American pie

American pie
Neon-bright welcome at the iconic Katz's, Photo Credit: Dinodia

Amble through New York's delis and diners, and find pastrami sandwiches and hot dogs still smoking

Shougat Dasgupta
July 21 , 2014
07 Min Read

New York is not a city with many secrets. Every block of the city — its fabled gruff, immigration-driven energy, its devotion to the untrammelled making of money, its cosmopolitan panoply — has been mythologised on page or celluloid. The visitor to New York does not expect to be surprised; on the contrary, he comes expecting, even demanding, that the city conform to the image he has of it, all bustle, Broadway, skyscrapers and yellow taxicabs. In this vision, New York is condensed to Manhattan, the other four, larger boroughs mere withered appendages.

Once, the typical tourist would have added to his itinerary — alongside visits to Central Park, the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, and a Broadway show — a meal at one of the city’s famous delicatessens. The Jewish deli was echt New York. Established by Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants from central and eastern Europe towards the close of the 19th century, the high-water mark was reached in the 1930s when thousands of delis competed for custom in the city. In a subdued New York dining culture, buffeted by the Depression and Prohibition, the deli succeeded because it provided substantial, affordable, tasty meals to working people. The unpretentious, utilitarian deli captured the zeitgeist.

That heyday has long since passed; in a city so protean, so unforgiving as New York, falls from grace are frequent and precipitous. It is not fair to describe the deli today as only a curiosity, but the few dozen that remain in Manhattan are no longer working class hubs. They cater instead mostly to tourists eager for their ‘New York experience’, no matter that what was once the thrumming pulse of the city is now on life support. The deli was once to New York what the dhaba is to Delhi, a place to eat mounds of inexpensive food prepared with an old-fashioned disdain for the eater’s cardiac health. The workingmen who ate this food needed the calories. Now New York’s working classes come from other parts of the world and have brought with them other foods, have created new places to gather with colleagues or take their families on a Sunday evening. If you want to find such a restaurant in New York, to be surprised by the food, its cheapness and its quality, you’ll have to leave Manhattan and go to Queens.

But this is not an article about finding, say, ful medames in some Egyptian cubbyhole in the outer boroughs. It’s about pastrami sandwich. It’s also about such American staples as hot dog and hamburger. Contemporary New York may offer a cornucopia but, whether or not the sophisticates bridle, when its politicians seek to symbolise the city, they reach for the familiar. Before the Yankees played the World Series late in October against the Phillies, the senators from New York and Pennsylvania wagered their state’s culinary pride on the outcome: cheesecake and cheesesteak, respectively. In the event of a Phillies win the cheesecake for the Pennsylvania senators would come from Junior’s, a deli founded in 1950, dawn of America’s golden decade. Junior’s, in Brooklyn, represents an American fantasy of egalitarianism and family, a space where a Madison Avenue executive or a bus driver can take his wife and children. The food at Junior’s may be uneven, but people visit for the illusion, the escape into ‘Americana’.

Katz’s is New York’s ur-deli. Or more accurately, perhaps, it is the last of the earliest breed, the original late-19th-century deli in Manhattan’s once grim Lower East Side. These days Katz’s is something of a movie star, backdrop to everything from Meg Ryan’s fake orgasm in When Harry Met Sally to Johnny Depp’s clandestine meetings with FBI colleagues in Donnie Brasco. Katz’s represents the New York deli the way the lone tiger in a zoo represents all tigers for those of us who will never see a tiger in nature. We know we are looking at a reduced creature, however glorious. It is, frankly, unnatural when a deli once central to Jewish working class and immigrant culture (indeed American culture — Katz’s “Send a salami to your boy in the army” became a catch phrase during World War II) charges $15 for a pastrami sandwich. On the bright side though, at Katz’s the pastrami is still peppery, still hand-carved and piled in a tottering tower onto two pieces of rye bread.

