- Historic Sites
The woman whose great-grandfather introduced pastrami to the New World explores an American institution that is as hard to define as it is easy to recognize
February/March 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 1
What makes a deli a deli is more than pastrami on rye and woodgrain Formica tables. A true deli has to have a true deli waiter. A deli waiter hates to wait. He is by necessity impatient. An authentic deli doesn’t have a bar. Since tips for a sandwich and a Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray aren’t tremendous even if you’re inclined to leave 20 percent for surly service, the only way a deli waiter can make real money is turnover. It’s survival of the fastest. “When you pay the rent, you can sit here,” a deli waiter will tell a lingerer. He’s got to get you in and out. Forget schmoozing. Forget shtick. Financial peace of mind means flipping your table. The only time I came close to getting thrown out of a deli was when I took my friend Ginny to the former Golden’s, at Eighty-sixth and Madison. Golden’s was the kind of place where customers slammed down their spoons and screamed, “This soup is fat. Take it back!” to no one in particular. You didn’t signal a waiter to come over. You stated your case to the dining room at large. People were always sending back. That’s another reason deli waiters are brisk: The faster they get you out, the less they have to listen to you. So I should have known better than to meet Ginny at Golden’s. She spoke like a 78-rpm record played at 33.
“IF YOU LET ME STORE MY TRUNK IN YOUR CELLAR,” THE MAN TOLD MY GRANDFATHER, “I WILL GIVE YOU THE RECIPE FOR PASTRAMI.”
“The corned beef. Is it lean or is it fat?” she asked the waiter.
“Your rye bread. Does it have seeds or no?”
“Seeds.” He started to write.
“Well, I just want to know. Is the corned beef leaner or fatter than the pastrami and does it come with coleslaw? And if it does could you put it in a little dish on the side because I don’t like it when the coleslaw touches the bread because the bread gets soggy, and is the coleslaw the kind that’s made with vinegar or mayonnaise? You know what? I think I’ll have the turkey. Is your turkey light and dark mixed or can I get all white?”
“Lady,” he said, “You come here to eat or to talk?”
Pastrami on rye. Corned beef on rye. These are the mainstays of deli fare, both preserved meats, closely related. But since corned beef also belongs to the Irish, I think of Sussman Volk’s pastrami as echt -deli. Not that other cultures don’t have pastrami. Pastrami is a verb (a Yiddish verb, derived from a Hungarian verb: pastramâ, “to preserve”). You can pastrami anything. In North Africa, they pastrami camel. You could, were you so inclined, pastrami a zucchini. Pastrami-ing, say, beef takes four steps: A flanken (beef plate) is rubbed with salt and air-cured. Then the salted flanken is submerged in cooled water mixed with more coarse salt plus sugar and pickling spices. Step three is weighting the seasoned meat in a stoneware jar with as many cloves of garlic as you can stand. Step four is keeping the jar covered in the fridge and turning the meat every five days or so. In three weeks, your flanken is corned beef. (There’s no corn in corned beef. It got its name from the English, who used salt the size of a kernel.) And here’s what Reb Sussman learned from his Rumanian friend: To make pastrami, you take a corned beef one step further. You hot-smoke it at 320 degrees for six or seven hours. But what separates a good pastrami from an unforgettable pastrami is what’s added to the rub: ginger, red-pepper flakes, cinnamon, paprika, bay leaves, cloves, peppercorns, allspice, red-wine vinegar, onion, more garlic, coriander. The meat gets massaged with this secret seasoning before it’s smoked. If you’re in the right kind of deli, an Eastern European hoists it out of its warmer and carves you a little piece to taste, a sliver with a haunting black crust.
Possibly the worst pastrami sandwich I had was outside Boston at S&S (as in Ess! and Ess! , the Yiddish command for Eat! ) Walking into the place, I knew I was in trouble. At a table for four, they were sipping margaritas. Then I looked at the menu. If so desired, I could have my pastrami sandwich on a . . . croissant . Huevos rancheros was on the menu, and tiramisu. Still, nothing prepared me for cold, pre-sliced, desiccated pastrami. The height of the sandwich, including two slices of rye, was a Lilliputian two inches, compared with Katz’s three and a quarter, the Carnegie’s four, and Wolfie’s five inches at the center. (All authentic pastrami sandwiches slope dramatically.) The waitress slammed down French’s Classic Yellow and Grey Poupon.
“Do you have any deli mustard?” I asked, stunned.
“This is what we got.”
“Well do you have any Gulden’s?”
“Way ya think yahhh?,” she snapped her dishtowel. “New Yawk?”