Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A Word About A Man And A Sandwich

My teenage summers were spent primarily in the company of my grandfather, my father's father, Daniel. It was a smart move on the part of my elders. Looking back, I realize the reasoning was likely to keep from trouble; it's a proclivity I still possess a penchant for. Instead of spray-painting or skateboarding or jumping over bonfires, I mowed lawns and tended beehives under the close, strict, but loving watch of Daniel. After many summers, we grew close, and the time we spent together then is a part of my life that I remember with deep fondness.

Above, my grandfather and me, meeting for the first time. (I think I might have been asleep for it.)

During the summer of my 16th year, I took a month off from my farm chores to travel to Germany as part of an exchange program. There, I was able to gain a basic understanding of the language and catch up on some of the trouble I'd been missing out on. I succeeded on both accounts. But part of me missed my grandfather. I remember feeling worried that I'd lose the old man, that he might prematurely kick the bucket while I selfishly drank beer and ate wurst. I remember the flight home from Europe. I stared out the window of the airplane and above the cloud cover, I cried. In German, there is a word for that feeling of sadness. The word is trauigkeit. It translates directly into English. It was how I felt. I was sad, and unnecessarily so. He was fine.

The morning after my arrival stateside, I was yanked from sleep by jetlag. I went directly to visit Daniel and by noon was almost finished mowing his four-acre lawn. By then it was hot, and I was hungry. So, he decided to teach me a lesson.

My grandfather, like most men of his day, never cooked. He never even set foot inside the kitchen. So it was to my great surprise when he called me from the lawn with a brisk wave of his arm. He'd made a sandwich for my lunch; an act that to this day, if only due to its rarity, still symbolizes his love for me. It was the only time he ever made me anything to eat. And I believed then, as I believe now, that he made me lunch that day as a way to tell me that he had missed me, too. It is a sandwich I will never forget, and not just because of the tenuity of his making it. It was also delicious.

Salted butter, summer-kitchen soft, was thickly spread over white bread, then layered generously with sweet Lebanon Bologna -a sweetened, cured meat popular only in Pennsylvania Dutch country- and then topped with refrigerator-cold, crisp iceberg lettuce. I can still taste the salty-sweet play between butter and bologna. I can still hear the loud cooling crunch of the lettuce. I can still imagine the gummy squish of the white bread. I can still feel the warmth of the summer sun and the warmth of his smile as he watched me devour the lunch he'd carefully, lovingly made for me.

Lebanon Bologna can be found at supermarkets in southeastern Pennsylvania.

Almost exactly 16 years after that day, I thought of my grandfather and that bologna sandwich again. It happened just last week, as I sat, staring out the window of another airplane, looking over the cloud cover.

This time I wasn't crying. This time I was returning home from Brazil with a basic understanding of the language and a slight case of dysentery. I was flying home for Daniel's funeral and all I could think about was that sandwich.

Portuguese, unlike German, is a beautiful language. There are words with meanings so complex that they can only be translated into English using full sentences. I learned one of those words recently. The word is saudade. It describes a missing -a longing for a person- but not in a sad way, in a fond way. An appropriate translation would be along the lines of: "a fond remembrance for a loved one that produces the complex, combined, and desirable feelings of happiness, fulfillment, longing, and love while looking toward the future." One definition I found describes the word this way, “… the recollection of feelings, experiences, places or events that once brought excitement, pleasure, well-being, which now triggers the senses and makes one live again.” Now that is a word.

I have saudade for my grandfather. He lived a full and happy life and the many lessons, memories, and skills that I have learned from him have helped me live a full and happy life, too. One of those lessons was a bologna sandwich. It is so important to tell those whom we love and miss, no matter how we say it. Love and missing and saudade are such powerful feelings that even when their expression takes a benign form, like a sandwich, they are life changing. I made the sandwich for lunch this week and shared it with my family. It was a deeply satisfying meal, once again. It always will be. May we all make such meaningful and delicious sandwiches for the people we love.

A sandwich, like the man who invented it, that is larger than life.


  1. Food is memory, makes memories. It helps us remember ( hold onto?) people and moments in our lives. Thanks for sharing that great story.

  2. Growing up in Central PA, I too remember eating the Lebanon Bologna Sandwiches with iceburg lettuce for lunches. Thanks for sharing the memory. A great story!

  3. Ian, what a beutiful story... It's so sweet the way you talk about your grandfather and about "saudade". My eyes filled with tears, because I remembered my love for my grandfather and "saudade" of a papaya+banana vitamin he alwyas made for me and himself. Thanks for those memories... You left "saudades" here in Brazil, too!!

  4. I read this post a few weeks ago and enjoyed your story about your grandfather and the Lebanon Bologna Sandwich. I couldn't remember ever seeing Lebanon Bologna here in Portland OR. Low and behold I was at the grocery store today and there in the deli case was a cylinder of Boar's Head Lebanon Bologna. I bought a half pound and dinner tonight was a "Grandfather's Bologna Sandwich" Damn fine and even better because there was a story to go with it.

  5. Calamityville, I'm surprised (and happy) that you were able to find Lebanon Bologna in Portland. Enjoy the sandwich!

  6. What's truly best for a lebanon bologna sandwich is pan-frying some thick slices for a bit, which concentrates the flavorings, caramelizes the sugars, and adds a crisp. You can't beat the ensuing smell that sticks to your walls for a few hours like a smoky shadow. Delish! Do note that Seltzers delivers, much like the Bird-in-Hand bakeshop and Yocco's. And, stick to the regular rather than the sweet or low-fat, especially when frying. Great columns, and I appreciate the central PA focus.

  7. brother rat: I never even thought of frying it! That's a wonderful idea!