Turkey Sandwich - Eva Amurri Martino of Happily Eva After Food for Thought

My Teen Angst And A Turkey Sandwich

My Teen Angst And A Turkey Sandwich

By Eva Amurri Martino of Happily Eva After

As a self-professed foodie and somebody who celebrates all things organic and farm-to-table, I’m embarrassed to admit that the first food item I became totally obsessed with was a deli sandwich.  The object of my lust was a turkey sandwich made at deli close to my Middle School – three inches of shaved, processed turkey stacked high on a white crusty roll with globs of mayonnaise, squiggles of mustard, delicate ribbons of lettuce piled on top, and a crown of thinly sliced tomato.  I would watch lustfully as guy behind the counter made the sandwich, wrapped it briskly in white paper, sliced it effortlessly and perfectly in half with a long sharp knife, and stuffed it into a brown paper bag with two pathetic pebbled paper napkins…Pure happiness.  And what added to the excitement of this sandwich for me? The fact that its mere existence drove my mother absolutely crazy.

Let me back up a little bit: When I was growing up, we were an “organic” home. There was one tiny grocery store close to our apartment where my mom would drag us for all our food shopping.  It was not even close to the cool and chic environment that Whole Foods is today.  We went home with sprouted hummus and tahini, Tupperware with ground peanut butter, organic fruits and veggies…and black licorice for dessert.  (FYI, I traded the black licorice every day in the school cafeteria with a kid named Eli who brought Oreos…and must have been nuts).  I remember begging my mom to buy Cheerios instead of organic spelt flakes or Oatey O’s, and she told me to write a letter to the company asking if they could stop using pesticides in their wheat fields.  As you can imagine, I didn’t make a lot of progress on that one.  Now, as a grown up and parent myself, I am totally appreciative and in awe my mom’s dedication to providing us with healthy food options.  It must not have been easy to push spelt flakes on three brats who demanded “Lunchables” (literally, gag).  I’m sure that my love for vegetables and healthful food now is a product of my exposure to it growing up, not to mention what it did for my immune system all those years.

But let’s get back to my deli turkey sandwich love story: Because I was a tween, and tweens have one mission and one mission only –  Be Like Everybody Else.   So, here I was in Middle School– the worst years of anybody’s life, to be sure – and all I wanted,  ALL I NEEDED, was lunch money to go and buy a turkey sandwich at the deli before school, like all the other “normal” kids in my class.  But my mother refused.  “If you want turkey, we’ll get turkey.  We’ll get lettuce and tomatoes and mayo, and we’ll make it here.”  That resulted in an organic turkey breast being roasted, cut into slices, put on a wheat roll with some mixed greens and a tomato, and wrapped up in paper towel to put in my lunch bag.  Of course this sounds delightful now (can you imagine with a little sriracha mayo? Delish!), but at the time I was despondent.  I didn’t want to eat that, and I certainly didn’t want to bring that into a school around other kids who had a normal, average, turkey sandwich from the DELI – OK?!

I couldn’t understand why she wasn’t understanding me– was it really so hard to let me be normal? Didn’t see understand that allowing me to stand in line, grab my sandwich bag, handle the extra change from the deli owner like a pro, and twirl my hair while I chatted with the other girls on the walk to class was essential to my emotional and psychological well being, not to mention my classroom status?! My anxiety over this was all consuming.  I chalked up every problem I was having with my body or my friends or my homework to the fact that I had to eat like a freak– that I had to bring brown rice veggie sushi to school in a cloth bag and pretend that it wasn’t “weird”.  I was convinced that if I could eat like everyone else I knew, that it would make me happy, and (even crazier) that everyone would like me more.

Of course for my mother, it wasn’t as simple as all of that.  The processed turkey stressed her out– the chemicals in the food, the fact that it was made in a grimy New York City deli and not by her, all these things threatened to undo the hard work that she had put in until this point.   Why couldn’t I understand that the food we had at home was better? I can understand that exasperation now: As a Mom who puts in so much work with my daughter in all areas of her life, I can’t imagine how I will feel when she inevitably one day flips her tween blonde hair in my face and dumps my hard work in the toilet.  But I couldn’t see all of that at the time, and so I started lying.  I would save every penny of my allowance and use it to buy my Perfect Deli Sandwich before school, dumping my organic home packed lunch in the garbage can.  I could only afford to do this maybe three days a week, but it was the salve I needed to soothe me. When I walked into school with that deli bag, it made me feel the same as I now feel when I’m all dolled up with a fresh blowout– Major.  

The punch line is coming, obviously, which is that eating a turkey sandwich from the deli three days a week did actually nothing to change any of the Middle School problems I was having.  Surprise! Eventually I became disenchanted with the sandwich, moved on to Cup Of Noodles, and then kind of gave up.  I realized that I had to fix my own problems, think about myself differently, and maybe save my money instead of using it all up at the deli on the corner.  By the time I was in High School I was back to packing my own lunches from home– and I would carry them in little cute shopping bags.  All my friends were envious and wished they didn’t have to eat the cafeteria food.  Irony for miles.   

But, I still sometimes order my favorite familiar sandwich when I’m at a great deli.  I feel so much nostalgia as I watch them slice those razor thin layers of turkey, pressing them in a mound on the roll– the green ribbons of iceberg lettuce floating behind them.  When I bite in to it, I can almost see the cafeteria, smell the sweat of tweens running through the halls, hear my sneakers on the school’s linoleum floors.  All of these things make me ache so tenderly for the young girl who wanted desperately for a sandwich to make her belong.  I enjoy it now as a little reminder that while eating healthy foods are infinitely better for the soul, that deli food is sometimes better for the swagger.

Join the conversation