Languishing with Lugubrious Lunchmeat
What awful cold cuts can tell us about raising our collective standards for what we consider food.
Think about ham for a second. What’s the first thing that comes into your mind? Most people will think of a big hunk of cured pork with a textured red skin and juicy pink meat on the inside. They might think of Easter or Christmas dinners. They might think of hangover-treating breakfasts at the Cracker Barrel. The many Italians of the mid-Atlantic region will point to various artisanal hams with names pronounced nothing like they’re spelled, like Tony Soprano’s favorite cold cut, gabagool, er, capicola. Point being, in its most pristine form, ham is a decadent food, one that, to quote Marie Kondo, sparks joy.
If you ask another group of people, they will speak ill of slimy, rectangular meat with a sickly pink hue that is stored in the refrigerator at local delis and bodegas. Somehow, when the companies that process food decided to cheaply make a ham that could be consumed on a regular basis for people of all tax brackets, they somehow created the monstrosity that is lunchmeat ham. Sure, there are “fancier” versions, like the aforementioned gabagool. Then again, I’ve also seen capicola that has far more of a sheen than any ham should have. Cheap lunchmeat may have warped the perception of ham of someone you love and care about.
It's not just ham either. The difference between even the worst, driest, blandest oven-roasted turkey and the slimy abomination you find behind a deli counter is as wide as the aqueous gap between Sendai and San Francisco. Lunchmeat roast beef almost always has this weird funky aftertaste that you don’t get even with the cheapest chucks to throw in your crockpot. You don’t get this kind of gap in quality with most other foods outside of fried chicken. Even then, mechanically separated chicken nuggets vs. whole breast/thigh nuggets is a battle where one side is CLEARLY of higher quality, the former has a kitsch value that slimy, mealy lunchmeats do not.
With other lunch-ready foods, the gap in quality can be noticeable, but the lower end stuff rarely gets as bad as a poor-quality lunchmeat. Hot dogs? The difference between artisanal and the ones you get for three bucks for a box of 36 is negligible. Seriously, the best hot dogs, like the ones at Maui Dog House in Wildwood, NJ, can be heavenly, but the cheap ones you throw on the grill aren’t much worse on average. You can definitely tell the difference between a guy who ground his own proprietary beef blend and the frozen patties your school got in the cafeteria, but even if they’re freezer-burnt to hell, a cheap burger is at least edible, especially with cheese. Welch’s grape jelly is fine, even if the good stuff you can get in Amish country is sublime. You don’t need fontina to have a decent grilled cheese; Kraft singles work just fine.
The point isn’t that lunchmeat is the only food that is garbage, and you shouldn’t be choosy ever. The point is that the gap in what poor people can afford and what’s the ideal in a certain milieu is somehow no starker than when it comes to cold cuts. Are these meats that adorn the hoagies, club sandwiches, and hot open faces of the great diners and delis in this land that unfriendly to mass production? Or were their creation the purest manifestation of the hate corporate America has for the poorest members of this great union? I’m not sure it matters either way.
The funny thing is that there is good lunchmeat available at the deli counter, made the right way, stored in ways that don’t soak it with nitrates or degrade the texture. Boar’s Head is a brand that has capitalized on this putrid reputation to give them the inside track on luxury cold cuts. They might as well be broadcasting in frequencies you can only hear if you have a six-figure income. Other brands have their “good” varieties of meats as well. At my local deli, you can choose between regular ham and “ham off the bone,” which actually resembles what you’d eat at Eastertime put through a deli slicer rather than the sickly-looking rectangle that looks like someone put their scrotum through a color copier. They also have “London broil” roast beef, which is night and day both flavor-wise and texturally from the normal stuff.
The problem is that many times, you can buy a “premium” product and it’ll still have the ugliest qualities of the cheaper things. How can you avoid it? The only way is making your own lunchmeat. Some of the purest joy one can experience in life is eating an especially delicious sandwich. Cold cuts are at the foundation of so much of the quality that the temptation is there. You can go for the premium stuff, but at upwards of $12 a pound, it’s not cost effective. The best sandwiches are always culled from leftovers anyway. A week from today is Thanksgiving, and nothing beats putting the excess turkey on some bread with whatever you have lying around, be it stuffing, cranberry sauce, cheese, gravy, lettuce, pickles, whatever. Some places, like Capriotti’s1, roast turkey breasts just to have it for their sandwiches. Not coincidentally, Capriotti’s is the only “lunchmeat” turkey I’ll deign myself to eat.
How much would it cost to make your own cold cuts? The cost is probably considerably less for turkey and roast beef given that those meats are easily pulled or shredded. Ham is another story. You can’t really pull or shred it. You have to slice it. Thick-sliced ham is great when you’re eating it on a platter, but there’s a reason why lunch counters get “thinly sliced” as a request. Big chunks of ham do not work. So, the question becomes “Should I buy a deli slicer?” It’s not a question that is going to solve the problem of terrible lunchmeat for a poor person, which stinks since who cares if someone like me has to pay a little extra to get quality?
Perhaps the solution should be drastic. Other countries have stringent regulations on what some foods can look or taste like. Hell, try making bourbon in America and cutting all the corners. You can’t. You’re never going to convince the powers that be that food (or housing or water) is a human right, but it feels like if enough people banded together to exert pressure, we could get some of those regulations back that helped make sure what everyone was able to buy could be at least palatable, whether you have to be in the struggle or if you’re part of the “fuck you money” caste. Of course, the best course of action would be to make sure no one was in the struggle, but if I write too much about that, I might get put on a watchlist. Ah well. The point is, no one should ever have to eat the rectangular prism of putrid “meat” they call “domestic” lunchmeat ham anyway. Your lunch deserves better. Your hoagies, your chicken cordon bleu, your midnight fridge raids, they should all have something that doesn’t gross you out. I think it’s high time the lunchmeat industry maybe doesn’t try to pretend that shit is edible? Just a thought.
Capriotti’s is a chain that originated in Delaware, but they’ve expanded all around the country, including, of all places, Las Vegas.