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Odes to lunchmeat, from chicken roll to finocchiona

By Louisa Chu • May 9, 2018 at 8:49 AM

Lunchmeat must’ve been how my food adventures began. Childhood breakfasts were poured from boxes, with dinners forged in my working mom’s wok, but lunch brought a certain kind of freedom. At its heart were layers of thinly sliced mysteries.

As latchkey kids with no lunchroom at school, much less a lunch lady, we kids walked home to eat. Living near our small neighborhood grocery, my little sister and I sometimes shopped for lunchmeat a la minute.

Our favorite? Chicken roll, creamy round slices — What was it made of? Who knows! — studded with flecks of meat, sliced thin but not too thin, lest they fell apart or, worse, got stuck together. No, the chicken roll should be sliced just thick enough to arrange even, cold layers over fresh or toasted Butternut bread. We didn’t add condiments, but they weren’t needed on the highly seasoned savory suspension. If we had time, I might make grilled chicken roll sandwiches, melting the lunchmeat to nearly a bechamel.

When I asked folks about their favorite lunchmeats on Facebook recently, I hoped someone else might share fond memories of my long-lost chicken roll.

Instead, more than 100 comments covered nearly every corner of a deli case, and beyond. The top 10 in the informal poll were salami, mortadella, pastrami, prosciutto, turkey, jamon, corned beef, bologna, head cheese and liver sausage. They inspired odes of their own.

The most surprising outliers? The vintage classic lunchmeats olive loaf and old-fashioned loaf, neither of which I had had before.

Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer Prize-winning restaurant critic at the Los Angeles Times, suggested finocchiona, an Italian salami from Tuscany made with fennel. Zanne Early Stewart, former executive food editor of the late, great Gourmet magazine also mentioned the meat. The one brand I found in local stores was pre-sliced and packaged, so not a fair specimen, but since then, I’ve tasted two house-made versions, the most extraordinary at Tempesta Market in West Town. Sliced whisper-thin, it miraculously packs a warm yet quietly wild licorice-laced punch.

Gale Gand, the award-winning pastry chef and pioneering restaurant entrepreneur, was the only one to share a photo of her favorite lunchmeat, turkey, mid-sandwich bite.

But no one mentioned chicken roll. Long before I tasted the legendary acorn-fed jamon iberico in Spain, or prosciutto di Parma in Italy, or countless charcuterie boards across every region in France, there was chicken roll. But, apparently, no more. Neither Mariano’s nor Jewel had it, which may be just as well. The Weaver brand was revived a few years ago, but some chicken roll connoisseurs online claim it’s not the same.

Now with Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat making burgers, sausages and other products, could new food adventures await, with spicy plant-based ’nduja spreadable salami among our future lunchmeats?

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