The Importance of Cucumber Sandwiches

Back in the 1980s, I had the very good fortune of stumbling on Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest,” one Saturday afternoon while surfing the very limited number of channels I had available back at the time.  I believe it was a production from 1986, but I can’t really be sure as the stills from the production are not enough to jog my memory.  It might also be the production from 1952.  It was a video of a simple production with sparse steps, more like a staging without an audience.  But that’s not the interesting part.

I have always admired that play because of having watched that production.  I would think of it often and fondly, and I would think that I remembered most, if not all, of the clever puns and ironic twists.  The play is loaded with puns and they hit one after the other like stray bullets on eight mile on the night that welfare checks are issued.  (That joke sounds really racist but is meant to be the American version of the sort of satire of the classes that Wilde presented in his play; however, I still sound like a bigot, but no matter, as I’m off track again!)

The most memorable part for me is that Algernon is snacking on cucumber sandwiches meant for his Aunt Augusta who is on her way to visit.  Before she arrives, Algernon devours them all, and then blames the butler for being such a clumsy oaf as to not procure the cucumbers as Algernon clearly indicated.  I always thought that a cucumber sandwich would be simply delightful–a thickish slice of fresh cucumber on light, soft bread, the crusts removed, and just a small dab of Miracle Whip to give it some tang.  Of course, that is my own recipe based on my obsession with white bread and Miracle Whip; I am fairly certain the sandwiches that Wilde knew were merely bread and cucumber.  I am absolutely certain that the crusts would have been removed. I stake my life on that part.

As a child, I had an unfortunate thing about Miracle Whip, that being that I would make a sandwich out of bread and Miracle Whip and I would eat it.  Not the healthiest choice but I loved it.  So the suggestion of a cucumber sandwich made divine sense to me.  Take the classic Miracle Whip sandwich and make it healthy; well, healthier.

For nearly 25 years, I have been convinced that I remembered everything about that play, most especially the bit about cucumber sandwiches.  I had the opportunity to see it this week when the local high school (Holt) staged it.  I enjoyed it very much, but I was shocked to realize that I really remembered nothing of that play except the cucumber sandwiches.  It was all new to me–the Bunberrys, the mistaken identities, the diary, and the delightful puns and ironic satire.  I suppose I remembered the bit about the baby in the handbag left at the station, but not much more than that and the cucumber sandwiches.

I’ve been reading a bit lately about how the mind works, and one of the strange realities is that the brain is not really good at remembering specific details.  It’s the exception, rather than the rule, that we get something correct.  However, the brain is very, very good at remembering the emotions of our past.  How we felt at a certain time is what stays with us.  Why?  Because those feelings are what we use to inform us about how the future will work out.  It is our memory of the feelings in a given situation that our survival system uses to decide about any given current situation.  Those feelings keep us out of harm, or lead us back to ecstasy.

I knew I wanted to see that play again because I remembered how happy I was the last time I saw it.  I didn’t really remember the jokes, but I remembered my joy.  I have had other joyful times in the past, and I’d very much like to find my way back there again.  It ain’t easy.  The jungle is full of lions, and tigers and bears.  But there are a few cucumber sandwiches too, and they taste so very, very good.