The Comfort Food Diaries: It's More Than Just a Turkey Sandwich

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[Illustration: Zac Overman]

Editor's Note: Welcome to The Comfort Food Diaries, a month-long series that will run each weekday throughout the month of January. Here, the Serious Eats staff, along with some of our favorite writers from the food world, will reflect on the dishes, delicacies, and, yes, guilty pleasures that have sustained us through good times and bad.

We are riding our bikes down Hunley Road, which runs along the creek where I used to collect discarded beer cans with my friend Bones when I was little. It's a weekday. A school day. But there is no school, because several inches of snow fell last night. Our parents all work, so we are on our own. We are 13 or 14. I can't remember. Hunley has no berm, really; it bends and it turns, so we have to be careful. Really careful. A few years ago, my father crashed his Oldsmobile into the creek while driving home from work. He climbed up its steep embankment and limped back toward home like a zombie, with a torn business suit and a bloodied knee.

It's the early 1980s, and I'm not sure who I'm with. It's an amalgamation of friends from back then. It is Gordon or Chad or Mitch or Tim or James or Doug. I don't know. Maybe it's all of them. I do know we are headed toward Clough Pike, a meandering road that cuts through southern Ohio farmlands and subdivisions. The stretch we're hitting serves as a small Main Street of sorts. There's a gas station, a dry cleaner, a pub, and our destination, a place called D.J.'s General Store, which serves the most amazing turkey sandwiches I've ever tasted. They must put a pound of meat on those things. I always get mine with Swiss cheese, lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise, and onion on wheat bread. The sandwiches cost a paltry sum of money. Maybe three dollars, if I'm remembering right, and I tell all my friends who've never been there that it's a real bargain, even though I don't really care about bargains at this point in my life.

I'm too young to realize that D.J.'s is a throwback to a more innocent time. That its whole "general store" concept is obsolete, and that it's modeled after the stores our mothers and fathers used to frequent before the age of big grocery stores and bigger grocery stores. Having grown up on Oscar Mayer bologna and Kraft American singles on Butternut bread, I've yet to discover the magic of the deli sandwiches other kids in other places—New York or Chicago or Toronto or Milan—know quite well.

I had no idea what I was missing.

At D.J.'s, the meat is sliced fresh in front of you, wrapped in white butcher paper, and cut, paper and all, right down the middle before being packed into a tidy brown bag. The first time I went there, I was surprised I could get turkey—real, "oven-roasted" turkey—so easily. To me, turkey was a delicacy, a special meat for special occasions: Christmas, Thanksgiving, and the decadent days of leftovers following each.

The first time I tasted a turkey sandwich at D.J.'s was a revelation of sorts. It was a mess of piled-high meat, the whole thing about three-inches thick, and it had a hint of porkiness, because good turkey tastes far more like pork than it does chicken. The bread was thin, fresh, a little mushy. The sandwich was topped with cold, crisp iceberg lettuce and thin slices of sweet onion without the slightest hint of slime. There was mayonnaise, but just enough that it didn't seep out when I bit in. When I finished the first half, I couldn't believe there was more.

D.J.'s is family-owned; the mother is nice to us kids, though her no-nonsense demeanor would make her a shoe-in for a saloon keeper in the wild, wild west. Her son is quiet and friendly. Tall, with jet-black hair that is cut clean and pomaded, another throwback in this Duran-Duran-ed age of feathered hair, mullets, and gel. There's a father. Somewhere, I think. He might work here, but I never see him.

We order our sandwiches and head back to my house, the paper bags scrunched between our cold gloves and our handlebars. We listen to a U2 album—it was Boy—I remember that—and eat our sandwiches on the family room floor. These are the final months of our so-called innocence. We will soon exchange our Mongooses and Redlines for Pontiacs and Chevys. In the next year, one of us will lose our virginity. Then another. Then another. We will start staying out too late and get grounded and slapped. We won't come home at all some nights because we're passed out drunk in some kid's finished-off basement, listening to Houses of the Holy in a cloud of Marlboro Light and marijuana smoke. We will make our mothers cry.

My love of turkey sandwiches remains a constant well into adulthood. I grow stubborn in my dedication, incorporating them into not just the changes in my life but changes in epicurean circumstances as well. Case in point: When I discovered bagels in college, I ordered mine not with cream cheese but with roasted turkey and Swiss. After moving to New Orleans in my 20s, I would wait in line at a place called Verti Marte for a turkey po'boy on its famous Leidenheimer French bread, as my friends begged me to at least try a traditional version with fried oysters or fried shrimp. My favorite sandwich in New York isn't the pastrami from Katz's (though it's very, very good); it's the turkey Reuben at Old Town Bar in Union Square.

Maybe it's just who I am. Maybe the turkey sandwich is akin to my love of Breyer's vanilla ice cream over boutique brands; of Buicks over BMWs; of bad coffee over fussy pourovers. Or maybe it's the fact that turkey sandwiches embody the same things D.J's did all those years ago—a comforting simplicity; a remembrance of things past; a surprise at how good the ordinary can be. And yes, a bargain. Which does mean something to me now.

When I move to a new neighborhood or a new city, my first order of business is always finding the bodega or the deli that serves the best turkey sandwich. I look for the one that piles the meat high, where the bread is always fresh, the lettuce is crisp. In Fort Greene, Brooklyn, where I moved from New Orleans in 2003, it was Farmer in the Deli, where I would wait in frustratingly long and often belligerent lines for Boar's Head Salsalito turkey with Swiss, mayo, lettuce, and onions on a roll. I knew it was just deli meat on bread, but the first time the guy behind the counter recited my order before I had the chance to say it, I felt like a Disney orphan being accepted into a new family. When my wife, Amy, and I moved to another Brooklyn neighborhood in 2011, I found what I was looking for in a shiny and hospitable bodega called Superior Late Nite Deli.

"Do you want a turkey sandwich?" I asked Amy the other day as she was mushing up carrots and bananas for our young daughter, Sylvia.

"No," she said. "That sounds disgusting for some reason. But I would like an egg on a roll."

Unlike me, Amy, who also grew up in Ohio, has embraced a more New York–minded way of eating.

It was cold outside, and a thin layer of wet snow covered the ground, so I bundled up and headed out the door with our dog, Winnie. Inside Superior Late Nite Deli, I removed my gloves and rubbed my hands together to keep warm. I ordered the sandwiches and, as I waited, thumbed through a copy of the Daily News. An old man with a cane came in and told the cashier he wasn't feeling well, that his time was coming. The cashier assured him that it wasn't, that he was okay. He sold the old man a lottery ticket and said, see you tomorrow. Meanwhile, the man behind the deli counter wrapped up the sandwiches in butcher paper, sliced them down the middle, and packed them into a paper bag.

"Here you go, boss," the deli man said. "Come back soon."

Outside, I untied Winnie from the streetlight, put my gloves on, and headed back toward home. I didn't think of that snowy bike ride with Chad or Gordon or James or Doug. But as I passed by the buildings and the houses of a neighborhood that might never really feel like home, I took solace in the fact that I was carrying something familiar; that these little journeys I make to get my turkey sandwiches, they're as gratifying as the act of eating them.