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Joni Woolf: Remembering CJ’s … and the muffaletta

For 21 months in the recent past, my daughter Carey Wooten and I owned a small restaurant inside The Maze — one of the Americus’ most popular places to shop. Called CJ’s, it attracted a small but faithful crowd to lunch and almost immediately, a few favorites evolved. One of those became the restaurant’s crowning achievement: Her muffaletta sandwich. I invited her to tell how she came to create the olive salad that defines this treasure. Here, in her words, is the story:
Today, just about any recipe, even those of the most famous gourmet chefs, can be found online. There are no “secret recipes” anymore. Still, we have fun sharing recipes. After a dinner party, or a church covered-dish lunch, or just a meal with a friend, we can’t wait to say — or hear — “Did you make this?” “How did you do this?” Most of us are eager to share, not only the recipe, but where we got it, where we were when we first had it, who was with us. We love the stories that go with the foods we love. Sometimes the food is what makes the story. I know that’s the case with my sole trip to New Orleans and the famous muffaletta sandwich, served at Central Grocery and Frank’s Restaurant, both on Decatur Street.
My husband, Marshall and I took the train to New Orleans some 15 years ago. Amtrack’s Crescent still runs daily between New York and the Crescent City. We caught the )8:38 a.m. train out of Atlanta, a trip that takes 12 hours to get to New Orleans. It’s a long ride, but I highly recommend it. As my good friend (and local train enthusiast) Lee Kinnamon says, “It’s the only civilized way to travel.” Indeed it is. Upon boarding, you absolutely relinquish control of your schedule, your route, and your surroundings, and are forced to “let go” — terrifying in today’s culture of instant gratification and absolute control over every detail of our lives, but ultimately satisfying, even delightful. From the postcard images of every hamlet’s back yard that flash by like movie stills, to dinner with strangers more common than dissimilar, to the absolute unhurriedness of every trainman, steward, attendant, and passenger, traveling by train insists upon patience, serenity, kindness — civility. Excellent preparation for The Big Easy.
Our stay in NOLA was brief, but rich — in food, drink and music. We both contend it was quite possibly the best time we ever had, and like most good memories, tied to the food we ate — gumbo, etouffee, po-boys, and the ultimate muffaletta (pronounced there, moo-fa-lotta). Spicy meats, cheese, and a rich olive salad on crusty bread make this favorite unique and we thought, hard to imitate. Like most recipes, though, determination trumps difficulty, and through several failed attempts, we finally got it right (I say we here because Marshall’s acute taste buds remain a serious component of all my culinary attempts). I made this at home, then at our short-lived restaurant, CJ’s in the Maze, and it was always a hit. Now that my daughter, Lane, works at Little Brother’s Bistro, you can find it there. If she ever leaves, I hope it remains. It’s attached to some great memories, and needs to be attached to many more, right here in Americus.
Although many recipes appear on the Internet, here’s what I’ve found that appeals to those who like all those olives: Salami, ham, provolone and mozzarella cheese, mayo, a crusty bread (Wal-mart has a ciabatta that is surprisingly good; Sweet Georgia Bakery has focaccia that is even better), and, of course, the olive salad that brands the sandwich. It’s neither cheap nor healthy, much like New Orleans, but it is divine.
Start with a large (24 oz.) jar of pimento-stuffed green olives, two cans pitted black olives, one jar of giardiniera (pickled Italian vegetables), 1/2 cup pepperoncini, one red onion; chop each of these separately, in a food processor, but do not mince — chunkier is better; add two cloves of minced garlic, a tablespoon each of oregano and basil, a teaspoon of black pepper, a cup or more of extra virgin olive oil, 1/2 cup of red wine vinegar, and stir all ingredients together.
It is beautiful, in the bowl, in a jar, and can be stored in the refrigerator up to a month (however, the olive oil will congeal and the salad will seem to lose it luster. Simply take it out and let it sit out for 10 or 15 minutes before using).
To make the sandwich, layer the meat, cheese, and mayo and toast; add the olive salad before serving, as much as you want, and enjoy! Like all recipes, this one’s best when shared, tied to a memory, a perfect place, the perfect company — the perfect sandwich.

Joni Woolf, a writer and editor, now lives in Schley County, having moved from her home in Macon several years ago. Contact her at indigojoni@windstream.net