Nfld. & Labrador

Man vs. mess: A gut-busting tale of hot turkey sandwiches

When reporter Jonny Hodder took on the iconic hot turkey sandwich, he got so much more than he bargained for.

'Do a story about hot turkey sandwiches,' they said. 'It’ll be fun,' they said.

CBC's Jonny Hodder prepares for his first taste of the Sweet Turkey Mess. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

Thanksgiving conjures up images of perfectly roasted turkey, with crispy, golden brown skin, mountains of mashed potatoes dusted with crumbly dressing, and pools of dark, rich, velvety gravy covering your plate. 

The star of Thanksgiving in Newfoundland and Labrador is undoubtedly the turkey dinner (or "turkey supper," depending on your family's meal-based nomenclature).

But many a bayman or townie alike will agree that one of the biggest fringe benefits of cooking a turkey comes the day after, when we treat ourselves to the humble, yet delicious, hot turkey sandwich. 

The hot turkey sandwich is a meal born of thrift and resourcefulness.

Any Newfoundland grandmother worth her salt (or salt beef) has a reputation for cooking Thanksgiving meals big enough to feed a small army.

This inevitably leads to several days worth of leftovers, even after each family member is compelled to take home their own foil-wrapped plate of still-steaming food as a parting gift.

Sweet Newfie Kitchen owner/operator Jaime Ryan holds a 35-pound turkey, one of two similar-sized turkeys they cook every day at the restaurant. (Jonny Hodder/CBC)

The question then becomes what to do with several pounds of leftover turkey, a bowl full of savoury dressing and a gallon of ever-thickening gravy.

The answer to most people is simple: toss the first two between two slices of white bread. and smother it in so much reheated gravy that it nearly floats off the plate. 

So, when my producers asked me to do a story paying homage to this iconic sandwich, I said, "Sure." 

Little did I know what I was getting myself into.

Not your typical assignment

I headed out to the Sweet Newfie Kitchen in Mount Pearl, a tiny, unassuming, takeout only restaurant that specializes in Newfoundland comfort food — fish and chips, Jigg's dinner and. of course, hot turkey sandwiches.

Ryan adds the first of several layers of gravy to the Sweet Turkey Mess. (Jonny Hodder/CBC)

Owner Jaime Ryan is a ball of frenetic energy and charisma, chatting away with me as she moves about the small kitchen, dropping baskets of fries into the fryer, stirring a large stock pot full of thick, bubbling gravy, and checking on a 35-pound turkey in the oven (one of two birds of that size that they cook every day.)

She goes through the list of ingredients included in their turkey sandwiches: two slices of baker's bread, a pile of leftover turkey meat, dressing, all topped with gravy, and served with fries (or wedges) and canned green peas.

"It's go big or go home here," as she puts it. 

And, as I was about to find out, she's not kidding. 

Things take a turn when Jaime says three words that will forever change my outlook on what a hot turkey sandwich can be.

Sweet. Turkey. Mess. 

At the Sweet Newfie Kitchen in Mount Pearl, Ryan serves hot turkey sandwiches with dressing, green peas, fries, and cranberry sauce. (Jonny Hodder/CBC)

It's the restaurant's own unique, non-traditional take on the hot turkey sandwich: Turkey, dressing, gravy, cranberry sauce, and green peas.… But instead of packing it between two slices of homemade bread, it's all served atop a hefty pile of deep fried french fries. 

Tempted? Oh, yes

Of course, I have to try it.

Jaime quickly assembles this literal mountain of food in a takeout box, each ingredient becoming its own layer of geological stratification: turkey completely obscuring my view of the fries, dressing heaped onto the turkey like a fresh blanket of snow, dotted by a handful of green peas, bathed in a layer of gravy.

To top it off, she adds several chunks of canned cranberry sauce, like purple icebergs floating in a deep brown ocean. 

"That's an insane amount of food," I hear myself saying in disbelief.

"This isn't just big and ugly for you," she reassures me. "This is how they all go out the door." 

Jaime somehow manages to close the lid on the takeout container, slides it into a brown paper bag, and hands me the mess.

A fully assembled Sweet Turkey Mess. (Jonny Hodder/CBC)

Even after watching her assemble it, the physical weight of the bag surprises me. It must weigh at least three pounds, and has the same density as a collapsed neutron star. 

I beam back across town to the CBC studio, the car filled with the familiar smells of turkey, gravy and deep fried goodness. When I stop at the traffic lights on Columbus Drive, I look over at the oversized brown paper bag, and a terrifying reality sets in.

How am I going to eat this?

'Just lift this'

I get back to work and walk up to my producer, holding out the nondescript paper bag like a religious sacrifice.

I'm going to try and eat this. If you need me, I'll be asleep on my desk.

"Seriously," I say, "just lift this."

His eyes go wide with shock.

"I'm going to try and eat this. If you need me, I'll be asleep on my desk," I tell him.

Hodder says he'll be eating the sweet turkey mess until next Thanksgiving. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

I'll get this out of the way right now: No, I didn't finish it. I didn't even come close. In fact, I struggled to eat about a third of it during my shift. And later that night, me and my partner reheated the remaining mess as snack, and we still couldn't finish it.

It's actually kind of scary to think that someone would walk into a restaurant and order it with the intent of eating it in one sitting. 

But here's the thing. It's a delicious mess.

All those comforting flavours of a roasted turkey dinner, piled on top of a bed of deep fried, golden brown wedges. It's three pounds of nostalgia served in a takeaway box.

And, in all likelihood, I'll be eating it until next Thanksgiving.

In a valiant effort, Hodder was able to eat about of a third of the Sweet Turkey Mess in one sitting. It should be noted, he had already eaten lunch before being assigned this daunting task. (Heather Barrett/CBC)

Listen to Jonny Hodder's hot turkey journey for Weekend AM here:

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Jonny Hodder is a journalist with CBC Radio based in St. John's.