Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Why Can't We Have Pastrami for Thanksgiving?

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, that particularly American holiday during which millions of cooks attempt to roast a turkey, a notoriously tasteless industrially refined bird that tastes a lot like textured cardboard. Everybody loves thanksgiving turkey. Well almost everybody. If I had had my way with history, the dour Pilgrims would have stayed stuck in Leiden, and adventurous and far more amenable Bessarabian Jews would have gone in their stead. They would have had far more peaceful relations with the local Wampanoag Indians, and we would all be sitting down to a nice Thanksgiving meal of hot steamed pastrami today instead. With sweet potato latkes, maybe, and definately pickles. There is no holiday that can not be improved by the addition of pastrami. It has been a very good year for pastrami. Last summer I got to meet and translate for Toronto born writer David Sax, author of the great book about delicatessens and the people who love them: “Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen” (and the blog of the same name) who was on assignment in Budapest doing a story for Saveur magazine on Jewish food in Bucharest and Budapest. That article is now on line for all to see, illustrated by Landon’s Nordeman’s great photos. I got to spend a morning hanging around the Kazinczy utca Orthodox Synagogue with them sampling kosher cold cuts and watching the butchers reduce a cow into kosher sausage and salami in about a half hour of furious knife work.
And I also got to spend some time in Canada, sampling some of the smoked meat that stands in for deli meat in the Great Neighbor to the North. I had read about smoked meat for a long time – I traveled through the Ukraine with Barry Lazar and the film crew that had done the documentary Chez Schwartz about this legendary Montreal eatery. I had sat through several showing of the film to audiences of Canadian Jews all loudly moaning and making nyom-nyom sounds during the hard core pastrami-porn segments of the film. So when Geoff Berner invited me to lend a hand (or at least a vocal chord) on his new recording project, I was glad to be whisked up to Montreal and ready to try some smoked meat.Specifically at Chez Schwartz Charcuterie Hebraique in Montreal. The question has since arisen: which do you prefer, Schwartz’s or Katz’s? It’s a tough one to answer. So much rides on the decision. And for the winner of the 2010 Deli Meat of the year the award has to go to… Chez Schwartz. What? Is this not blasphemy? Is this not the equivalent of me turning my back on a half century of pastrami loyalty to Katz’s sandwiches? No. I’m just having a strange year. For one thing, on the last trip to Katz’s, I got stuck with a younger sandwich cutter, who inadvertently made me a sandwich fit for tourists: thinly sliced, lean mixed with lightly fatty meat, it kind of melted in the mouth instead of putting up any of the uneven, chunky resistance I like in pastrami.It was good… hell, it was fantastic…. But not as good as the sandwich I had eaten at Schwartz’s in September. And it was $16. That’s right. In Save the Deli David Saxe writes about the combination of evil influences – rising rents, loss of the kosher lunch crowd, the influx of tourists seeking a taste of New York – that have driven New York pastrami and corned beef sandwich prices into the heavens. Schwartz's sandwich is five bucks, Canadian. Yes, five loonies.
If you want more you can order a straight plate of smoked meat which comes with a stack of rye bread so you can make your own sandwiches or just cram the meat into your mouth as you wish. It may not look alike a lot, but our waiter warned us it might not be the right thing to go with on ones first trip. And he was right. At the next table a couple of beefy Quebecois men – the kind of guys who eat caribou smothered in maple syrup for breakfast – surrendered far short of a full plate of meat.
As for the pickles… excellent, but I still like the half sours at Katz’s better. So, we end the Year in Pastrami with a win for Schwartz’s. Hopefully, I will be back for a rematch soon. Runner ups were Liebman’s Deli in the Bronx and Caplansky’s in Toronto coming in a strong fourth. So enjoy your turkey, but things could have been so much different if only… And while you are at it, consider the real history of Thanksgiving on this annual Turkey day. First of all, there was no turkey. Nor pastrami. No friendly countermen at all.A bunch of absolutely incapable religious fundamentalists who had been driven out of England, the Pilgrims survived their first winter in 1621 by looting the stores of Indians who had died during a massive smallpox epidemic in the previous three years. Arriving at the Wampanoag village of Pautuxet, they were more or less parasitic on the good graces of the Indians there due to the political machinations of the local leader Massasoit and the incredible luck that there was one Pautuxet native – Tisquantum ( which translates as “Rage”) who became known as Squanto – who could translate for them. He had been kidnapped into slavery by English seamen five years earlier and managed to return. For a good antidote to the Thanksgiving mythology that we will all be swimming in, check out this article in Smithsonian Magazine by Charles Mann, which is essentially the first chapter of his book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus. Rage indeed.

