Tuesday, April 01, 2008

"You want mayonnaise on what?"

Originally, I had intended to write today about the irony of Hillary Clinton's new "base" in her Democratic primary campaign -- the "white working class" voter, which, in 1980, earned the new moniker, "Reagan Democrat," which replaced the unflattering, early 1970s television character, the "Archie Bunker Democrat," so named for a blue-collar bigot whose anachronistic attitudes on race, religion and gender were held up to ridicule by his "progressive" son-in-law and, in a memorable episode, Sammy Davis, Jr. -- when, not so long ago, she was the "inevitable" nominee of the Democratic establishment in Washington, which is run, for the most part, by well-educated, affluent, culturally sophisticated in a Volvo and Land's End sort of way, white men and women who haven't seen the inside of a bowling alley since dropping off their children at a birthday party. But, since Hillary doesn't like men "bullying" her, especially a little-known professor like me with no public profile, by raising questions about her candidacy or how a flat-out lie like her Bosnia story isn't really a lie, I'll leave it to someone else to comment on how whites who harbor a historical discomfort with the idea of blacks in positions of economic and political power came to be her political lifeboat.

Then, I watched Alexander Ovechkin play hockey, which I have, by own estimation, about 275 times in the last three years (including practices) and thought it would be nice to write about the electricity he brings to the world's fastest and most athletically demanding sport, and encourage the millions of readers who tune into my blog for guidance on every aspect of their lives, whether toilet-training for toddlers (send them to obedience school; smacking them with a newspaper won't fly in today's culture) or when Ugg boots or Birkenstocks are appropriate (never), to watch the most exciting athlete in the world at the height of his powers.

Fate then played a cruel trick on me. I opened the New York Times to read with my morning Kamikaze*, and came across an article I hoped to never see:

The Rascal House, long a staple of the New York Jewish diaspora that retired to South Florida when retiring to South Florida was the ultimate status symbol of the first major wave of Jewish immigrants to the United States in the early 20th century, has closed after 54 years.

Done. Finished. Fartig!

My first trip to the Rascal House, as far as I can remember, was in 1971 or 72, when my sister and I tagged along with my father to Miami Beach on a business trip. It was the first time I stayed in hotel that had more than four stories and doors that faced an interior, enclosed lobby. Since eating in the hotel was out of the question -- too expensive, "a scam," as my father would call it -- we wandered up and down the causeways and boulevards in search of Chinese food -- the only people to have wandered more than the Jews during Biblical times were Chinese businessmen looking to open a restaurant where the Jews could take a break, get off their, have a little Chinese, and relax -- and a "real" delicatessen.

"Real" is the operative word here.

It might easier to begin this discussion by first noting what is not a "real" delicatessen. A gas station that advertises coffee, free NASCAR key chains with fill-ups and a full-service "deli" represents the bottom rung. Subway, Blimpie, Quiznos and Arby's and their like can claim to sell "deli" sandwiches; they don't. They sell sandwiches you could make at home if you had the time, or one you could throw together behind the counter at Giant if they'd let you. Coffee shops that include "deli" sandwiches on their menus are not "delis." Neither is any place that stocks mayonnaise, much less puts it on a sandwich -- tuna and chicken salad are exempt because mayonnaise is a required ingredient. When I was about 9 or 10, Burger King introduced something called a "Yumbo," a ham and swiss sandwich that would remind people of their "favorite deli. "

Pause and breath deeply. . .

Burger King.


Swiss cheese.


In the same place.

Unless you grew up in Tupelo, Mississippi, were weened on mayonnaise sandwiches and RC Cola, and were somehow convinced that the dirt-floored store that sold deviled eggs from the big jar was a restaurant just because it said it was, this bastardized concoction offered by Burger King -- say it again, BURGER KING -- was certainly not anything you would find in a real deli.

A real deli smells like steamed corned beef and pastrami, features expressionless or, better, angry people behind the counter who have time for little more than "You'll get your turn" or "That's how it's made" or "Who gives a shit?" if you ask a question or try to strike up conversation while waiting for your order. A fresh bowl of pickles awaits after you sit down -- well-done, crunchy and garlicky, some sliced, some whole. Waitresses and waiters don't introduce themselves or wear name-tags; they don't tell you about the specials because that's not why most people are there; and they don't offer you mayonnaise or mustard on your sandwich. Deli waiters keep a towel over their arm or around their neck. Deli waitresses could care less what you order as long as you do it quickly. No "hon" or "baby" here.; instead they roll their eyes and tell you to make up your mind because you're not their only table. Salamis hang from the ceiling, and Dr. Browns is on the menu. To put it in Internet parlance, the mayonnaise v. mustard issue and unadorned contempt that any self-respecting delicatessen maven has for white bread would be covered in the FAQ section of the Website that no self-respecting delicatessen would ever maintain for the general public.

Hi Marvin:

Why won't deli waiters offer me mayonnaise on my corned beef, pastrami, salami or tongue sandwich? Why did the fat waiter with the limp and pants that don't buckle hit me when I asked him for lettuce, tomato and "light" mayonnaise on my pastrami sandwich, which I wanted served on toasted white bread?

Shonde Forthegoyim (Marietta, GA)

To answer the second question first: deli waiters understand the cardinal rule of ordering a deli sandwich -- no mayonnaise, lettuce or tomato, or white bread, ever, on sandwiches. Ordering them together gives the waiter (Section 515.02 of the Real Delicatessen Manual) an exemption from all criminal assault and battery laws. The waiter had the statutory authority to kill you. Consider yourself lucky that he only hit you -- probably the bad leg, which he hurt when he slipped on some pickle juice near kitchen door, is what allowed you to live long enough to write this incredibly dopey letter.

