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
The great immigration of the late-nineteenth century brought unheard-of things to America: Tin Pan Alley, Bakelite, the first air-conditioned hat. And thanks to Sussman Volk, pastrami. In 1887, a not-great year for Jews in Vilna, my great-grandfather packed up his wife and seven children and headed for New York. He had nine fingers, having shot one off to avoid the Russian draft.
In Vilna, Sussman was a miller. But New York didn’t need millers. So he became a tinker, mending pots and pans and selling them off his back. On the road, he would sleep in the stables of the people he sold pots to. While praying one morning in New Rochelle, he was kicked by a horse, which made him tear his hair and shout, “My life lacks dignity!”
Being a religious man, Reb Sussman knew the kosher way to butcher meat. He opened a tiny shop at 86½ Delancey Street in New York City. The first week, a Rumanian stopped by and asked if he could store a trunk in the cellar. “I’m just going back for a few years,” he said.
“If I let you store your trunk in my cellar,” Reb Sussman bargained, “what will you give me?”
“If you let me store my trunk in your cellar, I will give you the recipe for pastrami.”
Great-grandpa took the trunk and the recipe and began selling chunks of pastrami over the counter. Soon he was selling it by the slice. Then between two pieces of bread. Since the application of mustard to a pastrami sandwich should be done at the last possible moment so the mustard doesn’t get hot and sink into the rye (which should be soft but never gummy), after school all seven of Reb Sussman’s children worked in the store making toodles. A toodle is a little square of wax paper rolled into a cone with a dollop of mustard in it—a precursor to the stingy plastic mustard bags you tear open with your teeth on airplanes. With a toodle, you could take a pastrami sandwich to work in the morning and lay a squiggle of fresh mustard on it at lunch.
Reb Sussman’s pastrami sandwiches took off. He moved from 86 ½ Delancey Street to 88 Delancey Street. Here he had room to put in tables and chairs. Overnight, Sussman Volk’s was no longer just a butcher’s. You could sit there and eat. It was 1888. The first New York deli was born. (Around this time, according to family lore, Sussman’s son Albert, working independently, became the first man to stir scallions into cream cheese.)
In the twentieth century, as the diaspora headed south and west, other delis were not far behind. Nate ‘n’ Al has been in Los Angeles since Joan Crawford ran a restaurant in Mildred Pierce . Wolfie’s, a founder of the Early Bird Special, and now the Super Early Bird Special if you don’t mind dinner at 3:00 P.M. , has been a Collins Avenue fixture since Miami became the Catskills of the South. Near Cleveland, Corky and Lenny’s feeds a thousand people a day. Uptown in Manhattan, there’s the Carnegie Deli, which serves things that must make Reb Sussman spin in his kittel (the pleated linen tent a religious man wears to his bar mitzvah, wedding, and funeral). The Carnegie Deli has cutely named sandwiches like the Hamalot (hot Virginia ham with gravy, candied sweets or baked beans). Its neighbor, the Stage Deli, names sandwiches after movie stars, such as the Julia Roberts (chicken salad, hard-boiled egg, lettuce, and tomato). In Urbana, Virginia (pop. 6), the Pinetree Deli specializes in pulled pork and pit-cooked BBQ. And you can order a pork sausage poboy at Castalano’s Deli in Morgan City, Louisiana. Is any place that makes a sandwich a deli? Is a bodega a deli? A Friendly’s? And what’s the difference between a delicatessen and an appetizing store?
I call Jack Lebewohl at the Second Avenue Kosher Deli.
“ Ver veist? ” he says. (Who knows?) “A deli serves more cold cuts; an appetizing store, more fish. But a deli can also have fish and an appetizing store can also have deli. It has to do with emphasis.”
What makes a deli a deli is more than pastrami on rye and woodgrain Formica tables. A true deli has to have a true deli waiter. A deli waiter hates to wait. He is by necessity impatient. An authentic deli doesn’t have a bar. Since tips for a sandwich and a Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray aren’t tremendous even if you’re inclined to leave 20 percent for surly service, the only way a deli waiter can make real money is turnover. It’s survival of the fastest. “When you pay the rent, you can sit here,” a deli waiter will tell a lingerer. He’s got to get you in and out. Forget schmoozing. Forget shtick. Financial peace of mind means flipping your table. The only time I came close to getting thrown out of a deli was when I took my friend Ginny to the former Golden’s, at Eighty-sixth and Madison. Golden’s was the kind of place where customers slammed down their spoons and screamed, “This soup is fat. Take it back!” to no one in particular. You didn’t signal a waiter to come over. You stated your case to the dining room at large. People were always sending back. That’s another reason deli waiters are brisk: The faster they get you out, the less they have to listen to you. So I should have known better than to meet Ginny at Golden’s. She spoke like a 78-rpm record played at 33.
