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September 11, 2007

The Constitutional Politics of Turkey Sandwiches

By Nate Kurtis

Dreams are won and lost every year at the Student Funded Fellowship auction. … Or so the popular wisdom would have us believe. But how can we know? So many of those fabulous prizes are collected in locales both exotic and remote (what is this San Francisco of which you speak?), and even more in private (after all, what happens in Prof. Soper’s hot tub stays in Prof. Soper’s hot tub!). The result: We mere mortals who can’t purchase such fantasies-made-real are denied even the vicarious joys that spring forth from this annual auction of amazement.

Until today. To help share the ecstasy, the RG sat down with Prof. Richard A. Primus, Michigan Law’s resident Sandwich Connoisseur and Constitutional Law Sage, to learn about his recent SFF-ignited adventure. For those who don’t know, Prof. Primus traded $800 for a chance at immortality -- he won the right to create and name a Zingerman’s sandwich!

Res Gestae: When was the first time you ate at Zingerman’s?

Professor Richard A. Primus: I guess the first time I ever ate at Zingerman’s would have been in 2001, the same year I came to teach at Michigan, and I remember liking it a lot. And, I remember that, by the spring of 2002, I realized that I needed a systematic approach to eating at Zingerman’s because there are so many options and so many of them are good. But, I thought that if I just went in each time without a plan I would wind up spending a lot of time trying to decide on each visit what sandwich to eat. I would inevitably converge on three or four things on the menu that I liked and find myself going back to them and that would mean that there would probably be lots of good sandwiches that I would never try. So I thought that I should have a system, and the system should be that I would eat every sandwich on the menu in numerical order. That way, I would never waste time figuring out what to eat next. Over the course of time, I would eat every sandwich on the menu. I would discover things that I didn’t know I liked that might be good. And, I would then accumulate a store of experience that I could use for better sandwich ordering in the future.

RG: Going numerically you’d hit a number of their retired sandwiches. Have you tried to order any of those?

RAP: Yes, I have, and they have been very cooperative about it. When I would ask them about a retired sandwich, they would look it up and they would tell me what was on it and they would make it for me. I discovered, for the most part, that there’s a reason that the retired sandwiches are retired. They’re not bad, but systematically the ones on the menu, I’ve thought, were better than the retired ones.

RG: [handing over a copy of the Zingerman’s Deli menu] Where is your sandwich on the menu?

RAP: On the present menu, I don’t think you’ll find mine. The way that the auction works is that they put up your sandwich for thirty days. In the unlikely event that your sandwich sells particularly well – and how well that is is never defined in advance – they will incorporate your sandwich into the permanent menu. My understanding is that no sandwich has ever been incorporated on the basis of the Law School auction in this way. Mine wasn’t either. I didn’t really expect that it would be because they’ve covered the ground of good sandwiches really pretty well. My sandwich was available for those thirty days – and it still would be now as a retired sandwich. I think you can still go in and ask for it. I had one maybe in July and they still remembered what it was and how to make it.

RG: What sandwich did you make?

RAP: It was called the Primus Inter Pares, meaning first among equals. I asked a lot of people, including students and colleagues, for input and suggestions about names, and this was the winner in the end. The idea being: the menu is filled with great sandwiches; I didn’t want to pretend that my sandwich was better than all of the other sandwiches. I just wanted to say that, even as among all of these great sandwiches, this is the one that I go for. So, ‘first among equals’ seemed like a good way to go.

RG: What is a Primus Inter Pares?

RAP: It’s a turkey – I think that Zingerman’s best sandwich meat is their turkey – with coleslaw, Russian dressing, and yellow mustard.

RG: You’re a toppings person I see.

RAP: Yes. It’s a lot about texture. I learned a lot about this actually from the Zingerman’s sandwich people in the course of designing the sandwich because they have an elaborate process. They don’t just ask you what ingredients you want and then put that up there – they take their office very seriously. They want to do good work, and so they counsel you. So, I sat with two different people who are from their sandwich making team and they asked me a bunch of questions about what I liked and what I didn’t like. They made me familiar with all kinds of considerations in sandwich making that I had not previously known about, like: the importance of texture; the importance of ingredients that don’t oxidize waiting on the sandwich line; the tradeoffs between the expensive ingredients and the salability of the sandwich. We tried lots of different combinations of things before we arrived at this one. Oh, I forgot to mention, it’s on grilled rye bread.

RG: Just how many sandwiches did you end up eating trying to figure that out?

RAP: I think that I probably tried seven or eight variations. I knew going in that I wanted turkey. I knew that I wanted Russian dressing. There was one moment at the 11th hour when I veered off into corn beef, but other than that I held to those initial two ideas but then played with a bunch of different variations, different kinds of mustard. At one point there was the possibility of apples. The apple idea was a good one but apples oxidize on the sandwich line; they’re tough.

RG: What about applesauce instead?

RAP: I’m not a huge applesauce fan. And, once I had the coleslaw and the Russian dressing, applesauce on top of that would give me, I think, a pretty soggy sandwich.

RG: The Primus Soup?

RAP: I think it would be.

RG: That could be the next thing you win at the SFF auction.
RAP: It could be. I suppose it could be.

RG: Were you charged for all those sandwiches you ate while making it?

RAP: No. I suppose that, from a particular law and economics standpoint, you could say that the donation that I made to SFF included the eight sandwiches that I tried. They did not charge me for the sandwiches that I sampled to figure it out. Once the sandwich was set, if I wanted one I had to pay for it.

RG: You designed the sandwich at the end of last spring, right? What with grading finals and getting married, when did you find time to make a sandwich?!

