Comfort Food

By 12:30 p.m. on M Street in downtown Washington, D.C., Bub and Pop’s sandwich shop is buzzing. The line to order stretches out the door of the little shop, which is housed in a brightly colored English basement in a converted rowhouse.

At the counter, owner Arlene Wagner takes orders and rings up customers with a smile and no-nonsense speed (plus a special thanks if they pay with cash). Just behind Wagner, her son and co-owner Jon Taub serves up massive, juicy hoagies with homemade potato chips. Diner favorites include a braised beef brisket sandwich with apple-horseradish cream, aged Gouda, and veal jus, or an Italian hoagie topped with four kinds of meat and Jon’s spicy homemade relish.

“Lunch there is not just about sustenance; you go to savor the extravagant sandwiches that Chef Jon turns out,” says Josh Britton, communications director at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a frequent Bub and Pop’s diner. “And the generosity and the care that they put into the food makes it a place that attracts a lot of regulars.”

Friday night should be a moment of triumph for Wagner and Taub, whose restaurant–inspired by a Philadelphia sandwich shop owned by Wagner’s parents, the original “Bub and Pop”–has received widespread acclaim among D.C. foodies and downtown diners alike. On January 22, Guy Fieri’s Food Network program, Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, will spotlight Bub and Pop’s and bring yet another round of attention to Wagner and Taub.

But the excitement is irretrievably tinged by sadness. The air date will mark a month of mourning for Wagner, Taub and their family following the death of U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Peter Taub, Arlene’s son and Jon’s only brother. An Air Force special investigator, Peter was killed in a December 21 suicide attack near Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.

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Thirty years old when he was killed, Peter had served in the Air Force for eight years, first handling aviation ordnance in Okinawa and later as a special agent in the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, where he was based at Ellsworth AFB in South Dakota. “He wanted to work with his hands,” Wagner recalls, not long after Peter’s January 8 funeral, over a table in Bub and Pop’s dining room. “He didn’t want to be behind a desk.”

According to his father, Joel Taub, he had found direction and purpose in his Air Force service. In addition to his parents and brother, Peter left behind his wife, Christina, and three-year-old daughter, Penelope (“the apple of his eye,” Joel said), in their native Pennsylvania. Christina is expecting their second child in May.

On October 11, 2015, Peter arrived in Afghanistan for a special mission. His family didn’t even know his exact whereabouts. During his two months at Bagram, Peter joined his fellow airmen in more than 12 combat missions in hostile areas around the base. According to his posthumous Bronze Star citation, Peter’s efforts during 32 interviews with informants led to the production of 47 intelligence reports to protect the men and women serving at Bagram. Of the 51 enemy threats he identified, 33 were neutralized.

Peter had a reputation among his fellow airmen for his ebullient efforts to keep spirits high. “Pete had the ability to bring some humor and levity into intense situations,” Wagner says. For example, troops recall cracking up over Peter’s tongue-in-cheek plan to sneak a live sheep onto the base for their Thanksgiving dinner. “He was that guy who holds friendships together and keeps people connected,” Wagner reflects.

The shortest day of the year, December 21, dawned with a chill in the high valley surrounded by the Hindu Kush mountains. Peter and other investigators left Bagram on a joint foot patrol with Afghan forces. A Taliban suicide bomber appeared on a motorcycle and set off his explosives. Peter and five other special agents were killed; his Bronze Star citation notes that he gave his life protecting the other members of his unit as they attempted to reach safety.

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Wagner and Taub feel Peter’s absence when they think about their little restaurant. He had helped launch the restaurant in 2013 with an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign and continued to look after Bub and Pop’s website.

Peter had bigger plans for when he completed his service. The plan had been for him to join Bub and Pop’s and take over a lot of Wagner’s managerial and operations role. He was also going to combine his personal interests in cooking and gardening. “What he and Jon had been interested in doing when he got out was starting to raise some of the products for the restaurants,” Wagner says, noting that he was very keen on the hot peppers that go into Bub and Pop’s house giardiniera relish.

Many of Taub’s colorful memories of Peter involve their shared love of food. Peter loved anything fried, Taub says–especially “anything obscure fried.” He recounts a night when they were working together at a restaurant in New Hope, Pennsylvania. “We were frying everything. He even suggested we fry a whole egg in its shell,” he says, adding a deadpan “That was a mistake.”

Peter’s spirit lives on at Bub and Pop’s. One memorial is the Li’l Petey sandwich–a $50 extravaganza of prosciutto, capicola, Genoa salami, pepperoni, brisket, provolone, fried mozzarella, fried chicken, potato chips, arugula, roma tomatoes, and fried eggs. (Guests who eat it all in 15 minutes get it free.) Taub created it in Peter’s honor when he opened the restaurant to reflect Peter’s playful spirit about food.

Wagner points to the polka dots on the tablecloths. “He would get dressed up in his suit when doing special investigations,” she explains, but to put interviewees at ease amid the formality, “he’d put his feet up and his polka dot socks would be poking out.”

“Peter was a hero, very brave,” she reflects. “But he was also a fun-loving, easy-going guy who made people laugh.”

This article originally appeared in theĀ Weekly Standard on January 21, 2016.

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