Book Trader Café
1140 Chapel St., New Haven, (203) 787-6147
It was the best of times, and nobody was going to let it be the worst of times.
In any case, it wasn't wurst: it was turkey, with homemade Russian dressing and savory slaw on seedless onion rye bread.
The Book Trader Café, a 14-year literature-and-lunch institution near the corner of Chapel and York streets, had landed one of its signature sandwiches, Tale of Two Turkeys, on a national TV competition.
Book Trader's appearance on Adam Richman's Travel Channel series "The Best Sandwich in America" aired last Wednesday night. Owner Dave Duda held a party in the store for his staff, family and longtime friends of the store. The show was projected onto a screen in Book Trader's fenced-in outside eating area. Refreshments included the guest of honor: Tale of Two Turkeys, eloquently described by Richman on the show thus: "It is a far, far better turkey I eat than I have ever known." Both that quote and the sandwich's name are loosely adapted from the Charles Dickens novel A Tale of Two Cities. Other literarily titled Book Trader delicacies include Vonnegut's Veggies, Memoirs of a Chicken and the Tempesto.
Duda was informed of the "Best Sandwich in America" candidacy a few months ago. Richman and a camera crew came to New Haven to film the Book Trader segment in late May, and there's been a modest handmade sign posted in the store promoting the series since it began airing in June. The honor has gotten Duda a lot of media attention, including an appearance with Richman (and the sandwich) on Al Roker's Weather Channel show.
Richman, best known for his competitive-eating "Man v. Food" series, attended the Yale School of Drama about a decade ago. Duda remembers him from back then, and recalls that Richman was always smitten with the Tale of Two Turkeys.
For "Best Sandwich in America," Book Trader had some formidable competition. Both of the other contenders in the New England episode — a grilled cheese sandwich with crabmeat from Jumpin' Jay's Fish Café in Portsmouth, N.H., and the zesty lemon lobster roll from The Galley restaurant in Naples, Maine — involved fresh seafood, caught in the vicinity of the restaurants. Book Trader had originality and creativity on its side. Chef Jennifer Tift's use of onion rye was proclaimed "a first" in the show's "sandwich odyssey." The historic New Haven locale also looked swell on TV. You can see the Book Trader segment online at The Travel Channel's website.
In the episode's last moments, just as he was about to reveal whether The Galley's lobster roll (which bested the crabmeat sandwich in the first round) or Tale of Two Turkeys would represent New England in Best Sandwich in America's series finale August 15, Richman said of the contenders "I love them both, and they are both the absolute best of their kind." Then the host said something which Duda says gave him an inkling that Tale of Two Turkeys had not prevailed. It was about the winning sandwich being one that Richman always thinks about when he's in this part of the country. "That wouldn't be turkey," Duda mused.
But the Book Trader staff and its fervent fans took their turkey's loss to a lobster in stride. During the show, before the outcome was known, there was a toast from the crowd: "Dave's a winner no matter what happens," followed by a tribute to Tift, "who likes her Russian spicy." The upbeat and quick-witted Tift, who holds her own against the garrulous and goofy Richman in the episode, is quoted on the show saying, "I like my Russian tangy."
Duda proclaimed this was the biggest gathering around a turkey since Book Trader opened in 1998 and had an oven malfunction that brought the fire department round. The punchline to that story was "smoked turkey." Duda thanked those who supported Book Trader throughout the years. He praised his loyal staff, particularly Tift and the store's other manager, Kelly Pyers. "What's more important than what's between the bread is who's behind the counter," he said. Tift added, "This has always been about the people. This is the best job I could have ever wanted."
Duda summed up with, "This is not a café. It's a community." And with that, the Book Trader Café put the talk of cities and nations aside and got back to the business of serving that cherished community.
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