Old Number Eights

Today’s post is brought to you by Guest Blogger Shel, who is sharing his favorite Thanksgiving treat for the first time in print.  As he tells the story…

Rich’s department store was a downtown Atlanta institution from Reconstruction until it closed in 1991, and during most of its history its top-floor Magnolia Room restaurant could be counted upon to provide excellent food and a spot for the weary shopper to rest both foot and wallet.

All-in-all, it was the downtown refuge for the fur and pearl set, its never-changing menu a reliable guide to light salads for the ladies and heartier fare for their escorts.

From early Hoover until mid-Eisenhower, one of the most popular selections on the numbered menu had been an open-faced sandwich on rye, made up of turkey, ham, bacon, cheese, lettuce and garnishes, the whole topped off with an appealing sauce.

Then, they changed the menu, and number eight became something else.  Those customers for whom the sight of a green-uniformed Magnolia Room waitress brought forth a Pavlovian “Number eight and a cup of coffee, please,” were rewarded with something entirely different.

From the brouhaha that ensued, you’d have thought they’d changed the currency.

Within a month, each of the newly-printed, plastic-coated Magnolia Room menus bore a small, type-written sticker across the bottom of the sandwich page; it said, simply, “Yes, we have Old Number Eights.” Thus was a legend born.

In my parents’ house, “Old Number Eights” were synonymous with “Thanksgiving leftovers,” yet the phrase does no justice to the panoply of delights with which one was confronted should one have been so fortunate as to be invited to the parental manse the Friday after Thanksgiving. Rather than assemble the sandwiches, Mother put out the ingredients,buffet style, and each guest was encouraged to build his own, and build them we did.

To make the traditional Rich’s Old Number Eight, start with the Louis dressing:

 1/2 cup Heinz Chili Sauce
 1/2 cup home-made yellow mayonnaise

Combine in a serving bowl and blend with a fork until smooth. You may add a teaspoon or so of finely grated onion for a little extra zip, and you may use commercial mayonnaise instead of home-made if you add a little lemon juice to the mixture.  Don’t use anything but genuine Heinz Chili Sauce (UPC code 131120); this is one place where kitchen improvisation will not be crowned with success.

One cup of the dressing should be enough for four sandwiches, but do not be suprised if your guests ask for more.

For each Old Number Eight, you will need

Two slices of American or Jewish rye bread
Several slices of tender turkey breast meat
Enough julienned ham strips to add a little flavor
Swiss cheese slices sufficient to cover most of both slices of bread
Two or three strips of crisp, cooked bacon
A hard-cooked egg, quartered
Two or three tomato wedges
A few olives
Some shredded (sliced, not torn) lettuce
The aforementioned Louis dressing

Toast the bread very lightly, really just enough to warm it, spread a little of the dressing on it and place both slices flat on a dinner plate. Cover with the turkey slices, the swiss cheese, the ham, and the bacon. Add a little dressing here and there if you think it needs it. Top with the lettuce and more dressing.  Garnish with the tomato wedges, the quartered egg, and the olives. 

The classic version is an open-face sandwich, and a knife and fork are required.  If you’re laying this out as a buffet, add a selection of sliced breads, provide the eggs and tomatoes sliced as well as quartered, and double the amount of dressing available.

The method of preparing the turkey doesn’t seem to matter much, as long as you use a real turkey, not one of those slimy, chopped-and-formed “deli” horrors; you need the nice, even, almost flakey slices of breast meat that only come from a real bird perfectly cooked yesterday. My mother invariably oven-roasts her birds, my ex-wife boiled hers, and Abra and I prefer to smoke ours.

Of course, when you put out the ingredients buffet-style, and each person gets to build his own, the variations multiply; I don’t think any two people in our family end up with the same combination.  I particularly like:

Untoasted rye bread (but since there’s no real rye bread in France, I’ll take it any way I can get it)
Swiss cheese
Sliced turkey
Bacon strips
Shredded lettuce
Louis dressing

In fact, I like this particular combination so much that I have been known to smoke a turkey breast for the express purpose of creating turkey leftovers from which to make it.

The ingredients and combinations may change, at least in my family, but an invitation to have “Old Number Eights” always gets my attention.

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15 Comments on “Old Number Eights”

  1. Margaret Pilgrim Says:

    Thanks for this, Shel. It sounds divine in all of its incarnations. It makes me regret that we are not having Thanksgiving at home. It makes me aware that I really need to pick up a turkey in the days ahead.

