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November 28, 2023
Goodbye Mortadella and Other Deli Meats I Have Loved

My name is John, and I eat gabagool out of the fridge. 

My love is unconditional, but it has two tiers. The first level is reserved for family, friends, and my ten-year-old Shih Tzu mix, Morley. But the second is occupied by the foods I eat when I’m stressed or elated or bored, simple foods that calm and soothe me, like wonton soup or seedless green grapes or salami slices.

So when I say that it broke my heart to learn recently that I need to avoid salty foods, especially cured meat, I mean it. I was crushed by the news soon after my doctor shook his head while taking my blood pressure. According to the CDC, 54% of middle-aged men have hypertension, and it turns out that I am one of them. He prescribed me meds—10 milligrams of Lisinopril, a fairly common treatment I like to call the Champagne of blood-pressure medications—and told me to exercise and eat right. He said that last thing as he hurried out the door.

“Lay off sugary sodas and things like deli meats.”

“Is salami a deli meat?” I stammered.

“Yes,” he replied. “Salami is a deli meat.” And before I could ask him if smoked turkey or that nice fatty pastrami from Junior’s were also deli meats, he was gone.

And I was alone.

If I couldn’t eat salami, I couldn’t down piles of mortadella, either.

Upon returning home to Brooklyn, I immediately started feverishly Googling what I could and could not eat. The list of foods people with high blood pressure should avoid is actually relatively short. A heart-healthy diet is one filled with fresh fruits and veggies, lean proteins, nuts, beans, and whole grains. The list of foods that should be avoided includes anything with added sugar or sodium, like sugary sodas, as Doc said—which is no problem because I drink Waterloo seltzer exclusively.

Other foods I need to reconsider include personal favorites like potato chips (mainly Hal’s jalapeño kettle chips), chicken tenders, cans of Progresso and New England clam chowder—but giving those up will be relatively easy. Fan-Fan Doughnuts? Adios. Frozen Ellio’s Pizza? Good day, sir. Bacon? It is my humble opinion that bacon doesn’t make everything better. It is overrated, a flavor steamroller. BLTs? I can live without them.

But then there’s deli meats. I’m trying to give them up. And it’s proving difficult.

I have kicked cigarettes. I am 13 years sober. But I am struggling to quit deli meats, specifically mortadella, the fatty, buttery, pistachio-studded deli meat from Emilia-Romagna that I enjoy eating directly from the white butcher paper where it was gently laid after slicing. My grocery store deli counter guy in Park Slope, Brooklyn, knows I like my mort sliced nice and thin. We don’t even have to communicate verbally anymore. We make eye contact, and everything is taken care of.

But mortadella, like all processed meats, has other hidden evils. It’s been classified by the WHO as a Class A carcinogen, which means it causes cancer, like my old, beloved Marlboro Lights. I found this out because I looked up what the healthiest people in the world—those who live in so-called blue zones—don’t eat. And one thing they 100% don’t eat? That’s right.

It’s not like the body doesn’t need sodium, because it does. Sodium, in small amounts, is an essential nutrient that helps balance your body’s fluids. And yet salt is the primary culprit where blood pressure is concerned. Excess salt forces the body to retain water, which in turn puts stress on the artery walls as blood pumps through the body. This strain can result in heart disease, and it can negatively affect the brain and kidneys too. Once used to preserve foods, salt has become an active ingredient in nearly everything that is boxed, bagged, or frozen. It also tastes really good, or, more specifically, makes all things taste better. Salt is a team player. It’s not something that’s enjoyed by itself. Salt enhances whatever it’s sprinkled on, savory or sweet, a medium-rare hanger steak or, oh god, caramel. It makes the flavors of your food sing louder and brighter. It smooths away bitterness and makes umami yummier.

I have kicked cigarettes. I am 13 years sober. But I am struggling to quit deli meats, specifically mortadella, the fatty, buttery, pistachio-studded deli meat that I enjoy eating directly from the white butcher paper.

How much sodium is too much? The American Heart Association suggests 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day. An Egg McMuffin contains about 777 milligrams of sodium, and one Cup Noodles contains about 1,700 milligrams of sodium. There can be over 5,600 milligrams of sodium in a pound of mortadella, and before you think, “Wow, a pound of mortadella is a lot,” let me step in for a second. I can make a pound of mortadella disappear pretty quickly; it’s like a birthday party magician making a coin go poof!

I like my deli meats on sandwiches piled high and doused with vinegar. My favorite TikTok account is some Italian dude who stuffs fresh hero rolls with endless ribbons of delicate salted pork. I have no idea what he’s saying, but we both speak the language of nitrates.

I have had a lifelong love affair with sandwich meats; they’ve always been there for me when I was hungry. I fondly remember Oscar Mayer (of course) bologna sandwiches with Hellmann’s mayo, a meal that combined my favorite childhood taste and texture, namely “salty” and “soft.” Mmm, soft and salty foods were the best.

As I matured, so did my palate. In college, when I had the money, I’d dine at a little local hole-in-the-wall deli called Subway, where I could make a footlong BMT with every veggie except green peppers last for at least two days. The BMT features all of Subway’s most heart-hostile meats.

I have, on more than one occasion, dabbled with self-destructive restrictive diets, like the protein-only Atkins, ketogenic, and paleo diets. I have, at least once, done each of those diets, one after the other. I don’t recommend doing this, but there have been moments in my life when I have been vulnerable to suggestions like “eat all the meat you want and lose weight.”

These diets permitted me to inhale wispy, napkin-size pancakes of soppressata—hot and sweet—and other salty meats. I’d sit in front of the TV with an open pack of prosciutto and experience pure bliss. But that was then.

I have to bid all processed meats adieu, which also means hot dogs and sausages—basically every kind of tube-shaped meat product—including the linked kind that hangs from the ceilings at delis like Christmas decorations. Goodbye, old friends.

I love soppressata, the most beautifully named cured meat. If I had a daughter, I’d consider naming her Soppressata. When was the last time you stopped to appreciate pepperoni, the hardest-working deli meat in the business? What delightful spicy little polka dots. I know, “everything in moderation,” but that’s not how my brain works. I don’t want to eat a few pepperoni; I want to eat all the pepperoni.

And then there’s mortadella. I eat mortadella Tony Soprano–style. The hedonistic TV mobster was famous for slurping up “gabagool” right out of the package. “Gabagool” is slang for capicola, a smoky cousin of salami made from pork shoulder that comes from both the north and south of Italy. I, too, stand in the middle of my kitchen and feed myself charcuterie straight from the fridge. It’s an inelegant way to ingest mass quantities of meat, but it’s highly satisfying, and I don’t want to give it up.

How am I going to cope with my anxieties now? Therapy? SSRIs? Meditation? Friends, I do all three.

But I have to change my eating habits. Because I want to live forever—I don’t think billionaires and tech-bro body hackers should be the only immortal people on this dying planet. I want to live to the ripe age of the most senior members of the US Senate without actually having to be part of the Senate.

How can I do that? Regular exercise and heartbreak. I’m eating smarter. Healthier. I eat spinach. So much spinach. I’m avoiding most processed foods, including those red-wax-covered cheese snacks I can pop like a package of strawberries in May. I’m avoiding all meats I don’t cook myself (I make a delightful roast chicken). I have built an impromptu collection of no-salt seasoning: Mrs. Dash, Dan-O’s, Trader Joe’s 21 Seasoning Salute. At night, I dream of streamers of mortadella falling from heaven.

John DeVore

John DeVore is a James Beard award-winning essayist. He's written for Food and Wine, Eater, and Esquire, among others, and his debut memoir, 'Theatre Kids,' comes out next year.