Notes From a Deli

When labor becomes nourishment for the soul
November 12, 2019 Updated: November 12, 2019

After I lost my position as a college professor in the summer of 2018, I found myself once again on the job market. Finding another position at a school where my talents and perspectives would be a good fit would have meant uprooting our family. We had lived here in this small central Ohio town for most of a decade and had put down some roots. Our youngest daughter had known no other home. Our oldest had lived in this place, in this house, since she was 3. We didn’t want to move.

I applied for all sorts of local jobs, looking for work that could sustain our family. Finding something was harder than I would have expected, especially in an up economy. Finally, the first job that materialized was a position slicing meats and cheeses in a nearby market. It would have been easy to think of this change as a fall, a defeat, a humiliation. Fortunately, I was able to see through the surface of the work to something deeper, which spared me from falling into the trap of resentment.

To tell you that, for about three months, I worked slicing meats and cheeses for customers who would come to the counter and point out which goods they desired from the refrigerated display cases would be to tell only a sliver of the story.

The truth is that, during that time, I accomplished something much grander: facilitating and nurturing meaningful moments in the lives of our customers. 

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The sandwich is the quintessential lonely man’s cuisine. (Eaters Collective/Unsplash)

What goes for everything in life goes for deli slicing: What is invisible to the eye is, for those able to perceive it, far more engaging than what is visible. I hadn’t worked at the deli long before I realized the invisible contribution that I, even as a simple slicer, was making to the lives of our customers and, by extension, our community.

This vision of my work began to sharpen when a woman, somewhere in her 60s or beyond, came in with a little girl. When speaking to the little girl, the older woman referred to herself as “Memaw.” She focused on the little girl intently. The little girl never stopped moving. The affection between them was palpable, tinged with a sense of sadness, as if some unfortunate circumstances put this small child here with Memaw and not with Mommy and Daddy. Together they wandered the store for a while, finally landing at the deli counter. Memaw bought some turkey, maybe some ham. 

This simple transaction was, when rightly understood, not a mundane moment, but a window into a relationship. Memaw and her granddaughter were taking home food that would become a lunch. A lunch that little girl, years from now, might recall fondly. Who knows what might happen over that lunch, what memories created, what issues resolved, what love nourished? 

Again and again, these situations presented themselves. One reason is that I wasn’t working in your average supermarket. Instead, I was slicing at the deli of a privately owned bulk foods store. The owners were former Amish and 75 percent of the employees were current Amish. The store was decorated in a warm, rustic style that spoke of safety, home, and hearth. The atmosphere invited interactions that never would have taken place beneath the blare of pop music and the glare of fluorescent lights that set the tone in a typical mega-grocery monstrosity.

The comfortable surroundings with their whispered promise of home and harmony made the loneliness easier to see. Again and again, customers would order “just half a pound.” Then, with an almost apologetic air, add, “It’s just me at home.”

The sandwich is the quintessential lonely man’s cuisine. Many silent hours seemed to have led some to develop a kind of expertise in lunchmeat studies. One day, a man strode up to the counter. To look at him, you might guess he worked construction. His beard was unkempt and his clothes were the rugged attire of a workman. He perused our hams. “Which one of these has the lowest moisture content?” he asked. Many times, I received questions about the way the meats and cheeses were processed, their history and qualities, as if the energy and attention that, under other circumstances, might have gone into family and community had been diverted into a study of the finer points of commercial charcuterie.

These interactions made clear that through faithfulness in my work, I was doing a small part to ease human difficulty. Our daily meals, even the humble sandwich, are meant to be a momentary respite from the harsh grind of circumstance. Each meal is intended as a pause from our work, whether that is the challenge of manual labor or the pain of deep study. Each meal is meant to be time set aside for nurture and sustenance of body and soul.

This is why so many important things happen around meals. These daily pauses for refreshment are opportunities for more than just bodily renewal. The conversation that accompanies a meal can be formative. Meals can be not just a time to eat, but a time to instruct, to admonish, to remind, to cherish. All these profound human experiences are supported by the work of countless others, including, on occasion, the humble slicer of deli meats.

This understanding transformed my work. Without it, I would have been tempted to resent taking on a job that I could have seen as below me, a step down the ladder of professional and personal status. Instead, knowing I wasn’t merely slicing meat but contributing to nourishing experiences, providing comfort to the lonely, and facilitating meals where life-changing conversations might happen, moved the work from menial to meaningful. 

This can happen for anyone in any position, of course. Whatever our work of the moment, a willingness to look beyond the task to those whose lives are enhanced by our service can help us locate meaning where it initially might have been difficult to spot. With practice, we can train ourselves to make this way of seeing a habit. Then our labor, whatever it is, might cease to be labor alone and become its own kind of nourishment.

Dean Abbott is a writer living in Ohio with his wife and daughters. His writing focuses on virtue, personal relationships, and quieter living. Follow him on Twitter @DeanAbbott. He no longer works as a deli slicer.

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