I was going through my files and re-discover this article which I had so much fun researching. I thought you’d enjoy this glimpse of Jewish delis, the way they were:
“There is cold joy in a salami sandwich eaten outside the steamy atmosphere of a New York kosher delicatessen,” declared writer Ruth Glazer in her crusty memoirs “The Jewish Delicatessen.”
The truth of this statement was brought home to me one afternoon almost twenty years ago as I was attempting to get my jaw around a hot pastrami on rye at Katz’s on the Lower East Side.
When the waiter delivered my bottle of Dr. Brown’s Cel Ray tonic–a quintessential part of the old New York deli experience–he asked me if I’d heard about the guy at the cemetery who was throwing himself on a tombstone, wailing with great emotion, “Why did you die so young?” When a concerned onlooker offered condolences on the death of his wife, the grieving man stopped sobbing long enough to correct him: “This isn’t my wife buried here, you dummy; it’s her first husband.”
As I laughed and offered sympathy to the waiter for his bandaged finger, he qvetched: “That’s what you get for working in the restaurant business,” with a shrug of his slouched shoulders. It was then I experienced the most memorable flavor enhancer for a hot pastrami sandwich–not the mustard, but the kibitzing and schmaltz that come from a 65-year-old Jewish waiter who shuffles on tired feet, wears grease-smudged glasses, and barks at customers with a strong Yiddish accent.
He commands you where to sit: “That’s the only table we got left. You want to eat, or don’t you?”
He stands as the moral arbiter of right and wrong: “If you want sauerkraut on your pastrami sandwich, you’re gonna have to put it on yourself. What jerk would wanna eat a sandwich with soggy bread?”
He slides the sandwich-laden plates to you as if were practicing for the local bowling league and about 20 minutes later tells you when it’s time to leave: “Did you come to eat or to sit and kibbitz?”
The good news is that if you know where to go, you can still get a fine hot pastrami or corned beef sandwich in Gotham, but the sights, sounds, and smells of the old New York Jewish deli have vanished along with the salamis that hung their windows.
In the old days, if anyone dared to ask for lean corned beef, the waiter would put on his most disapproving look and yell: “Vich vay do you want it to lean?”
One of the regular deli patrons I interviewed for this article was Bernie Styles, then the owner of the venerable Central Casting Talent Agency. “If I had my life to live over, I’d live over a deli, ” he crooned into my ear over the telephone. “Actually, to tell you the truth, I live right over the Stage , so I’m living my life over right now,” chirped Styles.
Before the Stage, there was the Gaiety, Styles told me. “Back in the thirties and forties, on “the street”–the colloquial name for Broadway–“eating out was a very important part of our culture. We’d meet to eat and eat to meet. At any given hour you always knew where to find somebody amusing to talk to, ” he recalled.
“The Gaiety had only a few table and couldn’t have been more than ten feet wide,” he said. “The waiters controlled the place. If they liked you, they’d make sure you got a seat and would let you stay a little longer, or they’d seat a pretty girl next to you. The place was always jammed.”
“The Gaiety was the first deli to serve overstuffed sandwiches, and you could even order a half-sandwich if you were short of cash. If things were really rough, you’d eat salami–“a nickel a schtikle”–or a hot dog–the real kind, rolled on a grill–but if you were flush, you’d have pastrami or corned beef. The Gaiety backed onto a burlesque theater on 44th Street, and you’d always be elbow-too-elbow with actors. If they were really broke, that one overstuffed sandwich would be their only meal of the day.”
It was as a counterman at the Gaiety that the legendary Max Asnas got his start. In 1937, after he had become deft enough at hand-slicing pastrami, Max opened The Stage, billed as The Delicatessen of the Performing Arts. When a customer asked Max why he was never seen eating at his own restaurant, he promptly replied: “Who can afford the prices?”
Short, pudgy, and shaped like a soft diamond, Asnes was quick with the one-liners and encouraged his waiters to do the same. Once a customer complained to a waiter: “I don’t like the looks of this whitefish.”
“You want looks, ” replied the waiter, “order a goldfish.”
Another time, a party of four tourists ordered sandwiches and coffee. One of them commanded, “Make sure that my coffee is in an absolutely clean cup.” When the waiter returned with the order, he inquired, “Now, which one of you gets the clean cup.”
When a woman complained to Max that his food gave her heartburn, he quickly replied: “What did you expect–sunburn? Go to Miami.”
Max’s customers got so used to getting hit with his barbs that they felt disappointed when he ignored them. “Hey Max, you don’t insult me any more, what’s wrong? Are you mad at me?”
Max didn’t only dish it out: he could take it, too. Once, when the Stage had a fire, Milton Berle sent Max a wire: “This is the first time in years that the food in your place has been hot.”
When I wrote and researched this piece in 1988, I went to the beloved Second Avenue Deli and overheard an elegantly dressed lady asking a waiter, “What is shav?” The waiter answered impatiently: “Lady, if you don’t know what it is, I know you’re not going to like it.”
Like shav (sorrel, or sour grass soup), the foods served in a Jewish deli are living relics of time gone by. And the waiters are no longer old and Jewish. As the late comic Sam Levenson so eloquently stated: “Somewhat in the style of Marcel Proust, most of the customers [in a Jewish deli] are involved in a contemporary recherché du temps perdu…a remembrance of things past, of a Jewish way of life all but destroyed…”
NOTES AND RESOURCES:
This essay above is an excerpt of a longer piece published under the title “The Great Nosh: Some Landmark New York Delis,” The Journal of Gastronomy. Volume 4, number 1 (Spring, 1988).
Ruth Glazer, “The Jewish Delicatessen: The Evolution of an Institution,” Commentary, 2 (1946), p. 58. Other material for this article came from “One Touch of Delicatessen,” Commentary, 1 (1946).
Sam Levenson, “Oh, Cuisine!” Saturday Review, March 1980. This quotation and citation were taken from the menu of the Second Avenue Deli, on which the Levenson article was printed in full.