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The True Meaning of a Deli Sandwich

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Do you have a food that every time you think of it, you are transported to a different place and time? Remembering the smells, sounds and experience of where and when you ate it? For me, that would be a Sloppy Joe from the Millburn Deli in Millburn, New Jersey. No, not seasoned ground beef on a soggy hamburger bun…ewww. Where I grew up, a Sloppy Joe is three pieces of super-fresh thin-sliced rye bread…freshly sliced deli meat…Swiss cheese…thick, creamy cole slaw swimming in mayonnaise…and rich Russian dressing. This wonderful mass of messy, creamy, chewy deliciousness is a cardiologist’s dream—and no one makes it like the Millburn Deli.

I am like one of Pavlov’s dogs—my mouth is watering just thinking and writing about one of these sandwiches.

This past weekend, I got to smack my lips and lick my fingers when I returned to Millburn for my 40th high school class reunion. Of course, I went to the deli for a Turkey Joe with their house-cooked roast turkey.

As with all food traditions, it’s not just about the food. It’s about the memories and the experiences that come with it. With every bite, I remembered the “runs to the deli” we would make at lunch during free periods in high school…or the picnics in the nearby hiking trails of the South Mountain Reservation. Deli sandwiches came with us to football games and on road trips to the Jersey Shore. And at my reunion, people couldn’t wait for the luncheon at the high school cafeteria the next day…complete with platters of Joes.

Food is such a part of our lives—I regularly pan Americans for indulging in foods that are way too high in sugar, fat and salt…and way too low in nutrients. We literally are killing ourselves with our eating habits.

And while I generally look at food as primarily fuel rather than something to be fawned over, on special days and at special moments, food really does take on a role of connector and memory maker, with its powerful multisensory experience of smell, taste and touch.

When I see baked macaroni and cheese, I am transported to my grandmother’s kitchen remembering the bubbling casserole with the crispy, perfectly browned bits on top. Vanilla fudge ice cream takes me to Saturday evenings at the Jersey shore when my family would go out for ice cream. And one place has the best onion rings in the world—the now defunct Don’s Drive Inn. In addition to the amazing burgers and onion rings, Don’s represented freedom to me—it was the only place that was within walking distance from my house, so my friends and I could walk there free from the influence of adults.

In general I have a very healthy diet, yet curiously none of my food memories includes broccoli or salads. Hopefully that is just me and others have fond connections to far healthier fare.

But here it is Thanksgiving, and all across the country, people are sitting down to their own family food traditions, complete with smells and tastes and conversations and friends and family. Besides the turkey, what will you take away from your day today? Next time you look at a bowl of garlic smashed potatoes or smell an apple pie, what memories will they be connected to? Football games? Laughter in the kitchen? A special aunt or cousin who always comes over for the big day?

Enjoy your day. Enjoy your dinner. May it be a meaningful memory you treasure forever.

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