Suburban Food Memories – Part I

The Kosher Deli

I have been a vegan for only two years.  Prior to that, I was a vegetarian (sort of – I ate fish) for 23 years.  But I was raised as a meat-eater from earliest childhood, and in the halcyon days of my youth, I was a dedicated carnivore.

A few days ago, I found myself tripping merrily down Memory Lane, regaling my wife with stories of my gustatory adventures in my native New York.  As a young man just out of college, I found myself earning decent money, while living at home and having few expenses other than my car.  I didn’t have a serious girlfriend to spend my paychecks on, so I blew my cash on the thing I liked best:  Eating at restaurants.

In later years, when I had girlfriends with expensive tastes, I would leave the suburbs and head into the big city on the weekends, attending concerts and Broadway shows and plunking down piles of cash at restaurants that I really couldn’t afford.  For the first few years, however, I indulged my proclivity for cheap local places where, as on Cheers, everybody knew my name.

I went through a series of phases.  First, it was the kosher deli.  After work, I would plunk myself down at the counter and order iced tea.  Back then, most restaurants in our area served iced tea only in the summertime.  But the deli would mix up a pitcher just for me and start slicing lemons even in January.  They knew I’d drink the whole thing.

In those days, I got off work at 3:30 in the afternoon, so the deli was usually pretty dead.  There might be one or two customers or perhaps a couple enjoying a late lunch.  Often as not, however, I’d be the only paying customer in the establishment.  The manager or the one waitress on the premises would come over to chat.  On nice days, the doors would be propped open and the salamis hanging up front would sway gently in the breeze.

I’d usually start my odyssey of flesh consumption with a big bowl of chicken noodle soup that had a huge matzo ball floating in it.  The pickle bowl (both garlic sours and mild half-sours) and the rye bread with pareve margarine would appear.  While I munched, I’d peruse the menu for dinner ideas.  I might decide on a half roast chicken or sliced turkey or a hamburger (raw onion, please, never fried) or “specials” (giant knockwurst).  Dinners came with two sides, and my favorites were kasha varnishkes (known among deli aficionados as “KV”) and luckschoen kugel.  The former consisted of bow tie pasta with buckwheat groats (a little like rice pilaf, but hard to explain if you’ve never tried it) and brown gravy; the latter was noodle pudding liberally studded with raisins and fruit cocktail.  Vegetables?  Get outta my face!

Some afternoons I’d really go to town and order an appetizer in between the matzo ball soup and the entrée.  My favorite forschpeis was tongue polonaise, which is thinly sliced beef tongue smothered in sautéed cabbage, raisins and tomato sauce.  I also favored stuffed cabbage, and occasionally I’d go wild and have chicken fricassee or stuffed derma (a type of sausage — take my word for it, you don’t want to know).  The only appetizers I stayed away from were chopped liver and liverwurst.  Sorry, pâté lovers, but I found the flavor to be extremely bile, oops, I mean vile!

There were plenty of days that I stayed away from hot food (other than my beloved matzo ball soup) and went right for a sandwich.  I’d have them create whatever concoction sounded good to me.  It might be turkey, tongue and salami or roast beef, brisket and rolled beef (similar to, but not the same as, what Montréal natives know as “smoked meat”). Surprisingly, I was never particularly fond of pastrami or corned beef, perhaps the two items that most represent the essence of the New York deli.

How could I possibly have room for dessert after all that?  I’d make room.  I was a veritable bottomless pit.  Most often, I’d have a cup of hot tea with lemon and whatever pastry I could get my hands on.  My favorite was sacher torte, which is a chocolate and raspberry cake.  The deli didn’t always have it on hand, but they always had fresh apple strudel, topped with chopped walnuts and cinnamon.  It was heavenly and I seldom waddled out of there without a second slice.

I spent so much time and money in that deli that, eventually, the manager asked if I wanted to run a tab.  “No, I’d rather pay as I go,” I immediately blurted out.  Flattered as I was, I was horrified at the notion of going into debt and maybe not being able to pay my bill.  As it was, my employer paid me on a weekly basis and I always had a pocket full of cash.  Let’s keep it simple, folks.

I had a history with that deli, as it had been around since the early 1960s.  As a kid, my parents would take my sisters and me out to dinner there once in a while.  While Dad munched away on “His Majesty’s Twins” (two small sandwiches on mini Kaiser rolls, one pastrami and one corned beef), a Dr. Brown’s cream soda and apple strudel, the kids had exactly two choices:  A hot dog or a hamburger.  I always went for the Beefburger Deluxe, as it was much larger than just a hot dog (and it came with steak fries!).  That may be part of the reason that the longtime manager asked me whether I wanted to run a tab.  He knew me back in the day when I was still in school, my parents wouldn’t allow us to have soda, and Dad recited Kipling’s “Gunga Din” because I was the designated water boy for the table.  (“You’re not going to make that waitress keep running over here to get us more water!”)  I would take our glasses over to the little spigot and feel put upon for being required to get up off my butt.

I made up for it after I started working.  I would darn well have whatever I wanted whenever I wanted it!  Oh, but that’s not even the best part.  Want to know what a disgusting fresser (glutton) I was?  After spending a couple of hours at the deli, I’d drag myself home and take a nap until my parents showed up after work.  They were tired and often went out to dinner.  They would invite me and I would go!  I would never admit that I’d already eaten enough for a small army.

If my parents wanted to go to the deli, I’d beg them to drive to the deli in the next town “so we can have cabbage and raisin soup.”  They generally obliged.  Whew!  I didn’t want to show up in my deli a second time in a single day!  Who knows whether the staff would keep my secret or not?

A few years later, things changed at the deli.  The excellent cook, who loved food even more than I did, had ballooned to more than 400 pounds and had to “go away.”  This was long before bariatric surgery was as common as a nose job.  They told me he went to a special clinic at Princeton University.  Thereafter, my parents regularly threatened me with the same fate if I did not lose weight.

Then the deli manager and his father purchased the cabbage-and-raisin-soup kosher deli in the next town.  Out of loyalty to them, I transferred my eating binges over there.  By then, however, my deli orgies had become less frequent than my former daily romps through cholesterol heaven.  Some other local joints had captured my attention.

Over time, the ethnic composition of the neighborhood changed from predominantly Jewish and Italian to mostly Dominican and Haitian.  It’s been almost a quarter of a century now since my favorite kosher deli passed into history.

Tomorrow:  Diners I have known and loved

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