Pastrami on rye


I don’t know why. I don’t even care why. I love old-school Jewish delicatessens, everything about them, from the tall corned-beef sandwiches piled higher with sauerkraut and rip-snorting mustard to the egg creams and celery seltzers, from the fresh pickle bars to the cheap Formica tables and blaring fluorescent lights, from the smartass waiters to the no-nonsense silverware. I love the briny, pickled sharpness of it, the rough-hewn textures of it, food, the messiness of it on the plate and on my fingers.

And I don’t have this in Athens, GA, nor did I have it in Jackson, MS, nor in Dallas, TX. Those are all the places that I have lived, so I’ve never had it. So how can I crave something so badly, like a hometown lover, that’s never really been part of my hometown, my growing up, my first kisses and holding hands? I don’t know. Look, I was born and raised in a large Texas city, meaning by all rights I should be missing quality Tex Mex–taco trucks and green chile sauces ain’t the same, you Californians, you New Mexicans. But I don’t. I don’t get a bone-deep urge to gorge on beef brisket barbecue, the way it gets done in Texas. Nope. But a pastrami on rye, with sour pickles and a bowl of matzo soup? I swear I dream about such things. (Longtime readers know this is true, as I’ve hit on this subject before.) I hope against hope that a deli will be the next thing opening up downtown.

Now, I’m gradually becoming a pescatarian, now that I make enough to afford seafood when I go out, and I accidentally went vegetarian for most of last week. But, when I find myself in a northeastern city, and this doesn’t happen that often, I’m gonna find my way to a pastrami on rye. I didn’t even like rye bread as a kid. No matter–I load up on the ol’ home cookin’, even though it was never my home cookin’.

I spent this weekend in Philadelphia for a conference. In between hawking scholarly monographs and hunting down murals, I made my way to not one but two delis. That might seem excessive for a four-day trip to you, which makes me feel a little sad for you. I found Hershel’s East Side Deli in the Reading Terminal Market–i.e., the happiest place on Earth–where I had a brisket sandwich that made me weak in the knees, and my first egg cream in over a decade. That was Friday lunch, which meant I spent the rest of the workday sleepy and happily distracted. The very next night, I gorged myself at Schlesinger’s Deli on Locust Street. Matzo ball soup, pickled whole hot peppers, sour pickles, pastrami on rye, another egg cream, and a quiet coffee as I watched the girls in sundresses and their under-dressed bros stroll down the street. I let it all settle as I read a Percival Everett novel on a bench in Rittenhouse Square, marveling at the variety of both the city’s dogs and the fashions (or anti-fashions) on display.

I’m still full from all this but I have to stock up, kids–this has to hold me over for another year or two.

RELATED: Chabon’s shtekeleh” (2007), and “The perfect meal” (2005).

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (
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