A running joke among deli owners in New York is that the average age of their customers is ‘deceased’, but Katz’s is always full, the tourists staring perplexed at the tickets they’ve been handed, gingerly asking the gruff carver for mayonnaise. At Katz’s you pay the bill on your way out, your order scrawled onto the ticket you’re given when you enter; at Katz’s you never ask for mayonnaise, if you must have a condiment pick mustard.

Carnegie Deli, not far from Times Square, was opened 40 years after Katz’s, during the Jewish deli’s heyday. Its pastrami sandwich may be even larger than Katz’s, the bread not so much part of the sandwich as a futile gesture. Woody Allen used Carnegie in a film and the pictures on the wall of obscure and less obscure celebrities attest to the deli’s glitzy past. At Carnegie the sandwiches are called things like ‘Beef Encounter’, the humour as fossilised as the cranky waitstaff. Of course, you don’t go to Carnegie for the service, you go for the food. Heavy, fatty, Jewish deli food; “food,” as the owner of the legendary 2nd Avenue Deli (no longer on 2nd Avenue, though it retains its name) once confessed, “that will kill you.”

American diner food too will likely kill you, or give you heartburn, or roil inside your stomach like a violent if sludgy sea. Here is the huge stack of pancakes, the eggs over easy, the hamburger dripping grease, all accompanied by truly terrible coffee. The American diner is a celebration of heroically bad food. Its slow demise thus unsurprising in a city where self-imposed dietary restrictions become ever more elaborate. But the American diner is also a marvel of community, a place for people to gather at all hours over comforting, substantive food. And there is joy in watching the competent short-order cook. At Johnny’s Luncheonette, in Chelsea, or Eisenberg’s a few blocks east, the cooks are rarely short of a word, spat rapid-fire while flipping a burger or omelette.

Veselka is a great American diner, combining American staples with Eastern European food, thick soups, meaty, stodgy dishes that on a winter’s night are revivifying. Located in the East Village, it does what only a diner is capable of, uniting Ukrainian families, Village hipsters, bohemian artists, students, old Russian men playing chess, creating an ad hoc community devoted to waffles and pierogies. Humble, tasty food eaten communally is, after all, one of life’s universal pleasures.

Veselka and the delis have in common an Eastern and Central European heritage. The hot dog is a product of German immigration to the city and naturally, the delis offer excellent hot dogs; certainly Katz’s is among the very best. A New York hot dog is typically eaten with sauerkraut and mustard. It’s the sort of food that can only be eaten outdoors with any relish (sorry for the pun). If you’re in the States during baseball season, the best place to eat a hot dog is at Yankee stadium. The hot dogs are supplied by Nathan’s Famous, which has expanded from its Coney Island store in 1916 to thousands of franchises around the world.

The hot dog and hamburger, like everything else in New York, has also been gentrified, adapted to meet the finicky criteria of the city’s affluent. Daniel Boulud, one of the city’s finest French chefs, makes a celebrated hamburger from ground sirloin stuffed with foie gras and truffles. Boulud provides ‘slightly’ more humble burgers on his various restaurants’ menus. Cheap burgers made with quality ingredients are available at Shake Shack in Madison Square Park and even cheaper burgers are served with ironic flair at Burger Joint in the Le Parker Meridien hotel. The slice of pizza, the hot dog and the burger thrive in chic restaurants and organic food carts run by recent MBA graduates, working class food adjusted to suit silk-lined pockets. The greasy spoons and diners still have a place in New York, as does the Jewish deli, scrabbling to stay relevant. The queue at Di Fara’s pizza restaurant, a tiny one-man operation where the owner handmakes all the pizzas and charges $5 for a single slice, suggests that New Yorkers still crave foods that define their city. The iconic foods still provide a robust, homegrown counterpoint to the dazzling cuisines of newer immigrants. That the pastrami sandwich holds its own alongside the arepa or the bowl of pho is symbolic of what we love about New York, its position as a global crossroads.

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