There are two things I remember clearly about Salvatore — his nose and his sandwiches.
Let me explain.
Every weekday at 11:30 a.m. Mrs. Lang (our second grade teacher) would walk two lines of children (boys on the left, girls on the right) away from the small pod of elementary school classrooms that surrounded an even smaller stage — the stage where we all gathered to pledge our allegiance to the American flag — and down a long, narrow hallway with brown brick walls and dingy brown carpet, to the lunch room. Plastic lunch boxes in hand we would file in obediently, taking our space at one of the seats that lined the long table, relieved to be surrounded by white linoleum and fluorescent lights after our dismal trip down the hallway.
There was a lot of activity as lunchboxes were opened: trading, gloating, and sometimes whining. I didn’t pay much attention to my classmates’ lunches because mine always had a wrapped snack-cake or cookie (Little Debbie Oatmeal Cream Pies were my favorite and Star Crunch was a close second). There were two exceptions however: Jessica’s lunch — because her mother always tucked two paper packets of Sweet Tarts candy in her lunch box (in Jessica’s words, she was diabetic and “had to keep her blood sugar up”) — and Salvatore’s. We were seated alphabetically by last name so Salvatore sat across from me every day.
I originally noticed Salvatore’s lunch not so much because of what he was eating, but because of how he was eating (or, drinking) it. Salvatore struggled to drink from his white plastic thermos; his long, angular nose was always getting in the way. Occasionally he would get his nose wedged inside and make quite a spectacle as he wiggled the cylinder loose from his face. His goofy ear-to-ear smile and theatrical attempts to remove the thermos always made me wonder whether he was extremely resilient (making the best of an embarrassing situation) or whether he did it on purpose (for attention). Either way, Salvatore would hold my attention for much of the lunch period as I waited patiently for the line where his thermos had been pressed up against the bridge of his nose to fade.
But the buzz over Salvatore’s thermos (and his distinct Italian features — the ones that made him so different from the rest of us and our white-washed uniformity, devoid of any racial or ethnic specificity) died down quickly. No one cared much about his dark piercing eyes once he started unwrapping his sandwich — because Salvatore’s mom packed the most amazing sandwich.
The glory of Salvatore’s sandwich was almost too much to bear. Every student within a five-foot radius would grow silent watching, obviously full of jealousy, as Salvatore savored his two slices of soft white bread filled with dark, creamy chocolate. Justin, our classmate, tried to contest Salvatore’s claim that his mother packed him chocolate sandwiches by insisting there was no such thing, “tell us what you’re really eating”, he demanded. Salvatore’s response was simple: a mischievous smile and another bite of his sandwich. I remember watching in awe, longing for a “chocolate sandwich” and wondering how the chocolate stayed forever melted between the slices of bread. It wasn’t until many years later (college, in fact) that I discovered Nutella and unlocked the secret of Salvatore’s mesmerizing sandwich.
The ironic part of this story, though, is that I still marvel at Salvatore’s sandwich. It’s not about the Nutella (don’t get me wrong — Nutella is probably one of the most delicious spreads on earth) rather, it’s about the way Salvatore ate his sandwich; it was as if he knew what he had, even at the age of seven or eight. Salvatore wasn’t ashamed to be different; he already recognized the value of his culture and he embraced it. The Nutella was merely a tangible representation of something far more valuable.
As someone who grew up with virtually no knowledge of her family tree, no unique traditions, rituals or foods to tie me to anyone else in this world, I marvel at the many ways culture is formed, the bonds it forges, and the pride that it instills. And, I want that — I want what Salvatore has had all these years (minus the excessive difficulty drinking from a thermos).
For now, I’ll just have to settle for my grown-up version of Salvatore’s sandwich:
Bacon and Nutella Grilled Sandwiches
2 thick-cut slices of sourdough bread
3 strips of bacon, cooked until crispy
½ banana, cut into thin slices on a bias
Butter one side of each piece of bread and grill, buttered side down, in a frying pan until golden-brown and crunchy.
When the bread has cooled enough to handle, lay the pieces grilled side down, spread both with a generous portion of Nutella, and layer cooked bacon and banana slices between the slices before serving.