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Dish And The City: Carnegie Deli’s Pastrami Sandwich In New York City

Rajen Bali

‘Sex and the City’ was definitely the role model for the naming of our series titled ‘Chef and the City’.  However, our series is not a ‘comedy’, but a serious effort to trace the evolution of food in Kolkata and acknowledge the significant contribution to the city’s food scene – over the years - by certain chefs. The ‘sexual content’ in this series is restricted to retelling the tale – true or false? -  of Mr. Trinca running away with the wife of his friend, Mr. Flury when the two friends were running a Tea Room in Park Street. This event is said to have resulted in the birth of two eating establishments, Trincas and Flurys, instead of their one joint effort. The other matter of sex in the series must be the gender of the chicken used in Firpo’s ‘Chicken Roast’ – Moorga or Moorgi?

‘Dish and the City’ is a whole new ball game. Kolkata, London, Bengaluru, Bangkok, Chennai, Paris, New Delhi, New York.... all the great cities of the world have dishes which have not only been hugely popular, but have gone on to become iconic symbols of their respective cities. ‘Dish and the City’ will share the legacy of these dishes.

However there is a problem. The problem of ‘plenty’. Most cities have more than one dish which can – based upon popularity and various other factors - lay claims to being the symbol of its city. Which one to choose? This where I put my hand up and admit that the final choice is mine and mine alone. So please do not fight with me if you do not agree with my choice. I just want to share the immense joy I experienced when I ate the foods featured in ‘Dish and the City’.

To illustrate the difficulties mentioned above, let us take the example of New York City. Hot Dogs, Bagels, New York-style Pizza, Baked Pretzels, New York-style Cheesecake, Eggs Benedict, Waldorf Salad, Steak Diane, Delmonico Steak, Chicken a la King, Chicken Divan, Lobster Newburgh, Rueben Sandwich – all have serious claims to be the ‘Dish of New York’. It was very hard to choose the Pastrami Sandwich over all these.

It was particularly difficult to pass over the Cheesecake. After all Damon Runyon happens to be one of my all-time-favourite authors. I have always thoroughly enjoyed his writing and must have read ‘Guys and Dolls’ many, many times. Damon Runyon introduced some interesting words through his writing – ‘shiv’ (knife), ‘pineapple’ (grenade), ‘roscoe’/’the old equalizer’ (gun), ‘noggin’ (head) and ‘snoot’ (nose). But perhaps Runyon’s greatest contribution was the quaintly named characters he created. Some of them are: Regret the horse player, Harry the horse, Nicely Nicely Johnson, Sorrowful Jones, Joe the Joker, Apple Annie, Nathan Detroit, Big Jule, The Seldom Seen Kid, Dave the Dude, Good Time Charlie.... He also wrote a lot about ‘Mindy’s Cheesecake’– changing the name of the famous New York cheesecake made by the iconic Lindy’s (1921 – 1969), with two Broadway locations in Manhattan. This Cheesecake was immortalized with a song in the musical play ‘Guys and Dolls’ which premiered on Broadway in 1950 and had many revivals. Many ‘Waiter’− jokes are attributed to the rude waiters at Lindy’s. “Waiter, there is a fly in my soup,” is replied with: “It is possible, the chef used to be a tailor, or, don’t worry. How much soup can a fly drink?” There are also: “Waiter, do you serve shrimps here?” replied with: “Sure. We don’t care how tall you are. Sit down.” And: “Waiter, this coffee tastes like tea.” The waiter replied, “Forgive me, sir. I must have given you the hot chocolate by mistake.”

So, you can see how difficult it was to choose the Pastrami Sandwich as ‘The Dish’ of New York. Then there were some more problems. New York had not one but three strong contenders for ‘The Best Pastrami Sandwich’ title. There was the established in 1888, Katz Deli, consistently voted as the best deli in New York, famous for its Pastrami Sandwich – it still serves around 6800 kg of Pastrami in its sandwiches each week. And there was the Stage Deli, opened in 1937, favoured by many celebs and a longstanding rival of the nearby Carnegie Deli in the matter of which has the best pastrami. I picked the Carnegie Deli’s Pastrami Sandwich. Why? Perhaps the best answer can only be “The heart has its reasons.”

On that particular trip I had three ‘very important’ tasks. Two of these were set up by my son Rahul. He wanted me to get him all the available CDs of Chuck Berry’s songs, and at least one book about the lead singer of the Doors, Jim Morrison. The third task I had set for myself – to have a Pastrami Sandwich at the Carnegie Deli.

The simple tasks of getting the Chuck Berry CDs and the Jim Morrison book were not as simple as I had thought and required quite a bit of running around on a hot afternoon. The result was acute hunger pangs.

So, the ‘Hungry I’ marched into the Carnegie Deli and was lucky enough to find shared seating. What made an immediate impact were the scores of framed pictures of famous people which studded the walls. There was also the ‘Wall of Fame’ with more famous people. There were sports stars, politicians, Media personalities and others, but the walls were dominated by actors. Looking around at the walls I found Woody Allen, Meryl Streep, Hilary Clinton, Robin Williams, Stevie Wonder, Mr T and Larry King. I was in august company.

The waiters were shuffling around in a rather disinterested and condescending manner, all of them rather old.  But my attention was drawn more to the Huu-uu-u-ge sandwiches they were carrying on their trays. I nearly chickened out, overawed by the size of the sandwiches. Later I found that the motto of the place was: “If you can finish your meal, we have done something wrong.” I also found: “At the Carnegie Deli, we smoke and cure our own meats.

Courage returned to my soul when I found the family of three, including pre-teen girl, being served with a sandwich each. “If the little girl can manage one, so can I,” I resolved and ordered a Hot Pastrami Sandwich. I had never ever seen so much meat on a sandwich. I found that the minimum amount of meat in a sandwich here was around a half-kg.

My Pastrami Sandwich arrived. Somehow, when it was put on the table in front of me, it appeared larger than others. There were pickles on the side. I had to take some time to feast my eyes on my sandwich. Then I took my first – rather substantial – bite, and....I was in heaven. The bread was great. But the pastrami? It was “....smoky, salty, peppery, juicy, tender, succulent, chewy, warm. Delicious .....” just heavenly.

I ate and I ate and I ate, enjoying every bite. The appreciative smile spread from my face to my stomach and my whole being basked in extreme joyous satisfaction. But there was great sadness too in the knowledge that I could never finish my sandwich. Salvation came from the next table. Neither the man, nor his wife, or the little girl could finish even half of their sandwiches. But they signalled to the waiter and he took their part-eaten sandwiches and brought them back, nicely packed. I too followed suit. Later, there were two picnic meals at different times in different parts of the Central Park.

I became an appreciative fan of the Deli Carnegie’s Pastrami Sandwich. For me it really meant New York. On subsequent visits, I always made it a point to find time to visit the Carnegie Deli and enjoy my Pastrami Sandwich.

Though the main Carnegie Deli outlet shut down in 2016, I am sure their Pastrami Sandwich will live on as an iconic food symbol of New York City.