Pastrami on rye

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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 Atlanta, GA. He is the co-author (with Daniel Couch) of Bob Mould's Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). His work has been published in The Quarterly Conversation, RogerEbert.com, Bookslut (RIP), The Comics Journal, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals. Twitter: @walter_biggins.
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