A Little Present


On Food


Perhaps it is surprising, considering my inauspicious start, that my best skill—my only truly great talent, my art—is making sandwiches. For eight years, give or take the odd day, I packed the same lunch to bring to school: turkey cold cuts with French’s yellow mustard on Pepperidge Farm white bread. When I got to college, I often had turkey sandwiches for dinner as well as lunch. Newly sophisticated, I used Dijon mustard and added a leaf of wilted romaine.  

When I wanted a break from making turkey sandwiches in the dining hall, I bought a turkey sandwich from Darwin’s, a nearby café. A sandwich at Darwin’s was, to me, like a meal at Per Se. It was revelatory. The bread was a chewy, tangy sourdough; the lettuce crunched with each bite; the mustard was creamy yet sharp; the meat actually tasted like meat. I started going to Darwin’s with increasing frequency, and I began to despise my old habits. The thought of the dry, bland bread; the shiny slabs of rubbery meat product; and the shock of fluorescent mustard revolted me.

Sandwiches at Darwin’s were expensive, though, so to afford them, I got a job. I got a job, in fact, making sandwiches at Darwin’s. I was not, I must admit, a model employee. I could not count change correctly with a gun pointed at my head—and, with the line snaking out the door, it often felt as if there were. I was so often late to work that I was occasionally fired.

But I assembled every order with an unusual tenderness. I was careful to distribute the filling evenly, to make every bite consistent. I learned to tangle the meat so that the tongue would find it textured and pleasing. I practiced finding the right ratio of ham to apple, salt to sweet. I figured out how to stud the smoked salmon with capers without making a briny mess. I perfected slicing cheese with steady speed. I loved folding the finished product in white paper, delighting in each perfect package. Every sandwich was a little present.  

These days, at home, I put falafel, roasted eggplant, and peppers in a swirl of harissa and hummus. I lay skeins of onions, jammy and sweet, on top of thin slices of pork tenderloin. I wrap chicken sausage and sauteed leeks in soft tortillas. I make turkey with mustard. It tastes delicious, as long as you make it for someone else.

Louisa Thomas is the author of Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams, a new biography of John Quincy Adams’s wife.