“The corned beef. Is it lean or is it fat?” she asked the waiter.
“Your rye bread. Does it have seeds or no?”
“Seeds.” He started to write.
“Well, I just want to know. Is the corned beef leaner or fatter than the pastrami and does it come with coleslaw? And if it does could you put it in a little dish on the side because I don’t like it when the coleslaw touches the bread because the bread gets soggy, and is the coleslaw the kind that’s made with vinegar or mayonnaise? You know what? I think I’ll have the turkey. Is your turkey light and dark mixed or can I get all white?”
“Lady,” he said, “You come here to eat or to talk?”
Pastrami on rye. Corned beef on rye. These are the mainstays of deli fare, both preserved meats, closely related. But since corned beef also belongs to the Irish, I think of Sussman Volk’s pastrami as echt -deli. Not that other cultures don’t have pastrami. Pastrami is a verb (a Yiddish verb, derived from a Hungarian verb: pastramâ, “to preserve”). You can pastrami anything. In North Africa, they pastrami camel. You could, were you so inclined, pastrami a zucchini. Pastrami-ing, say, beef takes four steps: A flanken (beef plate) is rubbed with salt and air-cured. Then the salted flanken is submerged in cooled water mixed with more coarse salt plus sugar and pickling spices. Step three is weighting the seasoned meat in a stoneware jar with as many cloves of garlic as you can stand. Step four is keeping the jar covered in the fridge and turning the meat every five days or so. In three weeks, your flanken is corned beef. (There’s no corn in corned beef. It got its name from the English, who used salt the size of a kernel.) And here’s what Reb Sussman learned from his Rumanian friend: To make pastrami, you take a corned beef one step further. You hot-smoke it at 320 degrees for six or seven hours. But what separates a good pastrami from an unforgettable pastrami is what’s added to the rub: ginger, red-pepper flakes, cinnamon, paprika, bay leaves, cloves, peppercorns, allspice, red-wine vinegar, onion, more garlic, coriander. The meat gets massaged with this secret seasoning before it’s smoked. If you’re in the right kind of deli, an Eastern European hoists it out of its warmer and carves you a little piece to taste, a sliver with a haunting black crust.
Possibly the worst pastrami sandwich I had was outside Boston at S&S (as in Ess! and Ess! , the Yiddish command for Eat! ) Walking into the place, I knew I was in trouble. At a table for four, they were sipping margaritas. Then I looked at the menu. If so desired, I could have my pastrami sandwich on a . . . croissant . Huevos rancheros was on the menu, and tiramisu. Still, nothing prepared me for cold, pre-sliced, desiccated pastrami. The height of the sandwich, including two slices of rye, was a Lilliputian two inches, compared with Katz’s three and a quarter, the Carnegie’s four, and Wolfie’s five inches at the center. (All authentic pastrami sandwiches slope dramatically.) The waitress slammed down French’s Classic Yellow and Grey Poupon.
“Do you have any deli mustard?” I asked, stunned.
“This is what we got.”
“Well do you have any Gulden’s?”
“Way ya think yahhh?,” she snapped her dishtowel. “New Yawk?”
Good pastrami and a grumpy waiter are only the beginning. In an authentic deli, you will notice the presence of a dishtowel-like cloth on the waiter’s arm. This has many purposes. It wipes the table between customers and cleans the rim of your plate before it’s set down. It can be a potholder and a fly swatter. I’ve seen deli waiters snap their towels at nothing in particular, the way men snap towels in locker rooms. When a slice of pastrami falls out of your sandwich, if it lands on the table, don’t eat it. There are places these towels have been you don’t know. The proper window décor in a deli is a panorama of one-gallon jars of bright red mild cherry peppers, queen stuffed olives, and sweet red-pepper hulls. These are displayed pyramid-style, like acrobats. Steer clear of the place if the colors of the food in these jars have faded.