Waiters can be fired for offering mayonnaise, lettuce and tomato and white bread on sandwiches. A customer who asks for any of this dreck without being prompted sacrifices his or her legal rights.

Like you, schmuck

The Rascal House was started and owned for years by Wolfie Cohen, who later opened Wolfie's just a few miles away, which quickly became a South Florida institution. I ate at Wolfie's as well and it was great.

I've eaten at all the great delicatessens in New York and South Florida -- Katz's, Second Avenue, the Stage, the Carnegie, Ben's, Wolfie's, the Rascal House, the Deli Den, Pumpernicks -- and there is nothing like the real thing. Washington doesn't have a real delicatessen and neither does Los Angeles, something that, along with the quality of their Chinese food, is a very sensitive subject among West Coast Jews. Krupin's in northwest D.C. is not a real deli, despite the cranky personalities that the Krupin brothers bring to the floor. Photographs of local celebrities such as Bob Ryan the weatherman and Mark Russell the political humorist (neither of whom are Jewish) adorn the walls, not arm-in-arm pictures of Milton Berle and Jackie Gleason. Proper ladies with their Talbot's shopping bags stop in for lunch, not old Jewish men holding court at the center table. The Parkway in Silver Spring is not a real delicatessen, although it has fooled people into thinking so for years because it gets the pickles right and is, by virtue of its location, within walking distance of two synagogues. On the other hand, the Parkway isn't really located in Silver Spring. The Parkway is in Chevy Chase, whose boundary begins literally across the street the restaurant, and whose residents are the highest per capita consumers of Volvos, Patagonia fleece jackets and vests, and Ecco and Keen shoes in the nation.** Their Volvos have more stickers on their cars featuring references to Martha's Vineyard, Provo, Utah or some other coveted vacation destination by people who think "well, of course no sandwich is complete with a little lettuce, tomato and mayo! And fries. Let's splurge a little!" than any other zip code in the country.***

The Parkway isn't bad. But it's a diner that serves corned beef and pastrami sandwiches, not a deli that serves pot roast. Delis don't serve quiche; the Parkway does; delis don't make sandwiches you can finish in one sitting; the Parkway does; and delis don't sell wines by the bottle out front. And they sure as hell don't have waiters who ask you, "Is everything all right here?" I worked one summer as a waiter in my high school friend Stuart Baron's parents' deli, Harry Baron's, where I quickly learned the phrase, "Is there anything all right here?" was a far better question that the formal, corporate banter that is now required of all "food servers." A real deli waiter just takes your plate when he sees you aren't eating anymore. And if you told him you were still "working on it" when you weren't he would take it and give you an "as if I could give a shit look" on the way out.

The Rascal House was a real deli and I was lucky enough to eat there. Just one favor: if you head to Subway or Quizno's and they have something called "deli-style" sandwiches available, tell them they don't and order something else. Do it out of respect for a great American institution that is slowly going the way of the dodo.


Not really
**Just a guess, based on the parents I see at the soccer games played at Meadowbrook park and other residents of Chevy Chase I bump into from time to time, usually in Whole Foods or Strossneiders, a locally owned Hardware store, when they ask me what aisle the soy candles are in or if we carry chemical free pesticides. The men wear sockless loafers with shorts and a collared shirt (maybe a hat, if they're bald) letting the world know that he just returned from some golf resort available only to the kind of persons that wear cloth belts with whales or dukcs on them and feel not the least bit self-conscious (and stopped listening to the Beatles after "Revolver").
***Based on my highly unscientific count.


Conor said...

My Dad lives in Hewlett, NY, which is part of the Five Towns community on Long Island. I'm pretty sure the Five Towns has more synagogues and Jewish delis per capita than any other place on earth. When I would come home from DC for Christmas or summer break, he would always make a tremendous meal on a Sunday afternoon. (Sidebar: Coincidentally, my dad is 100% Irish and makes surreal pasta sauce and meatballs. My mom is 100% Italian and makes a transcendent corned beer & cabbage on St. Patrick's Day).

I would be driving to his house for dinner, passing these Jewish delis and dying, fighting the urge to stop and get a sandwich. I was like Odysseus' shipmates in Homer, unable to resist the Sirens. 9 times out of 10, I would submit. Thinking to myself "I'll just have a knish" or "I'll just eat half a pastrami sandwich," I would get in there and order far, far too much.

I would show up to dinner 5 pounds heavier, completely full and in desperate need of a nap. My dad would be like an ashamed housewife confronting her alcoholic husband. "Don't lie to me! I smell it on your breath! I know where you've been..."

I felt so bad afterwards, sitting at the dining room table, pushing around a half-eaten meatball, unable to take another bite. My dad, too angry to speak, another Sunday dinner ruined by the inescapable allure of Woodro's kosher deli.

dickhead larry said...

I worked at Harry Baron's in the early 70's. Now that was a real deli. Harry would always seat customers with the same schtick "sit here, next to my cousin from Ohio". My first day, an extremely busy Saturday with customers lined up out the door waiting to be seated. harry came back and yelled at me "get out here and clean the floor....it looks like a goddamn shithouse out here". Harry was awesome. He had a cartoon on his office door that read "yeah yeah, the customer is always right, but what about these damn fools that are always wrong?"

You are wrong about LA not having an authentic deli. Nate-n-Al's in Beverly Hills is a carbon copy of Harry Baron's, right down to the extensive menu, decor, and even those yellow jackets the waiters wore. Check it out.