How to Think of a Pastrami Sandwich

A pastrami sandwich is one of the best things to eat in New York. Many people will even say that it’s the most important thing to eat when visiting the city, that eating it is a quintessential New York experience.

Pastrami is traditional Jewish food. According to Wikipedia, Jewish Romanians brought it to New York and called it “pastrama,” which was later converted to “pastrami” to imitate “salami.” Made from the fatty, navel end of beef brisket, it’s the product of a long and complex process: beef brisket is first salted and cured for two to four weeks, given a spice rub, smoked for a couple of days, and boiled for a few hours. The brisket is then sliced and placed in a towering stack between rye bread slathered with mustard to become the iconic pastrami on rye.

There are many restaurants in the city famous for this sandwich. There’s Junior’s in Brooklyn and Times Square, which is also famous for its cheesecake. There’s Carnegie Deli in midtown. And there’s Katz’s, perhaps the most famous, the most loved. Located in the lower east side, Katz’s is also famous for being the diner where Meg Ryan did that pretending-to-climax scene in When Harry Met Sally. The diner has photographs of famous celebrities on its walls as well as a bubble hanging from the ceiling to point out where exactly Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal sat when they did the famous scene.

We’ve had the pastrami in Junior’s, Carnegie Deli, and Katz’s before. We’ve also had it, for one reason or another, in a variety of anonymous cafeterias in other places, other states. Although we enjoyed the pastrami sandwich we had at Katz’s when we had it there years ago, we’ve never gone back, dreading the crowd of tourists and locals who mob the place. A few weekends ago, finding ourselves in the area, we decided to go back.

It was a Sunday evening so the deli was quite calm, full but not crowded. You can get waiter service inside, in which case you’re supposed to sit on one of the tables against the wall. Or you can, as we did, go the self-service route. The deli is proud of the antiquated system they have in which, at the door, every adult gets a ticket, the food you order is recorded on it, and you present your ticket at the exit where you pay. Many people get confused and, especially at lunchtime in the weekends when there’s bedlam in the restaurant, it feels pretty chaotic.

But it’s simple when it’s quiet, as it was last Sunday. We lined up, we ordered, we got our food. The pastrami is delicious, the slices tender, flavorful, fatty. Among all the pastrami sandwiches we’ve tried, Katz’s really has the best. There’s a reason it’s been around for more than a hundred years, a reason it’s visited by politicians, celebrities, tourists.

As we enjoyed the food and the festive scene, however, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of the place as a kind of anachronism – and not because of obvious things like the ticketing system, the burly waiters calling you “sweetheart,” the old photographs of famous people, many of them already dead, on the walls. It was because of something else. On the table next to ours, the two diners had leftovers on their trays – a substantial amount of meat, pickles, and fries – that could conceivably feed a small family. As other diners in other tables were leaving, I saw the same huge amounts of leftovers.

It’s understandable how there could be so much leftover food. The sandwiches are enormous, the meat slices layered on top of each other extravagantly, excessively, so much that it’s not so much a sandwich as a six-inch stack of meat with slices of bread to hold them together with. It seems to be an indelible part of the concept of a pastrami sandwich – the meat has to be stacked high. When my husband and I found ourselves in an outlet mall a long time ago somewhere in the Bay Area, we ordered a pastrami sandwich. It was an anonymous cafeteria in an anonymous mall, but the sandwich was the same in that the meat slices were stacked insanely high. My husband and I watched with incredulity as the deli guy behind the counter sliced and sliced the brisket. We kept expecting him to stop because there was so much meat already, but the deli guy wouldn’t stop until the sandwich could satisfy four people. Perhaps more.

It was a somewhat funny and memorable experience, but thinking of all the problems confronting this world – shrinking natural resources and climate change, for example – I couldn’t help but feel that the time for this kind of restaurant, this kind of excess, has passed. Even now, there are signs of scarcity. The price of beef has gone up because of the drought in California. Restaurants that traditionally serve pastrami are either taking it out of their menu or raising their prices considerably. The sandwich in Katz’s, at almost twenty dollars, is not cheap, but it continues to sell.

I suppose that Katz’s and other places will continue serving these sandwiches. They’re popular, after all, and, despite the increase in prices, they still make money for the restaurant and the city. While the pastrami is delicious, hearty, nourishing food, I guess a better way to think about it is not so much as a meal but as a tourist attraction, a circus sideshow, a mini-vacation from real life.

We enjoyed the pastrami, but of course we had leftovers. Unlike the tourists, we were able to take our leftovers home. I froze the sandwich and, last weekend, I thawed it, threw away the soggy bread, then lightly fried the meat slices. I served them with scrambled eggs and rice. And that, I have to say, was a terrific meal.

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