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What is “lettucetomato?”

Whenever I order a deli sandwich, I like to have lettuce on it. Lettuce always makes a sandwich better (unless it is old, nearly rotten lettuce, and even then the effect is somewhat neutral). It is crisp, and adds a fresh, crunchy texture to it. I do not, however, feel the same way about tomato. In fact, I think tomato destroys a sandwich. That’s right, I said it: tomato destroys a sandwich. It is slimy, and it completely dominates the taste and texture of the sandwich. Thus I always order my sandwiches with lettuce, but no tomato.

You are probably thinking by now: where is he going with this? Well, I’ll tell you. My preference for lettuce without tomato causes all sorts of problems for NYC deli counter sandwich makers. This is because these two vegetables are virtually inseparable in their minds. In fact, I think that most of them are under the impression that lettuce and tomato are a single object, known simply as “lettucetomato.” Here is a typical interaction:

Me: I’d like a roast beef sandwich on a roll.

Deli guy: What kind of cheese?

Me: Swiss cheese.

Deli guy: Lettucetomato?

Me: Just lettuce, no tomato.

Deli guy: (skeptical or puzzled look)

Me: Can I have mayonnaise also? And maybe some pickles?

If the deli guy is less of the questioning type, i.e. one of the ones who simply listens to you list the ingredients, the interaction will go more like this:

Me: Could I have a roast beef sandwich on a roll?

Deli guy: What do you want on it?

Me: I’d like swiss cheese, mayonnaise, lettuce, and

Deli guy: (somewhat eagerly) tomato?

Me: No, no tomato. Just lettuce.

Deli guy: (confused, almost hurt, expression)

It is as if he can’t resist completing the (imagined) compound word. I hope I’m not stereotyping here, but I think that perhaps this is especially true for the Hispanic deli guys. Something about the two words maybe rolls together really nicely for their natural way of speaking. Perhaps they think of the word “lettuce” as practically being a prefix to the word “tomato,” so that if they say the former without saying the latter, it just feels incomplete.

Now really, in spite of whatever linguistic justification there may be for this practice, I must still protest. In truth, these vegetables couldn’t be more different, and the effects they have on a sandwich are diametrically opposed. Lettuce is green, tomato is red. Lettuce, as I said, is crispy and crunchy. It has, on its own, practically no flavor, but has a fresh feel to it, and its texture compliments a sandwich very well. It adds a crunchiness to things, but doesn’t take over or adversely affect any of the main components of the sandwich. Tomato, on the other hand, is soft, slimy, and has a very distinct flavor. When mixed in a bite with any cold cut, it tends to become a distraction. It also tends to soak and thus ruin the bread of the sandwich.

I honestly don’t know why anyone ever gets tomato on a sandwich, but I suppose I won’t protest this too much. People have their tastes. But I say that the fact that tomato has become so deeply associated with lettuce in the sandwich ordering procedure is utterly unacceptable, and must be challenged. I hope you will join me in this venture. I have some preliminary ideas. The first is to modify the above dialog in the following manner:

Me: Could I have a roast beef sandwich on a roll?

Deli guy: What do you want on it?

Me: I’d like swiss cheese, mayonnaise, and some lettuce-but-please-don’t-destroy-my-sandwich-with-tomato.

Deli guy: Excuse me?

I haven’t really thought of where to go from here, but I’m sure the reader can improvise some creative interactions that will also gently get the point across that lettuce is, in fact, its own vegetable, and ought to be treated as such. This technique, however, can only be used if the deli guy lets you list your own ingredients. For the more inquisitive deli guys, I suggest the following:

Me: I’d like a roast beef sandwich on a roll.

Deli guy: What kind of cheese?

Me: Swiss cheese.

Deli guy: Lettucetomato?

Me: What is “lettucetomato?”

Deli guy: Uh…lettuce and tomato, do you want them?

Me: Do I have to have both?

Deli guy: (Pause)

Me: I’d rather have neither if I can only have both.

And then go from there. I am open to other suggestions.

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. October 3, 2009 at 2:41 pm

    I couldn’t agree more. Lettuce enhances a sandwich, tomato destroys it. One thing that impresses these deli guys, I think, is if you use the word “hold.” So if you say: “lettuce, hold the tomato”, they might not give you those confused or hurt looks. Or you might risk, after they have said “lettucetomato?”, just saying “hold the tomato,” and see if you get any lettuce.

  2. Clay
    October 3, 2009 at 3:41 pm

    In defense of tomatoes: we are agreed that tomatoes available at delis, and even grocery stores, are tasteless, mushy, inedible crap. I would even venture to say smugly that most people have never tasted a decent tomato in their lives. But real homegrown tomatoes are a different food entirely, to the point where they are best eaten on their own: putting them on a sandwich would almost be wasting them.

    On a different note, when I moved to NYC I was annoyed to learn that when you order a coffee and do not specify how you want it, you will typically get cream and sugar. Black no sugar should be the default!

    • October 3, 2009 at 5:52 pm

      Clay, I think the object with all these guys taking orders is to use the minimum amount of language, and time. Therefore, since more people prefer cream and sugar with their coffee, than just having it black, that becomes the default. It’s “the less said less has the better”. Otherwise they might start saying something like: “creamsugar?”

    • October 4, 2009 at 9:51 am

      I totally agree about homegrown tomatoes–I used to eat them when I was a kid.

      Some delis call coffee with milk and sugar “regular”; I just recently realized this. So before when they would say “regular?” I’d just respond “milk and sugar.”

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