Friday, November 19, 2010

New Jersey Nostalgia

I haven’t posted anything in a while since I returned to Budapest, but that reflects on me more than Budapest. I’ve been busy tying up ends on various writing work, and not going out an awful lot. I tend to eat out mainly when I am on the road, and in Hungary I mostly eat at home, and for a few months that means a dull diet from which carbohydrates have been more or less expelled. Yup. No pasta, no spuds, no mamaliga, no rice, no bread. After a few months of this, I should be able to crawl through keyholes and hide under chairs once again. Not my favorite state of affairs, but one I can manage as long as I have a lot of steamed cabbage, and in Hungary it isn’t hard to find cabbage in the winter. And we don’t have any gas in the building, and won’t for a few weeks. This hasn’t been so bad since the fall has been mild, but soon we will have to turn the electric heaters on, to the delight of the Budapest Electric Works and their bill department. And we can’t cook very well, beyond using a microwave and a hot plate, and the hot plate has to do double duty heating up water for the two of us to take something resembling a bath every now and then. In other words, it sucks. Which is not the point of this Blog.But it makes me nostalgic for some of the chow I wolfed down while I was in the States and Canada, so since I cannot stroll into a Hackensack burger joint and order a one dollar depression era style onion burger, I can at least write about it. If you ever find yourself stuck in New Jersey, which is the state most New Jerseyites consider themselves to be found in, one thing is cruelly clear: the restaurant scene sucks. OK, not entirely – ethnic food in ethnic neighborhoods like Palisades Park and Paterson can be superb. Working class lunch joints shine. But the Garden State is a sprawling suburb connected by horrid highways linking mall to mall to suburban tract houses. People living in one town generally don’t explore a lot in other towns. If they want something good they tend to use it as an excuse to hop into the maws of New York City just across the river. And I don’t drive. Finding anything truly great is rare and worth tooting about.Which is why I was happy to discover the Seafood Gourmet Fish Market in Maywood, New Jersey. Basically, it’s a fish market with a dining room in the back, and somebody who knows how to cook fish in the kitchen. A simple idea, but it works. I had to impress both my parents – who are never wildly enthusiastic about trying any place that they didn’t try before 1970 – and Fumie, who is possibly the most critical consumer of seafood in the world, having graduated from Tokyo Harbor to the Danube bend in fish Eating Studies.We began with clam chowder – creamy New England and tomato based Manhatten style – and a lobster bisque. It was so freaking good that my Dad bought a quart of the bisque in the fish market on the way out for him and Fumie to eat the next day as well. I had seafood pasta – scallops and shrimp tossed with arugula on angel hair pasta.Better than anything I can find in Zuglo, damn sure. Just next to Maywood is Hackensack, which is a virtual museum of a town that seems to have stopped developing sometime after World War two. I know it well because I worked here as a municipal garbage collector for the city of Hackensack for a year after high school, slagging cans into a rolling garbage truck manned by a Black Gospel Choir and an alcoholic Micmac Indian from Canada. I know every lunch counter and deli in Hackensack, because we were always given free lunch if we illegally took away their garbage, saving them from the usurious mafia-run private garbage companies.
Hackensack is the home of White Manna hamburgers, which I have drooled over elsewhere, but on the advice of my nephew Max - who has very strict and carefully researched opinions about Jersey Guy food - my sister decided to throw caution to the winds and took us to Cubby’s BBQ.
Cubby's is a bizarre little eatery in south Hackensack, nestled picturesquely amid used car lots and industrial garbage incinerators. The owner of Cubby’s is a Vietnam Vet, and the place is decorated as a testament to his obsession with American soldiers missing in action during our many wars. That’s an interesting theme for a restaurant, and one that you could really pull off only in New Jersey.
Cubby’s is about Jersey Guy Food: huge portions of meat, preferably in the form of BBQ Ribs or cheeseburgers. The obsession with huge portions explains why so many suburbanites around New York resemble those Belgomorphs I wrote about. If you finish this food, it finishes you. And if you have ever been to a place that does real Texas or North Carolina BBQ, you will look askance at the Damn Yankee obsession with slathering everything in a thick, sweet BBQ sauce, as if the meat isn't good enough to stand alone.Well, at least some people like it. And thus, even though I had been dutifully limiting myself to no more than five French fries a meal at any diner, I am now relegated to high fiber cabbage for the rest of the foreseeable future. Farewell, oh low brow fantasies of lunch at International House of Pancakes, where the boysenberry syrup stains my soul as well as my new shirt.