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"Americans Urged to Give Family Meals an 'Upgrade'" proclaimed the headline of a press release that recently found its way into my inbox. Like most of the myriad PR announcements that come my way, this one was headed into the Gmail trash folder until something further down the message caught my eye.
Shape Up America and the National Turkey Federation had joined forces to launch a "Meal Upgrade Calculator," which would help families improve the health of their meals by replacing other kinds of poultry and red meat in standard recipes with turkey. Pork chops could be upgraded to turkey tenderloin, for example. Such swaps would enable families to avoid an average of 108 calories per "eating occasion," the announcement promised, therein making a dent in the nation's obesity epidemic.
Hilary Thesmar, the senior director of scientific and regulatory affairs for the National Turkey Federation, was quoted in the press release saying, "The calculator brings to life what we in the nutrition community have always known—that turkey is a positive and simple step consumers can take to lower the fat and calories in their diet while not making tradeoffs in taste and convenience."
Although the calculator gives minimal attention to other ways of reducing calories (switching to higher fiber breads, making changes in condiment use), clearly this diet tactic is all about the gobbler. But while the notion of going (and please forgive me for this) cold turkey as a means of weight loss might seem a bit facile to some, this press release piqued my interest because about six years ago, I myself had dabbled in a turkey diet. Well, sort of.
I was a couple of years out of undergrad, still saddled with 10 extra pounds of collegiate weight, when on the recommendation of a friend I signed up for Weight Watchers. In theory the Weight Watchers model encourages diverse menu choices, but in practice, the points-based system yielded, at least for me, a pattern of repetitive eating. I stuck to a pretty ritualized diet, focusing on repeat encounters with low-fat microwave popcorn, fat-free yogurt, baby carrots with mustard, pineapple, and above all turkey sandwiches. The system worked. I counted points, dropped pounds, and have managed to more or less keep off the weight in the subsequent years, having since adopted the food writer's diet—eating a little of a lot and exercising more than I'd sometimes like. While the other staples of my stint on Weight Watchers have fallen out of my regular rotation, the turkey sandwich has become, after my fiancé, my most constant companion.
Yes, I'll admit it. For the last six years, I have eaten at least one turkey sandwich almost every day.
I eat them for breakfast on English muffins. I eat them for lunch with hummus and mango chutney. I eat them for dinner with grilled peppers and onions and melted cheese. At Passover they're on matzo; at Subway they're on toasted whole wheat. When I worked on a farm in Ireland, they were on Irish brown bread. I think I even managed to find one while working on Easter Island. (I didn't finagle one in Inner Mongolia, but you can bet that as soon as we touched down at JFK, I stopped at Au Bon Pain for a quick snack on my way to the baggage claim.)
Sometimes I get really creative and make savory French toast topped with turkey and a caramelized brown sauce, or I deconstruct the sandwich into a kind of Sri Lankan kottu roti with eggs, onion, and curry powder. If it involves turkey, bread, and a condiment or two, I'm there.
The proclivity isn't about pickiness. I'm an adventurous eater, and in fact, I have occasionally used the turkey sandwich as way of introducing new foods into my diet. As a child in South Carolina, I hated okra, finding its texture unappetizingly mushy, but when as an adult, I met the pickled version in New Orleans, I quickly diced them up and placed them on a crusty French roll with smoked turkey, a little Russian dressing, and some Gruyère, creating a strange Reuben-Cubano-po' boy hybrid.
While the turkey sandwich didn't truly infiltrate my appetite until I was 24, perhaps the love was always there, latent and hidden, the product of genetics. For as long as I can remember, my mother has greeted each Black Friday morning with her favorite post-Thanksgiving treat—a turkey and peanut butter sandwich on whole wheat toast. And herein lies what I believe may be the key to success for the National Turkey Federation's new venture. Because of its inherent simplicity, the turkey sandwich is a blank canvas. While some argue that it's too bland a sandwich to be truly good (one blogger even went so far recently as to coin the phrase "turkey sandwich lifestyle" to connote a state of "wan resignation"), I would argue that it's too pure a form to be truly bad (horribly dry meat or stale bread notwithstanding).
With a little imagination, a lot of dedication, and six years of practice, one can easily transform the pedestrian turkey sandwich into the finest dining experience. And though when topped with Roquefort and fig spread on doughy walnut bread it may no longer be the perfect weight-loss tool, I can only imagine what might happen if this new upgrade calculator really takes hold. The Turkey Federation folks won't know what hit them.
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