Pastrami Comes to the New World
Pastrami, a highly seasoned, smoked and cured form of beef brisket, and a close relative of corned beef, is just about as delectable as anything that the local deli has to offer up. This treat was largely unknown outside of Eastern Europe until the 1890s, when a chance meeting changed the history of food forever.
In 1887, Mr. Sussman Volk immigrated to the United States from his homeland of Lithuania. A former miller, Mr. Volk could find no work in New York City in that profession. For a time, he sold pots and pans as a tinker, but quickly came to feel that the job lacked dignity. He then set up a small kosher butcher shop on Delancey Street and did pretty well there.
A Romanian immigrant who was an acquaintance of Mr. Volk was planning to travel back to Europe for a couple of years. He needed to store a trunk of his things, and asked if Volk could take care of the trunk for him. In return for looking after his possessions, he handed over a recipe—the recipe for pastrami.
Before the advent of refrigeration, meat was preserved by smoking and/or salting/pickling with brine. Pastrami owes its origins to these antique food preservation technologies. As a matter of fact, A păstra is a Romanian verb meaning 'to preserve,' and it seems to be from this word that we get the name of this treat.
The meat was a very big hit—before long, Mr. Volk's delicatessen was selling pastrami, first in slabs, then sliced, then between two slices of rye bread. Volk and his family sold pastrami as quickly as it could be made, and the fame of this fine food was soon widespread.
After I heard this lively tale of a wonderful recipe making its way to a new home across the sea, I went to my favorite local deli, ordered up a big hot pastrami sandwich (on a Kaiser roll with deli mustard) and instantly became a pastrami fanatic. A while later, at that same deli, it occurred to me to wonder: Where did pastrami come from before Mr. Volk's friend had the recipe? Where did it originate? As it turns out, the story takes us into the misty, rough-and-tumble days of tough horsemen, riding the steppes and plains of Eastern Europe and Western Asia.
In Turkey, a spicy, smoked meat known as
pastyrma has been enjoyed for many centuries. In order to preserve and flavor the meat, filets (usually beef or camel meat) were smoked, salted, dried and covered with a paste of garlic, chilis and other spices. The horsemen would then carry the meat in special saddlebags, pressed by the rider's legs and motion of riding. This tenderized the meat and did a great job of working the spices in.
The resulting pastyrma (the name may be related to the Turkish word for 'pressed') was exceptionally tender and was often sliced thin and eaten on bread with eggs, tomatoes or in bean stew. This delicacy spread throughout the Near and Middle East and, at some point, the ancestors of Mr. Volk's Romanian friend developed their own version of the recipe.
Modern pastrami making is not nearly so romantic, but it is a bit more dependable. A beef brisket is first injected with a solution of salt, sugar and garlic. It is then rubbed with a mixture of spices: garlic, black pepper, thyme, onion and paprika—the exact combination of spices varies between recipes. The meat is allowed to cold-cure for several days with the spice and brine, thus allowing the brine to penetrate and the spices to permeate the meat. The resulting spiced corned beef is then coated with additional spices (black pepper, paprika, garlic) and smoked for a few hours, depending on the size of the brisket.
These days, pastrami is a widely-eaten food, popular in many countries, it comes in a huge number of varieties—secret recipes depending on the different spices, length of curing and type of wood used for smoking, for example. The exact cut of beef may vary slightly, although the experts always seem to favor brisket, the exact fat content and methods of trimming may have slight differences as well.
There are turkey pastramis as well, although many purists consider this to be an abomination (not this author, though!). There are even pastrami recipes without meat for our vegetarian friends.
And to think, it all started because someone needed a place to store his luggage.
Volk, Patricia, "Stuffed: Adventures of a Restaurant Family" (Knopf, New York, 2001).
Reading Group Guides: "Stuffed" http://www.readinggroupguides.com/guides3/stuffed2.asp
The Carnegie Deli online: http://www.carnegiedeli.com/
Joe Kissell’s Interesting thing of the day … October 2, 2004 Pastrami Cure for the common deli online at http://itotd.com/index.alt?ArticleID=325
How Stuff Works: http://www.howstuffworks.com/question298.htm
Randy's pastrami recipe at http://www.randyq.addr.com/recipes/pastrami.htm
And the virtual Weber bullet has "easy" pastrami-making instructions at http://www.virtualweberbullet.com/pastrami.html
simonc's writeup under Pastrami