January 14, 2017
WASHINGTON, DC --- After a meeting in New York last week I decided I needed a Corned Beef on Rye sandwich.
Not the stuff they serve in Washington.
The real deal.
The true soul food.
New York Jewish Delicatessen.
The food Mama made that killed Papa.
First you start with thick slabs of Russian-style rye bread --- the kind with the black caraway seeds that always seems to get stuck between your teeth.
Next is the spicy brown mustard.
The garlicky Kosher pickles.
The cold sauerkraut
Or, the Hungarian red and green peppers.
And then there’s the Corned Beef itself. Salty, savory, mouth-watering slices of pink meat, falling apart really -- they’ve been in the steam tables so long. Tender, juicy, wonderful, and marvelous. Stacked sometimes six or seven inches high, the sandwiches were mountains more than meals. Sliced paper thin, or thick, no matter. Either way, it remains pure wonderment every time you put it in your mouth.
Add as a side some Kishka, with the brown gravy, and maybe an appetizer of chopped liver with radish, or a cup of Matzo Ball Soup with noodles.
And don’t forget a Doctor Brown’s Cream Soda to top it off.
Maybe a piece of cheesecake for desert. A cup of coffee and then, sadly, pay the bill and it’s back into the cruel hard world.
Man, that’s living.
The Corned Beef sandwich has, as everyone knows, absolutely zero nutritional value. Cardiologists could simply wait outside, as patients would descend from the restaurant. The patrons limped out the door, belts loosened, gleam-eyed and somewhat droopy from all the food.
Sometimes you’d need a shopping bag to carry all the leftovers.
Amazing. Sublime. Heavenly.
Give me an alka-seltzer.
A lot has been written about the Corned Beef sandwich. Indeed, many aficionados prefer Pastrami. But for me, it’s the Corned Beef.
I was always a little partial to the Carnegie Deli, at the corner of 55th and 7th Ave., because it was closer to my office, and you could get in and out faster. The Stage was always a little more crowded with tourists during the years I worked in New York. And I thought the soup was better at the Carnegie, too.
In fact, during the 1980s when I worked at IBM and Edelman in New York, there were literally hundreds of spots to choose from, but in my mind there were really only three great Delis in New York City:
The first two were in mid-town, on the west side.
The latter downtown, lower east side.
Talk about the big three! It wasn’t Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin. It was Carnegie, Stage and Katz’s. All great delis. All great food.
These were busy, bustling restaurants. Open seemingly 24 hours a day, seven days a week. So heavily trafficked, it was impossible to keep them clean. Indeed, the places were loud, noisy, dirty and usually in a various elements of disrepair.
And the waitresses? Abusive, wise acres who would give the regulars a hard time, not because they had to, but because it was part of the floorshow.
Best entertainment off Broadway.
And two are now All Gone.
Sadly, as I learned last week, both the Stage and Carnegie have closed.
The last day at the Stage was Dec. 1, 2012.
The Carnegie lasted a little longer, but it too was shut down just a few agos, on Dec. 31, 2016.
Both claimed they were victims of high rents in mid-town and could no longer afford to remain in business.
I’m a fifth generation New Yorker, born on Manhattan Island. And yet, I can probably count on both hands the number of times I’ve been to lower Manhattan.
My mother’s family came over on the boat in the 1850s from Austria. They bought some land in the “country” on what today is East 67th Street between 2nd and third avenues. Papa Zuckerman was an Austrian baker whose rye bread was reputed to be among the best in the city.
So, I know from Rye Bread.
As the family grew, a treat would be to get sturgeon from the fish mongers at the Fulton Fish Market. Or steaks from the meat packing district. Or beers from Yorkville on 72nd Street.
But deli? Well, as the 1900s came along, more and more Jewish families came to rely upon the cooks at various delicatessens throughout the five boroughs to carry on the food traditions.
To make the sweet and sour cabbage.
The thinly sliced Nova with eggs and onions for breakfast.
Or Matzah Brie.
And of course, the bagels with the white fish spread,
Or the kasha and varnishkas.
The borscht with the boiled potato and sour cream.
The potato pancakes with apple sauce.
Or the tsimas.
By the time the 1950s arrived, great delis were all over the city. And the cheesecakes? Some people thought the cheesecake at Jack Dempsey’s was the best. Others thought Rattner’s. Or Junior’s in Brooklyn.
For my family, the cheesecake at the Carnegie was the favorite. The cake was sometimes backed so it would be six or seven inches high.
As big as a Corned Beef Sandwich.
The weak leg holding up the table at my grandmother’s apartment would groan when somebody would bring home a box with a cheescake. The thing must have weighted five or six pounds. Sometimes plain. Sometimes with blueberry or strawberry topping. Once, somebody brought home one with chocolate.
I’m pretty sure the chocolate one caused at least two relatives to faint, it was so good.
Sadly, much of this is now relegated to memory upon the demise of these two great Jewish delis.
Apparently they live on in other ways now.
In Las Vegas, they’ve got the Carnegie and Stage at the New York New York Hotel. I’ve been there.
It’s not the same. Not even close. Too clean.
Photo Credit: Instagram/ Grubhouse