- 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
Good pastrami and a grumpy waiter are only the beginning. In an authentic deli, you will notice the presence of a dishtowel-like cloth on the waiter’s arm. This has many purposes. It wipes the table between customers and cleans the rim of your plate before it’s set down. It can be a potholder and a fly swatter. I’ve seen deli waiters snap their towels at nothing in particular, the way men snap towels in locker rooms. When a slice of pastrami falls out of your sandwich, if it lands on the table, don’t eat it. There are places these towels have been you don’t know. The proper window décor in a deli is a panorama of one-gallon jars of bright red mild cherry peppers, queen stuffed olives, and sweet red-pepper hulls. These are displayed pyramid-style, like acrobats. Steer clear of the place if the colors of the food in these jars have faded.
PICKLES: A FULL SOUR IS THE COLOR OF THE ATLANTIC OCEAN ABOUT 10 FEET OUT WHEN YOU OPEN YOUR EYES UNDERWATER.
In addition, a true deli has to pass the pickle test. You want a deli that serves a full sour, not that travesty half-sour. A full sour is the color of the Atlantic Ocean about 10 feet out from Jones Beach when you open your eyes underwater. It’s a cool nonbright green, the kind they have at Guss Pickle Works. It should be crisp yet wet enough to dribble down your shirt. (Winchester, New Hampshire, hosts a Pickle Festival every fall. I went last year. Their idea of an award-winning pickle is a dilled three-inch dwarf shipped in a plastic barrel from Houston, Texas.) Beware of pickles that are as green as an al dente string bean. Never eat a pickle with yellow on it anywhere. A good, warty dull-green full sour should have a transparent quality clear through it.
A true deli will also offer a New York phenomenon: the chocolate egg cream. A chocolate egg cream has no egg or cream in it. It is made with Fox’s U-Bet, a chocolate-flavored syrup manufactured for 101 years by the Fox family in Brooklyn. Start with an inch of U-Bet. Stir in an inch of milk. Then spritz that with seltzer under pressure. Important: Stir violently with a metal spoon to achieve a frothy head. In other words, a chocolate egg cream is a chocolate ice-cream soda with no ice cream. This is the deli drink of choice: The sweet of the U-Bet contrasts nicely with the pickle. The carbonation cuts the fat in the pastrami. All sensations are favorably represented: The hot, the cold. The wet, the dry. The crunchy, the oily. The sweet, the sour. The chewy, the smooth. The spicy and the reassuring.
I head for Sussman Volk’s, looking for what the historian Richard Rabinowitz calls “the genealogy of place.” I’m thinking about Henry Roth’s Lower East Side novel, Call It Sleep , first published in 1934: “Humanity. On feet, on crutches, in carts and cars. The ice-vendor. The waffle-wagon. Human voices, motion, seething, throbbing, bawling, honking horns and whistling.” Walking down Orchard Street off East Houston, I pass a pizzeria, a Turkish kebab house, and the Chili Pepper Mexican Restaurant. Many places are for rent. This isn’t Roth’s slum any more. The neighborhood is hot. There’s no Starbucks yet, but gentrification is manifest destiny. Happily, I spot Grace, a store that’s been on Orchard forever. “You Give Us $10, WE’LL GIVE YOU BEAUTIFUL PURSE ,” says the sign in the window.
I’m looking for 118 Orchard Street, where Reb Sussman lived. It’s a beautiful block, low in scale, full of light. Vendors show their wares outside: luggage you never see anyplace else, not even on airport conveyor belts; two-dollar sunglasses; pretty hats from China. People from Pakistan have cornered the market on driving gloves. At Phat Chilly Fashions, you can pick up a watch with a fancy name on it. There’s a bra store where a man with X-ray vision tells me I’m wearing the wrong size. “I can fit you better,” he says, “guaranteed.” A sign in Sosinsky’s window reads: FAMOUS BRAND SHIRTS! WE GOT LUCKY! And here it is, 118 Orchard Street. It turns out to be Sol Moscot Opticians, a two-story building where I used to buy my daughter prescription eyeglasses.
I turn the corner. Sussman Volk had a nice commute. 86 ½ is gone but there’s 86, and in the basement, where they sell denim skirts with fringed slits, a back room has plenty of space for a Rumanian’s trunk. 88 Delancey Street is two stores now, Elko Jewelry and Skylight Electronics. Air conditioners line the entrance. Gameboys, televisions, and Mickey Mouse phones fill the windows. I walk in. The store is cocooned in Sheetrock, industrial wall-to-wall, and acoustic tile. I can’t see anything that could have existed in 1888. Nothing. José, the owner, is on vacation in Florida. I ask Miguel if I can look in the basement. “My great-grandfather had a deli here in 1888,” I tell him. He’s happy for me. I walk down old cement steps and have a look. Fluted cast-iron pillars, painted gray, hold up the ceiling. There’s a little room off to the side. It is covered with six-by-six-inch white tiles, laid like bricks. Near the ceiling and the floor, two bands of intricately patterned blue tiles circle the room. All the tiles have a hairline of grout between them. They were laid by hand. The room is grimy, but once it was spotless, easy to clean. Maybe it was a mikvah or a place to butcher meat.