Who knew such joy could be found at the deli counter? Sam Brooks tucks in.
I have never been a salad person. The idea of using one of my precious three meals a day for something that probably doesn’t include a lot of meat, some form of bread and enough sauce to drown a small animal is anathema to me. However, as I pull slowly up to my mid-30s, I’ve decided that incorporating some form of salad into my life might be a good way to feel a bit less like I’m carrying around a lump of sludge inside me at all times.
I am also, unfortunately, not a packed lunch kind of a person. I hate to touch food in my own house before a day of work, for reasons beyond my grasp, and in the rare instance where I have prepared lunch the previous night, I have forgotten it in the fridge or pantry. One of the small, but core, pleasures of my life is figuring out what to eat on any given day. I am yet to properly assess whether the impact to my bank account is worth the cost of this little pleasure. Usually, it sends me to a local bakery or cafe to peruse whatever little treat may be available and serve as sustenance, nutrition be damned.
Recently, a supermarket ended up being the most convenient (and cost-effective) source of lunch (and I am aware that this is a comparatively late-in-life realisation for a 33-year-old to have). After deciding that I wanted my midday meal to be something healthier, or at least lighter, than a baked good, a bag of pork crackling, or anywhere else on the carb and sugar spectrum, I decided I would get a salad – a salad, of all things! – from the deli.
Several hours later, when I retrieved my salad – which cost me barely more than $5 for about 200 grams – from the work fridge, I have to say I wasn’t amazingly enthused. My gut, suddenly throwing itself up to my shoulder and acting as a little devil, wanted me to rush to the petrol station across the road and indulge in something from a warming tray. Some chicken bites, a cheese roll, even a pie, maybe! But I committed to my morning choice, prised open the container, and got to it.
And it was… honestly pretty good! The pasta was surprisingly al dente, the dressing fresh, the chicken tasty (not under-seasoned), with the right amount of vegetables to fool a child, or a man with a child’s palate, into nutrition. Within a few minutes, my gut had dropped back down into its rightful place, sated, with mildly healthier things filling it. I had made a good nutritional decision, and I will carry the self-inflated pride of that for a full calendar year.
Across the week that this supermarket was on my commute, I alternated between the chicken pesto salad and the penne caesar salad, both of which varied ever so slightly in price from day to day. The man who served me at the deli recognised me after the second time, and I got that little jolt of warmth that a little social interaction before a day of work can give you. As someone who generally doesn’t indulge in a morning coffee from my favourite cafe, I heartily recommend this as a substitute (albeit one that is not going to wake you up).
Low expectations have their own beauty. Setting the bar at ankle height and allowing a person, a piece of art, and yes, even a salad, to clear that bar is an act of grace. Not quite Mother Teresa levels of grace, but grace nonetheless. When you sign up for a supermarket salad, you are not expecting greatness. You’re not even expecting goodness. As I write this, I am chowing down on $4.84’s worth of a “NutriFresh Smoked Chicken Pasta”. The pasta tastes fresh, the chicken tastes nutri, and it has an appealing vinegar-esque dressing over it. It really only needs a crack of pep for it to be exactly what I need from a supermarket salad.
I will follow this up with an early dinner of $4.84’s worth of “Hawaiian Twist with Bacon”, which involves chunky pieces of fusilli mixed with scant bits of vegetables and pineapple, a cheesy dressing, and the occasional square of bacon.
None of these salads are the best I have ever had, but they’re sure as hell not the worst, and unfortunately any salad that I put my own skills to would end up closer to the latter than the former. There is also something that feels pleasingly, delightfully, homemade about these concoctions. Although they are doled out from bowls the size of bird fountains, the choice to make a salad that is essentially a cold Hawaiian pizza feels intimately human, undoubtedly homemade. (I also have to acknowledge that yes, all of the salads I have mentioned in this piece are pasta salads, and probably lean more heavily towards the first word of that label than the second. Baby steps, or baby tiptoes, towards being an adult eater.)
It feels like the best thing I could eat at 2pm on a Thursday afternoon. Is it? Almost certainly not. But feeling like it is a hell of a good start.