In addition, a true deli has to pass the pickle test. You want a deli that serves a full sour, not that travesty half-sour. A full sour is the color of the Atlantic Ocean about 10 feet out from Jones Beach when you open your eyes underwater. It’s a cool nonbright green, the kind they have at Guss Pickle Works. It should be crisp yet wet enough to dribble down your shirt. (Winchester, New Hampshire, hosts a Pickle Festival every fall. I went last year. Their idea of an award-winning pickle is a dilled three-inch dwarf shipped in a plastic barrel from Houston, Texas.) Beware of pickles that are as green as an al dente string bean. Never eat a pickle with yellow on it anywhere. A good, warty dull-green full sour should have a transparent quality clear through it.
A true deli will also offer a New York phenomenon: the chocolate egg cream. A chocolate egg cream has no egg or cream in it. It is made with Fox’s U-Bet, a chocolate-flavored syrup manufactured for 101 years by the Fox family in Brooklyn. Start with an inch of U-Bet. Stir in an inch of milk. Then spritz that with seltzer under pressure. Important: Stir violently with a metal spoon to achieve a frothy head. In other words, a chocolate egg cream is a chocolate ice-cream soda with no ice cream. This is the deli drink of choice: The sweet of the U-Bet contrasts nicely with the pickle. The carbonation cuts the fat in the pastrami. All sensations are favorably represented: The hot, the cold. The wet, the dry. The crunchy, the oily. The sweet, the sour. The chewy, the smooth. The spicy and the reassuring.
I head for Sussman Volk’s, looking for what the historian Richard Rabinowitz calls “the genealogy of place.” I’m thinking about Henry Roth’s Lower East Side novel, Call It Sleep , first published in 1934: “Humanity. On feet, on crutches, in carts and cars. The ice-vendor. The waffle-wagon. Human voices, motion, seething, throbbing, bawling, honking horns and whistling.” Walking down Orchard Street off East Houston, I pass a pizzeria, a Turkish kebab house, and the Chili Pepper Mexican Restaurant. Many places are for rent. This isn’t Roth’s slum any more. The neighborhood is hot. There’s no Starbucks yet, but gentrification is manifest destiny. Happily, I spot Grace, a store that’s been on Orchard forever. “You Give Us $10, WE’LL GIVE YOU BEAUTIFUL PURSE ,” says the sign in the window.
I’m looking for 118 Orchard Street, where Reb Sussman lived. It’s a beautiful block, low in scale, full of light. Vendors show their wares outside: luggage you never see anyplace else, not even on airport conveyor belts; two-dollar sunglasses; pretty hats from China. People from Pakistan have cornered the market on driving gloves. At Phat Chilly Fashions, you can pick up a watch with a fancy name on it. There’s a bra store where a man with X-ray vision tells me I’m wearing the wrong size. “I can fit you better,” he says, “guaranteed.” A sign in Sosinsky’s window reads: FAMOUS BRAND SHIRTS! WE GOT LUCKY! And here it is, 118 Orchard Street. It turns out to be Sol Moscot Opticians, a two-story building where I used to buy my daughter prescription eyeglasses.
I turn the corner. Sussman Volk had a nice commute. 86 ½ is gone but there’s 86, and in the basement, where they sell denim skirts with fringed slits, a back room has plenty of space for a Rumanian’s trunk. 88 Delancey Street is two stores now, Elko Jewelry and Skylight Electronics. Air conditioners line the entrance. Gameboys, televisions, and Mickey Mouse phones fill the windows. I walk in. The store is cocooned in Sheetrock, industrial wall-to-wall, and acoustic tile. I can’t see anything that could have existed in 1888. Nothing. José, the owner, is on vacation in Florida. I ask Miguel if I can look in the basement. “My great-grandfather had a deli here in 1888,” I tell him. He’s happy for me. I walk down old cement steps and have a look. Fluted cast-iron pillars, painted gray, hold up the ceiling. There’s a little room off to the side. It is covered with six-by-six-inch white tiles, laid like bricks. Near the ceiling and the floor, two bands of intricately patterned blue tiles circle the room. All the tiles have a hairline of grout between them. They were laid by hand. The room is grimy, but once it was spotless, easy to clean. Maybe it was a mikvah or a place to butcher meat.
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.