Ode to a pastrami on rye

I’ve been thinking about pastrami since I read recently that the Carnegie Deli is closing.

I have history with pastrami and the Carnegie.

I grew up in a New York where every Jewish neighborhood had at least one deli, when the words deli and takeout were synonymous. Now, there are reportedly fewer than 20 in the five boroughs.

In my New York, as in Herb Gardner’s wonderful 1962 play A Thousand Clowns, delis provide sustenance to the soul of the city.

“Irving R. Feldman’s birthday is my own personal national holiday,” declares Murray Burns, the play’s free-spirited protagonist. “He is proprietor of perhaps the most distinguished kosher delicatessen in this neighborhood and as such I hold the day of his birth in reverence.”

And no food says New York like pastrami. Not a Coney Island hotdog. Not a folded slice of greasy pizza. Not a New York steak, which isn’t called a New York steak in New York.

Pastrami is the fatty flavor king of the Jewish deli. Corned beef? A timid cousin. Brisket? Wishy-washy. Tongue? Feh!

It’s a pastrami sandwich George Costanza turns to when he discovers the orgasmic qualities of mixing food with sex and finds a woman to complement his appetite when she purrs: “I find the pastrami to be the most sensual of all the salted, cured meats.”

Milton Berle spoke for all of us when he said: “Anytime a person goes into a delicatessen and orders a pastrami on white bread, somewhere a Jew dies.”

That joke required no further commentary when Woody Allen had Annie Hall order “a pastrami on white with mayonnaise, lettuce and tomato.”

Given opportunity and mentoring, newcomers to the city can become associate members of the tribe, enthusiasts of the pleasures of pastrami.

Russell Baker, originally from tiny village in the mountains of Virginia, seemed to stamp his New York passport with pastrami references in countless Observer columns in the New York Times.

In one:

“That racket on the roof is too much,” said Mitgang, a connoisseur of Times Square pastrami houses who is not accustomed to the sweet country sound of rain on a tin roof.

In another:

“Why don’t we, just once, order the salami and eggs?” asked Mitgang after five consecutive days of pastrami on rye.

About ten blocks from the old Times Building was the Stage Deli. Opened in 1937, it was known for drawing celebrities.

And, sure enough, when I went there for the first time, when I was a copyboy at the Times in the mid-1960s, I was seated next to Tom Poston, the deadpan comedian from The Steve Allen Show.

The Stage named sandwiches after its famous patrons. When I returned many years later, all its 24 triple-deckers carried a nametag – from Alec Baldwin (brisket, corned beef and Swiss cheese) to Julia Roberts (chicken salad, hard-boiled egg, lettuce and tomato) to Barbra Streisand (pastrami, turkey, roast beef and Swiss cheese).

The Bill Cosby included tongue.

The Stage started going downhill in the ’70s, when it became known as a hangout for gangsters.

After that, the Carnegie, a block north on Seventh Avenue, was top banana in Midtown.

My first taste of the Carnegie came on a pilgrimage to my hometown shortly after 9/11. After the long drive from southern Ontario with my wife and daughters, it was comfort food – pastrami, corned beef, rye bread, knishes, pickles and deli mustard.

A couple of years later, doing a story for the travel pages of the National Post, I sat down for lunch with Sandy Levine, the Carnegie’s bald, beefy proprietor.

At noontime on a winter weekday, the restaurant was packed, all 160 seats occupied with chazzers chomping on the Carnegie’s trademark overstuffed sandwiches – a full pound of meat between slices of thin rye bread.

“Betcha I’m the only one in here from New York,” Sandy confided at our table in the middle of the small dining area – I held my tongue – then set out to prove his point.

He turned to a young couple at a table over his right shoulder: “Where you from?”

“New Orleans,” they said.

He hollered to another couple: “Where you from?”


People started shouting – “Texas” … “North Carolina” … “San Francisco.”

The demonstration appeared to support the idea of the Carnegie as a tourist trap, where rubes forked over big bucks – $13 then, $20 now – for a grotesque sandwich.

“The somewhat catty truth about the Carnegie Deli is that it is one of those New York destinations that actual New Yorkers visit once or twice and then frequently decide they have had enough of,” the Times wrote in its story that the restaurant is closing Dec. 31.

It also slipped in the line that the Carnegie “has been putting out cardiologically perilous fare since 1937,” piling on decades of heartburn and heart-attack jokes leveled at the city’s Jewish delis.

With the Stage having shuttered in 2012, Midtown will be a deli wasteland, pastrami out of fashion, gone in a world of takeout sushi and Szechuan.

I knew it was coming. As I wrote in my novel:

I picked up pastrami, rye bread, knishes, pickles and a cheesecake at the Carnegie Deli on my way back to Park Avenue. “When you said you’d take care of dinner, I thought you meant you’d take me out to a nice restaurant,” Jeannie said as I unpacked the food in the kitchen. “I haven’t eaten this stuff in … I don’t know how long.”

“It’s good for you.”

“I hope you packed your Nexium.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s