Pastrami on Rye
I'm thankful for Katz’s Delicatessen, perhaps too much. This love affair started in college during an immigrant’s history class when we took a culinary walking tour of the Lower East Side. After I devoured a knish at Yonah Schimmel's faster than humanly possible (it was free) we emerged into Katz’s. Then I finally greeted the joy of pastrami on rye under those neon lights, walls plastered with celebrities who've dined there. A jewish deli that’s been around since 1888 is a perfect emblem of New York City's past and future; it's the immigrant's foodways become American, become everyday.
These days I enjoy stopping in for dinner, splitting a pastrami on rye with a plate of pickles with Brian. It's hard to imagine but I do enjoy that it’s a place simultaneously full of tourists and locals mingling over plates, taking photos near the notorious When Harry Met Sally table. When you’re out for a few drinks but haven’t had dinner, Katz’s is also there for you.
The small ritual of tasting the pastrami at the busy counter before they make your sandwich is always welcoming. I have never delighted more in the tart, tangy bite of mustard and meat than when at Katz’s. As the meat disappears, I pick up stray pieces of pastrami, dipping them into leftover mustard because I have no shame. Please don’t order the sandwich on white bread with mayo, embrace the mustard!
In thinking about this love of pastrami the other day I realized I’d never been the other long standing pastrami haven Carnegie Deli. Since it's closing in December, uptown we went. We sidestepped the tourist line to sit down, getting the pastrami on rye to go. We ate at almost dark at the edge of Central Park. It was different than Katz’s, I think a bit fatties, but we devoured it all nonetheless. We made several hungry dog friends that evening. Each bite attracted a new strolling pup.
Later still hungry on a Friday evening, we wandered into a Momofuku milk bar. We ate both a confetti cookie and a cereal milk soft serve with rainbow sprinkles.
In thinking about pastrami, and these weird and scary times in our country, I find solace in the food of New York City. A love of pastrami is like a love of a diverse city. From the Jewish Deli to the Korean American David Chang’s food empire, all that’s good on our plates seems to come from cultures meeting in cities.
Much of the noise following the election is that our coastal cities, and those cities across the country even, are liberal bastions at odds with the real America of the rural inner America. I’m not sure why that invalidates cities as real America, though. Real america is also encountering other people, from what they look like, where they’ve come from, how they’re different and similar to us, and what they eat.
New York City, the iconic prototype of the immigrant city, will never stop being an immigrant palate’s delight. And I'm thankful for that! Let's hope it stays that way.