    It’s interesting how many of our food memories are of some kind of institutional food from our childhood. In my (SF) area, it was Blum’s (coffee-toffee pie, lemon or coffee crunch cake) and Normandy Lane in the City of Paris department store (creamed spinach with hard boiled egg; baskets of miniature rolls: cinnamon, blueberry, rye).

    (You might consider hiring a different food stylist. Sandwich pictured is not open-faced; lettuce is not shredded. I don’t think the photo does justice to your poetry and passion. Other than that, she’s pretty good.)

  2. Jeanne Says:

    Speaking of having to do a turkey breast for the explicit purpose of leftovers….. I roasted a whole bird this morning *just* so my husband could have turkey leftovers all weekend 🙂

  3. Eden Says:

    I’m jealous. We’re dining at friends place for Thanksgiving, and would normally do up our own turkey et al on Friday or Saturday just for the leftovers, but since we won’t be dining at home for most of the succeeding week I can’t justify it.

    Shel, anytime you need a care package of ryebread or the like shipped off to France just send us an email & we’ll make it happen :>

  4. Lauren Says:

    I love this story! Thanks for sharing it Shel! Happy Thanksgiving to both of you.

  5. Jan Says:

    Wonderful story, Shel and something to think about as I build my traditional turkey sandwich today. Is there any chili sauce besides Heinz? Not for me either!

  6. Shel Says:

    Margaret-

    Yeah, the sandwich pictured is not the classic Rich’s version described in the recipe. It’s not styled, though; like almost everything I’ve seen Abra post here, it’s real food. In this case, the sandwich pictured was the way I used to make them for myself, more or less. It became my dinner, albeit with an extra helping of pink sauce.

    If there’s Iceberg lettuce here, the kind you can slice, I’ve never seen it. Ditto rye bread. We had to import the Heinz chili sauce ourselves. The turkey was a tied-up roll of breast meat, called a “Rôti de dinde”. So, in general, it’s sort of a Modern Jazz Sandwich; we took the original idea, as I used to interpret it, adapted it to local ingredients, photographed it, and ate it.

    -Shel

  7. Margaret Pilgrim Says:

    Oh, Shel, forgive me for not using emoticons! If there is one person blogging today who posts “real” and not imitation art, it is Abra.

    And I fouled up in touting creamed spinach at Normandy Lane when it was actually down the street at Townsend’s.

  8. geri Says:

    In my house as a kid, turkey day leftovers were never transformed into something else..the standard leftover theme was to simply reheat the sliced turkey, gravy , stuffing (if there was any left!) and of course cranberry sauce…basically to redux the meal in tact…no variations on that theme! …it was always disappointing if there wasn’t enough cranberry sauce to accompany the post-Thanksgiving reheat-the-turkey Meal so we always made sure there was enough made on the first day to last for leftover-land.

  9. geri Says:

    one more food memory piqued by your blog Shel….my dad ONLY ate his home-charcoal broiled steaks (hand-cut by the butcher at the local A & P) with Heinz Chili Sauce on the side.

  10. Jessica Says:

    Yummy! I love leftovers!

  11. Max Says:

    Shel and Abra,
    Thank you for this blog. I come here to find a bit of sanity and wholesome news. You are making my world a better place. I have recently canceled my satellite radio subscription, and after I hit your submit comment button below, I am going to delete all my political blog bookmarks. I think I will block out all the news channels on my satellite tv service. Thank you for helping me focus on wholesome beauty whether it is life in France or from a bygone era in the US. You are doing a wonderful thing. I would show it to my children, and while they might have a cursory interest in the pictures or even the recipes, they would never realize how much we have lost.

  12. Shaya Says:

    Shel it’s wonderful to hear from you, you are a master teller of stories, as our family was so lucky to learn during our visit last summer. A very happy Thanksgiving to you both.

  13. Baroness Tapuzina Says:

    Oh Shel, you really brought back memories for me. My grandmother took me to the Magnolia room for lunch with the “Ladies who Lunch”. I had to put on a nice dress and gloves. I don’t remember if I wore a hat or not. I remember their delicious chicken pot pie, chicken amandine salad with frozen fruit salad, and their famous strawberry shortcake.

  14. Lucy Says:

    Mmmm. Sandwich.

  15. Haven Says:

    Enjoyed your writing as always. Seems there were some southern Richs before my kids moved to Talahassee. You must have been happy to see the “Tide” roll. I enjoy reading the responses that this blog elicits. Best to you and Abra, H…


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