Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Patriotism of Pastrami: Hobby's Deli, Newark, NJ.

Around about this time of year - during the short grey days of a Central European winter - I become consumed by a burning need. I need a pastrami sandwich. I need it now. And I can't have one.  There are none here. They live only in the Western hemisphere, and yet I can smell one, I can almost feel the texture of fatty squishy spiced meat on my palate, the salty savor of half-sour pickles, the satisfying swig of the second can of root beer. I can not have that here in Budapest. Not at all. Never.

The best thing in the entire world. Really. No exaggeration. This is why we live on earth.

Of course there are those who would debate me. Budapest boasts its own micro-media of foodie porn, and there are at least four places in Budapest now offering something they label pastrami. But having watched the video  of a guy checking out some Budapest pastrami sandwiches I can't bear to even experiment. (Imagine a homesick Hungarian wandering the streets of Manhattan lured by a sign announcing "Guly├ís leves" only to find some kind of thin red broth with vanilla foam and a single olive mockingly served in a large Chinese soup spoon. You get the picture.) Previous Budapest food fads have included a burger craze: there are at least six new burger restaurants in my area of Budapest alone. If I want a cardboard meatball on a sweet brioche bun with a chef's salad piled on top and squirted with German BBQ ketchup I will know just where to go. Alas, White Manna is thousands of miles away, as is most of  the hallowed ground of New Jersey. If I want a burger I wait until I get back to the USA - specifically, New Jersey. The other is pastrami and corned beef. I have written about most of the New York's Jewish delis and their steamed, smoked and sliced versions of heaven on rye bread.

Al Gore and Russian PM Viktor Chernomyrdin at Katz's, 1996. (Photo: NY Daily News)

Katz's Deli - which has recently jacked its sandwich price to $19.95 for a pastrami on rye - has been featured many times. And let's face it: Yes, I will still go to Katz's and fork over a twenty for their sandwich simply because it is the best and it supports an cultural institution that is otherwise economically impossible to maintain in downtown Manhattan. In truth, I have started to look beyond Manhattan and back to my native Bronx in search of affordable deli sandwiches. The annual report - covering New York, Montreal, and Toronto delis - was published here a few months ago. We also made a special ancestral trip to Loesser's deli in the Bronx just to be completist, and we were glad we did. It is half the price of a Manhattan pastrami sandwich, and you get free refills on your freshly made cole slaw. But looking back over some of my files, I realized I had left out one very special NY area deli: Hobby's Deli in Newark New Jersey.

In New Jersey, everybody is a patriot. Everybody.
Hobby's is located smack in the downtown heart of Newark - a boarded up and depressed ghetto neighborhood near the Essex County Courthouse. But like a lot of America's old style delis, Hobby's survives because its lunch clients are a mix of courthouse lawyers and local workers in the predominantly black downtown Newark area. Before the 1960s, Jewish delis were often among the only restaurants in downtown areas that were willing to serve Black customers. Today many of the best delis in cities like Chicago, Baltimore, and Philadelphia are located in downtown ghettos. Corned beef and pastrami were made from cheap, tough belly cuts of beef that sold for pennies. In the globalized world, however, that beef gets shipped to China, and the price has risen like a rocket.

Deli etiquette: there can be no mystery to your lunch.
Delis used to be considered cheap places to eat: you could fill your belly for a couple of bucks. When I was in high school even I could afford lunch at delis - which is something since I went to High School in the late 14th century. If you had to eat lunch outside of school you could afford pizza, a cheapo burger, or a deli sandwich. Jersey used to have a lot of decent delis. Teaneck had an excellent deli in Tabatchnik's on Cedar Lane. Tabatchnik's is now called "Noah's Ark" and has been reborn as an Israeli kosher place serving the modern Orthodox congregations - people whose main culinary concern is limited to "which rabbi declared the food kosher?" Overnight the identity of "Jewish" food switched from Ashkenazic Jewish to Israeli Kosher, from food to fuel. The corned beef sandwich and kugel gave way to the falafel and chicken shnitzel, and the knish was re-purposed into a healthful vegetarian option. Knishes are not supposed to be healthy. Deli food is not supposed to be healthy. If I wanted healthy I would not be seated in a deli, popping sodium-packed pickles at a doctor-defying clip while balancing a salted cut of fatty beef in my other hand. The loss of Tabachnik's served as a emblematic lesson in the decline of Jewish delis in America in David Saxe's outstanding book about the deli tradition "Save the Deli."

