I came by my love of corned beef and pastrami in a roundabout way . When I was a kid in India , “Bringing Up Father” was one of the comic strips I read assiduously . It’s long gone now and few will remember it . It detailed the travails of Jiggs who was constantly trying to escape Maggie, his termagant of a wife. . He did this by sneaking off to Dinty Moore’s, the friendly neighborhood pub , for a plate of corned beef and cabbage . The term ” corned beef “was a puzzler . What on earth did ” corned ” mean ? What did corn have to do with beef ? It was only when I came to America that I learned that ” corning ” meant preserving beef by steeping it in heavily salted water along with garlic , coriander , black pepper and other spices . Because the salt grains were as large as kernels of wheats (or ” corns ” ), the preserved meat became known as ” corned beef”.
My first taste of corned beef and cabbage was a bit disappointing . The meat was fine but the cabbage was , to my taste , overcooked . I ate the dish occasionally in Irish saloons and on St. Patrick’s Day in tribute to Jiggs but it never became a favorite .
Pretty soon , however , I discovered corned beef sandwiches and, shortly afterwards, hot pastrami sandwiches and they have been my first choice when I am in the neighborhood of a Jewish deli. Pastrami ( from the Turkish ” pastirma ” , Romanian ” Pastrama”) is made by smoking corned beef . It was introduced to New York by Romanian Jews who migrated to the U.S in large numbers in the late 19th century. The corned beef and pastrami sandwiches they sold from pushcarts quickly became a popular lunch treat in the Lower East Side in New York City..
The meat ,whether corned beef or pastrami, is sliced very, very thinly and served hot on slices of rye bread with a dab of mustard , accompanied by coleslaw and dill pickles. There’s also the Grilled Reuben: a sandwich of corned beef topped with sauerkraut , a slice of Swiss cheese and Thousand Island dressing on rye , grilled . A variation ,that I’ve read about but never tasted , is the Grilled Rachel in which pastrami is substituted for the corned beef and coleslaw for the sauerkraut. I wouldn’t say No to either of these sandwiches , particularly the Grilled Rachel , but given a choice I’d plump for a hot pastrami sandwich every time .
I usually get my pastrami fix at the Deli- King in Clark , NJ where the regular sandwich accompanied by a dill or half-sour pickle is $ 9.95 and a “junior” is $ 2 cheaper. What is that makes the sandwich so great ? Well, it’s two things . Firstly , the meat , sliced very thin , is tender yet firm . Secondly , it’s the Jewish rye bread , no relation to the so-called Jewish rye sold in supermarkets . It’s delicious and I don’t have the words to describe it . I ask for my sandwich with mayonnaise and onion ( this may horrify the purists but that’s the way I like it and I’m not going to change ). A hot pastrami sandwich with mayo and onion , a dill pickle on the side … what more could I possibly want ? You can keep your cheeseburger , your thin crust pizza, your lobster roll , your hot dogs and apple pie … for me this is the quintessential American ( New York ? ) lunch.
One of the earliest purveyors of corned beef / pastrami sandwiches is Katz’s deli in N.Y.C. ( www.katzdeli.com ).I went there once with an office colleague about twenty years ago and it was an experience . He had been there before and he knew exactly how to order . We marched to the long counter and asked for sandwiches , one each of pastrami and corned beef and watched as the meat was sliced to order and stacked high on the rye bread. My experienced friend slipped a couple of dollar bills to our counterman who piled on even more meat onto the sandwiches . We also picked up a dill pickle each , a side of coleslaw and soft drinks and found seats in one of the booths . Not the booth made famous by billy Crystal and Meg Ryan in ” When Harry Met Sally” but the one next to it . On the wall were ancient posters including the iconic ” SEND A SALAMI TO YOUR BOY IN THE ARMY” , famous since WW II days . A little plaque commemorated the time Vice – President Al Gore hosted the Russian PM for lunch at Katz’s when the latter visited NYC. The sandwiches were delicious , but I had to wrap up half to take home for dinner … it was simply too big for me ; I’m not Adam Richman . Food won.
I’ve also been to the Carnegie deli in midtown NYC , where the sandwiches are even larger and pricier than Katz’s . A corned beef or pastrami is $ 16.95 and the combination sandwiches with their tongue in cheek names are $ 24.95. They have names like Brisketball , Carnegie Haul , Nova on Sunday , Ay There ‘s the Reuben , and the Egg and Oy. For their descriptions , you can check out the menu at www.carnegiedelicatessen.com. For me these gargantuan sandwiches are too much . I want quality , and not too much quantity . I want a sandwich I can eat without unhinging my jaw and I don’t want to stuff myself to the gills . For that reason I’ve never visited Harold’s New York deli in Edison whose extra-large sandwiches are billed as being enough for 1-2 or 3-4 . What’s the point in ordering a sandwich only because it’s huge and then sharing it with others ? Harold’s was listed as one of the 100 best sandwich places in America but it holds no attractions for me . I may go there once for the novelty of it but I’m happy with the Deli King .
I had my pastrami sandwich fix yesterday and , as usual my wife and I made a pact that we would not go there for at least another month. We’re counting calories .
Me , I’m also counting the days .