Editor’s note: Thanksgiving traces its origins to an uneasy, temporary alliance between 17th-century English settlers and members of the Wampanoag Confederacy. This year, Eater is choosing to acknowledge that history in our coverage of the holiday.
The thing about a good sandwich is that you don’t really have to think about it. The ingredients are already in your fridge, the last few slices of bread hiding behind the half-black bananas on the counter. Layering protein and vegetable and condiment on bread is pretty much a reflex at this point, and the eating of a sandwich is about as effortless as the rest of the process. This is smooth-brained food, in the very best way. There is one sandwich in particular, though, that is an exception to this rule: Thanksgiving leftovers artfully smooshed between slices of crusty bread.
In my house, there’s almost as much anticipation for Thanksgiving leftovers as there is for the meal itself. My parents and my brother have their favorite day-old dishes, and I have mine. Yeah, stuffing is good when it’s warm from the oven. But have you ever grabbed a craggy corner of it straight from the fridge the next morning? It’s a god-tier experience. The Thanksgiving sandwich quite literally gathers all of this anticipation into one perfectly layered parcel. Maybe the appeal of this iconic repurposed dish is that, like all other sandwiches, it requires very little work. But that ease is particularly pleasing in the case of this sandwich, a sharp contrast to the mountains of work you did the day before. All you have to do is grab a bunch of containers stuffed with leftovers from the fridge and start assembling. No drama, and very few dishes.
Here’s a fact, from me, a journalist tasked with reporting such facts: The best Thanksgiving sandwich starts with a smear of sweet potato puree, then a few slices of turkey, a packed layer of stuffing, a drizzle of gravy, some cranberry sauce for sweetness, and a thin slick of mayo on the opposite slice of bread. The whole thing should be smashed down on the griddle in a pat of butter until the bread is crisped and golden, and you should eat it with more gravy and cranberry sauce nearby. Then you’ll take a glorious nap, and wake up to the total disorientation of having no idea what time or what day it is. In other words, pure bliss.
Maybe you don’t agree on this sequence, or the contents of the ideal Thanksgiving sandwich, and that’s fine, I guess, because I make my own sandwiches and you should make yours, too. The problem arises when someone at your Thanksgiving feast is so rude as to finish one of these crucial elements. Sure, it’s nice when aunt Ruth tells you how much she loves your stuffing as she puts the last spoonful onto her plate. But little did your well-intentioned family know that the last bites of stuffing or cranberry sauce or sweet potato casserole were destined for a perfect sandwich.
If you think of your next-day sandwich as the reward for a long day of cooking, entertaining family, and taking shots of Fireball with your cousins (don’t tell me this isn’t a universal experience, for I will not believe you), the injustice of a crucial component being eaten off the table is a heartbreaking prospect. As such, what I suggest you do is prioritize yourself — prioritize your sandwich. Whenever I bake a chicken, I twist off the perfectly burnished chicken butt before flipping the bird over and scooping out one of the small oysters of meat between the thigh and the backbone. I eat these little bits of meat hunched over the kitchen counter, knowing I’ve just eaten the two best bites off the entire bird. These, I call the “chef’s treat,” which is how I rationalize eating what I know to be the most delicious parts of the bird before I bring it to the table. Ultimately, I’ve earned it, and so have you.
If the Thanksgiving feast is the metaphorical roast chicken, then the sandwich is the chicken’s butt — the chef’s treat. Once you’ve finished cooking, but before everyone shows up for the day and overcrowds your kitchen, scoop a bit of each crucial element into a container and tuck it away in the fridge. You probably can’t slice off a corner of a turkey breast without sort of ruining the centerpiece’s appearance, but honestly you don’t have to worry about anyone finishing off the turkey. You’ll enjoy your feast so much more knowing that the components of the very best meal are safely stowed away for tomorrow’s sandwich.