld delicacy.” I already had Monkey King’s version of a hamburger; I also had a prosciutto-and-tomato Panini. I scratched my chin and wondered what could possibly the “least ordered” thing on the menu? What do people NOT go to Monkey King for? I found it in a matter of seconds under the name “Braccio di ferro.” The product description listed “Frankfurter sausage, onions, French fries, mustard.” A German hotdog sandwich at an Italian restaurant? Kinky! I smiled at the waiter and tapped my finger against it. When I ordered it, I was filled more with curiosity than with memories of a prior life in New Jersey.
When the waiter delivered my “braccio di ferro” on a wooden cutting board, I squinted. It wasn’t like I disapproved. I felt more surprised. Usually when a menu lists French fries with a sandwich, the deep fried potatoes are usually a side dish. They are separate. In this case, they were stuffed into the Panini, along with sliced frankfurters, sautéed onions, and mustard. When I first stared at both halves of the sandwich, my first thoughts were not of Jersey and Fat Darrell. Actually, my mind raced to steel city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
In the 1990’s, I attended West Virginia University. About a 45 minute drive separates Morgantown, West Virginia, from Pittsburgh. From time to time, my friends and I would carpool a trip up north to go see punk bands. The one and only time I saw Citizen Fish was in, you guessed it, Pittsburgh. Shoving fries into a hoagie is totally a Pittsburgh norm. The times I had a sub like that, I ate a place like The O – aka The Original Hotdog Shop. Some sources say that the practice originally came from Primanti Brothers. Those sandwiches also have Italian coleslaw as a condiment. Never mind that in many parts of West Virginia, having your standard American mayonnaise-based coleslaw on a wiener is also considered rational behavior. (And yes, that I have eaten and would eat again!)
So, in comparison, The Wujin Monkey King’s “braccio di ferro” is actually quite tame. The bread, which is baked on site, was light and crispy. The frankfurters contrasted well with the fried onions and the texture and saltiness of the fries. Plus, the cook did not overdue the mustard, which tasted more like Dijon and not the mustards one would expect on a German sausage. Would I order it again? Not really. Eating a frankfurter sandwich at an Italian eatery is more of a novelty, at best. And besides, Monkey King’s signature dishes are really the reason to go. However, at least this hotdog sandwich seems more like a novelty. In New Brunswick, a Fat Darrell and other “everything and the kitchen sink” subs are a staple of some New Jersey college student’s diets.