Yesterday I took a little side trip down memory lane via food. (Anybody surprised I’m talking about food again? Nope, me neither.)
First, when you’re a teacher, your lunchtime food choices generally fall into just a few categories: leftovers from dinner, a yogurt and piece of fruit, a Lean Cuisine, or heaven-help-you cafeteria food. Then there are the teachers whom I call “The Borrowers” and, like their lesson plans, subside on whatever they can find laying around at the last moment; they’re the first ones in line when the birthday kid arrives with the mangled, germ-laden cupcakes. You have about 17 minutes to consume said “meal” and woe to your afternoon classes if it isn’t easily digested. Cafeteria pizza, I’m just sayin’.
A group of us used to coordinate a salad day, taking turns to bring in greens, proteins, cheeses, toppings, dressings, assorted fillers (tomatoes, peppers, onions, artichokes, olives, etc.), drinks, and dessert. We had themes: Chef’s salad, Mexican salad, Italian salad, Deli salad, Cobb salad, etc. We even did a baked potato bar one day. It was a little island of normal in the sea of crazy known as a public school day schedule, and we were legend.
Yesterday, however, I went back to my late teenaged years and visited a deli with Older Daughter where we got sandwiches. Oh, my. I haven’t had deli in a very long time, because I convinced myself that it’s better to have an apple and cheese stick for lunch on a regular basis. No, it hasn’t done anything for my health and well-being, it just meant I didn’t have to think too hard about packing a lunch. But oh, the deli….
Visiting my aunt always meant deli. A Saturday afternoon lunch was always a casual “let’s get some deli” and my mouth would begin watering. A deli spread was a cornucopia of aromas and tastes and beauty and fascination and just a bit of overwhelming, because it’s all there and it’s waiting for you to nibble and taste and die a little. The brown paper bags would be brought in and each treasure unpacked to be arranged on the table like an offering to our taste buds, their own little Christmas celebration of gifts.
Rye bread, with caraway seeds clinging precariously to the thin, crispy crust and embedded deep within the dough; little buttery rolls of softness with a special sheen and fluffy yellow dough; big, floury Kaiser rolls with their simple clover-like design on top and a gaping air hole within; and a wee bit of pumpernickel for the exotic tastes among us.
Freshly sliced meats, always roast beef with a deep red that boasted and an aroma that intoxicated; ham that was pink and pearlescent and rectangular and whisper-thin that begged to be rolled up into a thin pencil of yummy; bologna that had clear plastic covering on the edges that everyone forgot to remove until that first bite and then removed, spaghetti-like, from the first mid-chew; turkey that was a creamy tan with a darker brown edging and cried out for a tangy partner; liverwurst that was thick and creamy and a little foreign with its yellow casing and German writing; and salami, always Genoa and never hard, which I avoided because the fat spots contrasting with the peppercorns just looked like a war waiting to happen in my stomach.
Cheeses that were a colorful contrast to the meats: pale and nutty Swiss cheese (authentic from Switzerland!); provolone that was sharp enough to make you pucker and a perfect shade of off-white; muenster for the mild-loving members of the family; and American for the purists. Usually there was a small package that stayed wrapped but emanating the most disgusting smell and that was always somebody’s special request of Liederkranz, the stinkiest cheese that reminded me of nothing more than overripe boy’s sneakers. (The sneakers were overripe, not the boy. Although come to think of it…)
The sideliners that were not the stars of the show, but still needed to make an appearance at any decent deli lunch: the unnaturally white-colored potato salad that for some reason always had grated carrot in it, and really why would you do that to a potato; macaroni salad which always looked promising but every time disappointed because of being overly sweet, and who determined that macaroni salad from a deli should always require sugar, anyway; cole slaw which I learned to love in later years because the crisp texture and tang was a delightful answer to the smooth meats and cheeses; chicken salad without any crunchy celery or raw onion, thank you very much; tuna salad which nobody bothered with because we could get that any time; and a splurge on some shrimp salad which everybody got a teaspoon of and closed their eyes in ecstasy over; egg salad which everybody loved which is odd because it was just as ordinary as tuna salad but from the deli it was always better and looked so gorgeous on a slice of pumpernickel.
Last, but not least, were the pickles. You could not walk out of a deli without buying pickles, and even though there was a lovely dish set aside just for the pickles and you couldn’t imagine a table without them, very few of us actually ate them. They smelled heavenly, especially the dill pickles, but at what point do you eat them? Try a bite before your sandwich, and you’ve compromised that initial bite of heaven you’ve been anticipating; in the middle of your sandwich time, like a commercial, and you have to re-acclimate your mouth to what it had been doing and needed to clear out the pickle coating on your tongue; and at the end? Well, I’ve never thought of pickles as dessert, and by the time the nibbling was done, the pickles just didn’t seem like the way to go. So off they went, back in the container to sit in the fridge until somebody was looking for “just a little snack” during the football games on Sunday.
Yesterday’s visit to the deli brought all that back to me, and more: how does a deli manage to have chicken cutlets the size of a dinner plate? Where does the fake plastic parsley garland come from? Why does nobody order the shrimp salad any more, leaving a spoon forlornly stuck in the untouched mound of pink creaminess? And again, why does deli egg-salad look and taste so much better than mine? I bet they put chicken fat in it, that’s it. We did not order a “spread” like my aunt used to, but instead specific sandwiches, and mine was nothing like the deli days of my past: chicken, mozzarella, roasted red peppers, baby greens, and balsamic vinaigrette on focaccia bread.
It was freaking delicious, but I wanted so much to be at my aunt’s table again.