All gloriously yours: your blood pressure will thank you!
The pastrami at Hobby's... it is a many splendored thing... who knew that something so good was hiding in Newark, New Jersey? Like almost all of the great NY delis, Hobby's cures its own pastrami and corned beef in their basement, meaning that the fermentation is triggered by bacteria that are essential to the final product. Like a fine French cheese or an Italian salami, a pastrami tastes of its own specific place, its terroir - in this case, the terroir of downtown Newark, New Jersey. You can search for flavor hints of the Newark Airport, the Jersey Turnpike, Raritan Bay, the Meadowlands and the enigmatic Kill Van Kull. Hobby's should get an award for most militantly locavore artisanal  product in the New York area.

"My love is a fever, longing still, for that which longer doth nurseth the pastrami..." Shakespeare, Sonnet 147
The sandwich is a thing of layered beauty. Hobby's uses a mechanical slicer: this is not actually bad in and of itself, and it helps keep prices down by eliminating waste. Hand sliced meat - such as is served at Katz's and Schwartz's in Montreal - wastes a lot of meat. There ends up only being about five sandwiches in a whole brisket. Hand sliced means thicker slices which cool down slower. And that is the thing with pastrami and corned beef: it is served steaming hot, but as it cools down it transforms into something dryer, denser, less appealing. It is the only food that deteriorates in quality as you eat it. Nobody ever wants to take leftover pastrami home, and it doesn't reheat well. The mustard seen above is my finishing touch: with that much meat you need a good deli mustard. The rye bread is really just a way of holding the thing together.

We were once a mighty civilization, and now we are this.
Nobody really takes side dishes seriously at a deli, But I had heard that Hobby's makes old style onion rings. Nobody does that anymore, because most onions are agro-farmed and that means they have too much fertilizer induced moisture in them to fry well. Most places serve pre-made onion rings made from a slurry of onion-like alien intelligent beings who were captured during intergalactic warfare billions of years ago, their planet destroyed, and they were shipped to be processed on a desert planet owned by Walmart. Not Hobby's. Real onion rings. Of course they go soggy after five minutes. You don't savor onion rings. You eat them. Fast. Now, in order to get to Hobby's you need to get to downtown Newark. Newark's Grand Central train station is about three blocks away, and despite its bad reputation, nobody will harass you walking through the downtown of Newark, especially during the day. That's because Hobby's also closes at around 4 pm every day. It is a lunch deli, not a full service restaurant. If you go to eat  in Newark at night you ought to be in the Ironbound neighborhood, anyway, eating Portuguese seafood or Brazilian hamburguesas.  But I had to convince my little brother, Ron, to brave the traffic and drive down with me. Because I don't drive. That's right, I spend time in New Jersey and I do not drive cars, I do not have a driver's license. I have a network of "Spanish buses" (also known as "guaguas")  and a little brother. It somehow works out.

He used to be such a cute baby.
Ron is a chef, and when it comes to straight forward New Jersey food, you can not fool him. He knows the real thing (as long as we are not discussing barbecue, I mean.)  And Hobby's is the real thing. And he was impressed by the patriotic interior design at Hobby's. New Jersey likes to wear its patriotism on its shirt... right next to the mustard stain and that spilled coffee. You can't escape it. Giant flags are painted in parking lots, 9/11 memorials everywhere, even murals celebrating historic victories from Bull Run to Bastogne, from Hue to Panama City. Jersey loves its vets. And so does Ron. My brother wasn't in the army. He was born into an unexpected era of peace and had already picked up the chef's trade when his nation might have used him to dice enemies into a tasty mince. I know he would have loved to have joined the Army (if only they didn't have all those hangups about discipline and taking orders.) If he had, however, he would likely as not wound up as a bit of beef jerky fluttering on a fence next to some empty combat boots in Kuwait. so I am actually glad that he missed those opportunities. As a Jersey Patriot, Ron stands by Operation Salami Drop, an effort by hobby's owner Samuel Brummer - a WWII vet himself - which sent thousands of salamis to American soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. We are not to be toyed with. When you bite into pastrami, you bite into America.

You can have my pastrami when you can pry it from my cold, stiff fingers!

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