RAP: It was tough. It really was tough. I look back on March and April and I find it difficult to understand how everything that needed to get done got done. But, priorities are priorities, and designing a sandwich is serious business.

RG: Where did it rank in there with the other two?
RAP: Let’s say in second place.

RG: Alright, we don’t need to be any more specific. Now, the cost of a Zingerman’s sandwich does raise an interesting question. As a constitutional law expert, at $10.99 a sandwich – steep for a sandwich – is there the possibility that it is a due process violation?

RAP: I think I’ve waived any such objections. Is there a due process problem to the public at large? I guess what I would say about this is: Are you a communist? WHO TAUGHT YOU CONSTITUTIONAL LAW? [laughs]

RG: Well, since your sandwich didn’t make it onto the permanent menu, do you still feel that it was money well spent?

RAP: Oh, absolutely. It was money well spent, I think, on two fronts. The first is: Student Funded Fellowship is a worthy cause to support and I’m glad to give them my money. I’m glad to give them my money, sandwich or no sandwich. And then secondly, you know, you take your shots at glory and they don’t always pan out. But it is far better to dare mighty things, even though checkered by failure, than to dwell in the perpetual twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.

RG: But, can we still call it a student funded fellowship if it is the professors, like yourself, who are picking up some of the larger ticket items?

RAP: That’s an interesting question. I think what it means is that students need to step up and open their pocketbooks a little bit more. I can be beaten in this auction. Most students at this law school are going to make more money over, let’s say the next ten years, than I am. There is very little reason why students, with an appropriate understanding of their consumption possibilities, shouldn’t be able to beat out the faculty in these auctions.

RG: What about at the next auction? What are you going to bid on; what is a dream win for you in the upcoming SFF auction?

RAP: That’s tough. You see, the problem is that this was the dream and I don’t know if something comes after it. It’s not the only thing I’ve ever bought at SFF auctions -- I also bought a week on a cattle ranch in Nebraska at a previous auction. But, worthy as that was, it wasn’t a Zingerman’s sandwich. I’m not sure that there is anything for sale in Ann Arbor that is more exciting than that.

RG: Maybe then it won’t be so hard to beat you next year. Well, other than your sandwich, which sandwich or two would you recommend to people from your experience?

RAP: Well I have notes on the subject.

RG: Really?

RAP: Well certainly, because the theory was: try all the sandwiches so that, for the rest of my sandwich purchasing life, I will know what to do. I don’t have a perfect memory so I take notes on lots of things, including this. [Opens a file on his computer containing detailed information on each Zingerman’s sandwich.] So, my notes say that my favorite sandwiches off of their menu are the 1, the 18, the 20, the 34, the 62, and the 67, and maybe the 73. Now, I’d need to look through the menu and see what those are to narrow it down further. The number 1 I remember. The number 1 is called the “Who’s Greenberg Anyway?,” it’s corn beef, chopped liver, and Russian dressing on rye. If I eat it every day I’ll be dead by the time I’m 45, but I’ll die happy. And, what else? Let’s see. [Consults a Zingerman’s menu.] 18, 20…. Like I said, I think their turkeys are very good. So, ah, so the 18 and the 20 are essentially the same version of a turkey Reuben, just one is grilled and one is not grilled. They are excellent. They are also relatively close to mine, except they have cheese – mine’s a no cheese version. And mine has yellow mustard which they don’t have. And then, let’s see, 34, 62, and 67; what are those?

RG: Wait, 67, 73, does that mean you’ve eaten seventy sandwiches from there?

RAP: Oh, I’ve eaten them all, and the numbers stretch up to nearly a hundred – or rather, I’ve eaten all of them except the ones containing ingredients forbidden by the God of my Ancestors, which basically means that I didn’t eat any of the sandwiches with pork. And, I finished the menu right about the time I bought the sandwich at SFF. I figured that’s what made me ready to do it. I think I couldn’t have bought the sandwich in an earlier year because I would still have been operating without full information. So let’s see: 34, 62, and 67. Oh yeah, the 34, which is “Diana’s Different Drummer,” is ranch beef brisket with coleslaw and horseradish. I think, let’s not count the 18 and the 20 because they are too similar to my own. Once you knock those out I might say the number 1 and the number 34.

RG: Do you have any advice for the sandwich consuming public?

RAP: I would say: “Life is short, use the right mustard.”

RG: Thank you.

RAP: You’re welcome.

Darin Latimer, the Front of House Manager for Zingerman’s Deli, recalls the Primus Inter Pares. “Although it didn’t sell enough to make it onto the menu,” says Latimer, “it did develop a bit of a following while it was on the special menu.” Rick Strutz, the Managing Partner of Zingerman’s Deli, adds that “[n]ot only was [the Primus Inter Pares] one of the best tasting, but also one of the most requested sandwiches we have co- created in the 10 or so years we’ve been involved in the auction.” Even if it isn’t listed on the menu, customers can still order the Primus Inter Pares. As an added incentive, Latimer noted that “it’s always possible [for a sandwich] to make it on the menu” if enough people ask for it.

That means that all hope is not lost for those of us who weren’t able to purchase happiness at last year’s SFF auction. We can each carve a slice of immortality for ourselves if we do our part to buy the Primus Inter Pares onto the permanent menu. And, at $10.99, we could do it for much less that what that sandwich cost Prof. Primus!

Nate Kurtis is a 3L and the Editor-in-Chief of the Res Gestae (why else would a newspaper devote so much space to a sandwich?). Questions or comments about this article may be sent to rg@umich.edu.