Starting in the early 1880’s Americas Eastern European immigrants – many of them Jews fleeing Old World persecution – opened the first delicatessens in New York.
Having been forced against their will to leave their homelands, most opened these delis solely to provide themselves and their fellow ex-pats with a taste of the Old Country; edibles that they couldn’t readily find in America.
But huge crowds of customers were soon lured by this amazing food and these delis quickly became New York institutions.
Having been a long time adicianado of black and white films many of them set in New York, I knew all about Deli. So naturally when I first moved to New York in the early 1980’s I made it a point to eat at every delicatessen I could find.
On my quest to enjoy Kosher Deli, I roamed all over Manhattan in those days - from The Carnegie Deli and Wolfs up on 57th street, to The Stage Deli on Broadway and 47th, and finally downtown to The Second Ave Deli (owned by the recently murdered Abe Lebewohl god rest his soul), or Katz's.
Thick chunks of hearty dark bread would be surrounded by massive slices of smoked meats such as Pastrami, Tongue or Corned Beef – and this was only part of the New York Deli experience. The sandwiches were drowned in condiments - your choice as long as the combination was Kosher - and accompanied by pickles and other delicacies such as coleslaw, onions and other tasty treats.
Most of the sit down delis provided large trays of free stuff for you to enjoy as soon as you began examining the menu.
Charming waiters easily memorized even the largest orders, flawlessly delivering food right to you without a hitch. And if they did screw up – which was rare – they’d made a joke of it and nobody ever fussed. Wisecracking waiters were only part of the New York Deli experience.
And although most delis offered sandwiches, many – like the now sadly closed Bernsteins on Essex Street – featured other ethnic cuisine such as Kosher Chinese. No matter how fantastic I found the food, Jewish folks soon got tired of a constant diet of heavy sandwiches and from time to time wanted variety. It only makes sense.
But it wasn't until I'd moved to Ludlow Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the early 1980's that I really began to enjoy Deli. Katz's - on the South West corner of Ludlow and Houston Streets - was a totally wonderful place to eat.
And as Katz's was located right around the corner from my flat (I spent five years at 163 Ludlow, since I know some noders still reside on the Lower East Side), I soon began to immerse myself in the Deli experience.
Katz's Delicatessan is a combination take out / eat in establishment. Regardless of what you're planning to do with the food, when you first enter you're given a ticket which you MUST NOT LOSE!
Inside Katz's has lots of counters, each offering a particular food. There's a single counter in the front offering hot dogs and cooked sausages, and another with pickles, fries, and even salamis packed to travel in the rear.
As you go from counter to counter assembling your meal your ticket will be updated to reflect what you've purchased. Note that no money changes hands until you leave - that's when you present your ticket to the check out girl who would ring up your total and take your cash.
But it's in the middle where the real action takes place at Katz's - thats where there are maybe ten stations with waiting Counterman who custom made sandwiches for you.
And Counterman played an especially important role at Katz's. Since this was a Kosher Deli, cleanliness was important. Counterman stood high up on raised wooden platforms (convenient for cleaning and hosing the place down after closing), behind glass and stainless steel counters. They dished out the grub, making sandwiches to your order and serving up fries.
If you didn't know the rules and simply placed your order you'd get a decent sandwich. But if the Counterman saw your hand holding the ticket AND A DOLLAR BILL the sandwich would miraculously expand, and what you could eat at a single sitting now became two or more meals.
Since I was rather poor in those days and had a pregnant cat to feed no less, I quickly caught on to the game.
When I first started eating there Katz's was still Kosher, and a lot of the Countermen had numbers tattoed on their arms. World War II refugees, most had moved to New York in the late 40's and were given jobs by their compatriots, many of whom owned these Delis.
Being a gregarious country boy, I got to know almost all of them and at one time or another had the pleasure of eating their sandwiches. It was such excellent food!
But there was one guy that I really liked, a perpetually hunched over, mostly bald gentleman who was in his sixties and had a large number tattooed on his left arm - Alf.
We'd share jokes, and I got to know him pretty well. When business was slow he'd take a break, sitting down with me while I ate his sandwich and he'd tell me about his life.
