- 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
So I have seen something my great-grandfather saw. I head for Katz’s Delicatessen at 205 East Houston. Marry Dell bought it 14 years ago from Izzy Tarowsky, Lenny Katz, and another man, “Artie. I forget his second name, he had a stroke.”
Marty wears yellow aviator glasses and pale blue pants belted under his armpits. He ate at Katz’s when he was a kid.
“So were you ever in Sussman Volk’s?” I ask. “Did you ever go there?”
“I don’t like to tell ya.”
“It was nice, but I never got around to it. We always went with a few people. They didn’t wanna go there. They liked Weitzman’s. The best in the world. Not a large deli, but good.”
“Can you tell me how you make your pastrami?”
“No. I’m not allowed to tell you or anybody else. And I’m gonna walk away from you if you keep asking me that.”
I hold up my egg cream. It’s in a cup that looks like it holds a quart. “Can I ask you something, Marty? You only have two sizes here. Large and extra large. I asked for a large. Is this a large or extra large?”
“That’s more than a large. You know what you do with that? Tell ‘em it’s too sweet, to fill it up again. That way, you get two drinks. Lemme tell you. This I could tell you. Before I came, the people at Katz’s, they never had three homemade soups. They never had an egg cream here. They never had tuna fish. We got nova, lox on a bagel, cream cheese, tomato. They never had any of these things. But they did all right. Not everybody wants meat when they come here.”
“Are you closed for Shabbos?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
“I don’t wanna tell you nothing. I gotta walk away from you.”
I tell him I recently had a pastrami at the Carnegie, that they slice by machine.
“Ecccch,” Marty says, swatting air. “When they slice by machine, they put it on the bread and it’s fluffy. You got a boyfriend?”
“Fuhgeddabowdit. What am I talking to ya faw?”
Salamis dangle over our heads along with signs that date back five American wars: SEND A SALAMI TO YOUR BOY IN THE ARMY . I ask Marty if he’s still sending salamis.
“When they had the Persian Gulf War, celebrities came in, they wanna send a salami there. I didn’t wanna do it. People would say, ‘Look at him. He’s making money on the war.’”
“What did you do before you bought this place 14 years ago?”
“I was in the garment center. Ladies panties. I used to pull down a hundred a day.”
The Lower East Side is no longer home to pushcarts, laundry lines, and song peddlers. Beckenstein’s Fabrics moved uptown. Bernstein-on-Essex went belly-up. (I never thought of it as a true deli, because it served Chinese food, even though it was kosher Chinese food and a lot of Jewish people consider Chinese food Jewish). My cheap linen place? Into thin air. Things change.
I get a fresh spritz in my egg cream and head for home. Then, instead, I turn right. Guss (“Eat Guss’ Pickles and Stay Young and Beautiful”) is just a few blocks away. You can’t have too many pickles. But when I get to where I think Guss is, it isn’t there. Then I see an article in The New York Times . It says there’s a rumor Guss is going out of business. I look up Guss in the phone book. There is no Guss in the phone book. So I log onto chowhounds.com and click to the Manhattan message board: “Is it true Guss Pickles may be going out of business? Why? Where do I go to get great full sours if Guss does go under? Thanks, Patty.” The next day, a reply appears: “??Wasn’t this question posted months ago? Guss’s is still on Essex Street. Still making pickles.” I may be worried but at least I’m not alone.