A NOSTALGIC NOSH OF DELI HISTORY
Much in the same way an unwrapped garlic pickle permeates a refrigerator, the delicatessen experience is deeply imbued within my soul. Though Katz's on Manhattan's Lower East side is tethered to my youth, my deli memories span years and miles spent as both customer and waitress. Visits to both Wolfie's and the Rascal House in sunny Florida taught me the intricacies of the 'early bird special' and the proper way of concealing the contents of a bread basket in one's purse, should one so desire. Summers as a waitress at Larry's Deli in suburban New Jersey provided a deep (and sometimes painful) study of matzoh ball soup; specifically the gravitational dangers present when serving behemoth bowls to a group of diners wildly gesticulating with their hands. I learned that both 'hangry' and well fed diners can be lousy tippers, and that for many, Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray soda is considered essential to the Jewish deli experience. And for those not smitten with the herbacious soda, both Cream and Black Cherry rank high on the preferred beverage list. The glitzier beverage, the egg cream, is in my opinion, less of a thirst quencher and more of a dessert. Regardless, it is always the egg cream that inevitably overflows when attempting to make the transfer from tray to table, sending the harried waitress back to the wait station for a stack of kitchen towels. Mopping up a runaway egg cream is never simple; a river of chocolate and seltzer loves running rampant beyond the confines of a table top ultimately landing on the white linen trousers of a woman debating the cantaloupe with cottage cheese vs. a hollowed out bagel with light cream cheese.
Hal's Deli played a major role in my college experience, often providing comfort between two slices of seeded rye bread layered with thinly sliced meats, Swiss cheese and neon Russian dressing. Post college, I worked in an office for an individual in the entertainment industry who ordered lunch from the Stage Delicatessen on a daily basis. His selection, plucked from a dizzying menu of options, never deviated from one day to the next; a mammoth turkey leg which he consumed with audible enjoyment from his perch at a table overlooking Central Park.
All these years later, having long since retired my rubber-soled waitress shoes, over-stuffed sandwich emporiums still draw me in with equal parts love and trepidation. The pull of a carbohydrate busting blintz smothered in sour cream is strong. So is the hypnotic fragrance of salty meats wafting over a counter mingling with the jarring flavor of a sour pickle. But a tableful of demanding diners, arguing the virtues of kreplach and the density of matzoh balls, or insisting on 'center cut' tongue or a pastrami sandwich with extra rye bread, triggers my worst deli nightmares. Nightmares of forgotten soda straws, of mistakenly decanting Dr. Brown's Cream instead of Cherry, of retrieving the wrong sandwich from an overwrought line cook only to deliver it to a table you've already served; a table hungry for their check who will bicker over who ordered the cottage cheese and neglect to leave a gratuity.
The New York Historical Society's exhibition, "I'll Have What She's Having" has been on my go-to list for a while. It leaves you hungry for more; akin to a lunch made up of half a sandwich served alongside a cup of soup and a generous monkey dish of health salad. (For those who haven't worked in a deli, monkey dishes are small bowls with flat bottoms, often used for pickles, salads and cole slaw. Health salad is a curious non-specific mash-up of raw vegetables, notably driven by cabbage, dressed with sugary vinegar and void of mayonnaise, hence the subliminal message of health.) The artifacts explore deli's rightful place in popular culture, serving up plenty of details, while paying homage to the Ashkenazi immigrants who influenced and created the delicatessen as a uniquely American institution. Best to experience this installation on a full stomach; at the very least, pack your bag with a black and white cookie which should sustain you until you can wrap your hands around an over-stuffed sandwich, a side of slaw and a half sour pickle.
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