He'd been in the camps, so all I will say is that his story wasn't pretty, but I well tell you that to this day I respect Alf so much; he wasn't bitter, he wasn't twisted and he wasn't nasty - and who could have blamed him if he was?
Alf had a bonafide slacker attitude (to use contemporary parlance) about himself and life in general that said I don't give a shit what happens now because I've already been to hell.
Alf was a great guy with a fantastically subtle sense of humour, and like many of the more Orthodox Jews working at Katz's at the time, quit as soon as the business was sold in the late 1980's and it suddenly became non-Kosher.
And I understood why - his religion had been violated, so he just fucking disappeared one night.
I miss Alf, I still think about him from time to time, and to this day I clearly remember some advise that he gave me.
Now when you ordered a sandwich a Katz's, the Countermen would prepare a small plate of the meat for you to sample; they'd wanted your Deli experience to be perfect! You'd taste and enjoy the meat while the Counterman prepared your sandwich, and if you changed your mind (too fat, too lean) it was no big deal. They wanted you to be happy.
One evening I came in and headed straight for Alf; It was shortly after a New York Times article that talked about how fatty and bad for you Deli food was.
I placed my usual order - Pastrami and mustard on Rye - and Alf produced the usual plate of meat.
I sampled it while he cut slices off the big chunk of Pastrami he'd retrieved.
"How you like it my phriend?" He inquired, energetically cutting away.
"It's great Alf but did you see that article in the Times today?"
He stopped cutting meat and looked at me intently. Alf and I had spent many hours talking about Israel, speculating on how peace might eventually be realised in the Middle East.
"What article? I see no paper today my phriend, tell me what article?" he asked insistently.
I swallowed more Pastrami.
"Hey Alf they say this shit is really bad for you". I wiped my mouth. "It's great stuff but they say it clogs your heart up - what do you think?"
Alf stood straight up and asked me "Did I ever tell you how my phather died?"
I knew Alf's pa was dead, but I'd always assumed he'd died in the camps.
"No Alf you never did tell me. How old was he?".
Alf ignored the question. "My phather worked here in the Garment district for 38 years and he ate deli meals every working day, and then he retired to Miami and you know what happened then?".
"No Alf, you never told me about your pa".
"My phather worked very hard, very hard he worked all his life and he retired to Florida to get away from these bad winters. It is very cold here you know? My phather he moved to Miami and he bought a condo and you know what happened then?"
Looking at my half finished sandwich I was getting hungry. "No, what happened Alf? Tell me".
He saw me looking at my meal and started cutting meat again.
"He met a girl, a goyim but still she was a very nice girl and she cared very much. Only thirty two she was and it was a May December romance if you know what I mean but they loved each other very much". He paused and looked at me intently and lowered his voice.
"They made love twice every night and sometimes after lunch my phather told me. He died three months after they were married, so much in love he was". He started in on my sandwich again.
"Aww, shit Alf, I'm sorry - how did he die?".
"Well, my phather, my phather was still very strong but his wife - the young beautiful thing she is - went screaming from their bed one night and when the ambulance came he was already gone".
"Aww, man, I'm sorry Alf".
"Why be sorry my phriend? He had wonderful life, my phather did and he died in bed with a woman fifty years younger than him who loved him. He died happy of this I am sure".
Alf stopped cutting meat again and stood straight up, the first time I'd ever seen him do this. He was always hunched over while preparing my meal and I didn't know he was so damn tall.
"So why you worry about the Pastrami my phreind, why you worry?"
I remember him standing there under the floruescent lights, knife in hand, a number crudely tattooed on his left arm, his white apron covered here and there with the fragments of meat and flesh, peering intently at me. He looked almost like a vengeful God, here to take me to justice for my sins.
Alf spread his arms out far and wide and looking into my eyes asked me "What for you want to live forever?".
Years later I still find his logic flawless.
Since moving to London I don't eat so much meat, and as wonderful as England is, I miss New York Deli.
And I wonder what happened to Alf. I miss his simple philosiphy of life. God bless you wherever you are Alf!