You may have noticed: people are fierce about food.
And now they’re starting to eat out again, they’ve resumed debating restaurant menus, every item from appetizer to dessert getting the full James Beard evaluation.
In Geneseo, where I live, the discussion now includes deliberations over a menu that doesn’t yet exist. That’s why I’ve started a pre-emptive campaign on behalf of the hot turkey sandwich.
If I play my cards right, hot turkey will be offered at the Big Tree Inn on Main Street when that establishment reopens under new ownership after being closed too long.
Most of my lobbying has been directed at Jake Caplan, who’ll be managing the front of the house at the Big Tree. I rather suspect that the fine dining crowd has been pressing him, as well, just as the chicken wing brigade has been showing up at his door. It’s a tough business.
The doors to the Big Tree’s dining room and tavern closed in August 2020 after the pandemic hit. The rooms for lodging and meetings stayed open for a while, but in December 2020, Campus Auxiliary Services, the subsidiary of SUNY Geneseo that owned the Big Tree, shut everything down.
Earlier this year, the building was put on the market at a listed price of $1.1 million. The group that purchased the inn is headed by Joseph Bucci Sr., a founder and CEO of Livingston County’s American Rock Salt, the largest salt mine in the United States.
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The red-brick Big Tree offers a walk back in time. First a private dwelling, it opened as a hotel in 1886. Since then, there have been expansions and renovations, every owner trying to get it right.
The building has had its quirks. Rather shamelessly, I once got a column out of the tavern door, and its resistance to closure. “That door has never worked,” the late Gertrude Houston told me in 2006. “I’ve known every manager of this place. They all said they would fix it. They shaved it, shimmied it, it never closes. It never will .”
Fixing the door may have been easier than fixing the menu, as the Big Tree drew a wide variety of fussy patrons – students, day-trippers, townies – all of them restaurant critics in the making.
As they size up a new menu for the Big Tree, some of the eager eaters want steak, others want burgers. My friend Ron Herzman calls for the return of sweetbreads, which were served at least 10 chefs ago.
Like sweetbreads (yuk), the hot turkey sandwich has legacy status, as it was offered for at least a year or so not long before the 2020 shutdown.
To be fair, it wasn’t the best hot turkey sandwich I’ve ever had. For one thing, I recall that it was open-faced. That’s the sort of stunt you’d expect in a Brooklyn bistro, not in upstate New York where the best hot turkey sandwiches involve turkey between two slices of tasteless white bread.
The Big Tree didn’t add cranberry sauce in one of those small paper cups. I like that. I also wish their hot turkey had had some stuffing on the side. The gravy was OK, but a little thin.
Needing some expert opinion, I ran the gravy issue by Tracy Schuhmacher, food and drink reporter for the Democrat and Chronicle. “The key to a hot turkey sandwich is good gravy and lots of it,” Tracy told me. “Gravy can mask a multitude of sins with the other components.”
Tracy prefers mashed potatoes with her hot turkey. I go with French fries. Takes all kinds.
No date has been set for the Big Tree’s reopening. While we wait, we could taste test the hot turkey in some diners and restaurants in the Finger Lakes area.
Readers, let me know, where do you find the best hot-turkey sandwich? Drop me a note, give me some details. While I wait for the Big Tree, I might even practice some journalism, hit the road, chat with the cooks and the patrons. I’m ready to talk Turkey. Just tell me where to go.
From his home in Geneseo, Livingston County, retired senior editor Jim Memmott, writes Remarkable Rochester, who we were, who we are. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or write Box 274, Geneseo, NY 14454