Well amigos, it’s time to return to the roots. Back to Eastern Europe for me, as I leave for Romania and Hungary, reporting for a magazine to be named later. Should be fun. Hopefully I’ll find the lost temple of smoked meats. Or something.
Have a little story in Tablet today about the Romanian Jewish Steakhouse of yore:
In Its Prime
Recalling the heyday of the Romanian-Jewish steakhouse
With smoke from backyard grills perfuming our cities, the appetite once again turns to steak. This summer’s been extra meaty, thanks to Steak: One Man’s Search for the World’s Tastiest Piece of Beef, by journalist Mark Schatzker. To find out what makes a great steak Schatzker visited ranches and breeders across the United States, Japan, Argentina, and Europe, breaking down the science and culture of cattle rearing for taste with tremendous wit and detail, even going so far as to raise his own cattle. Having lived in Argentina for a few years (where I once ended the Yom Kippur fast with a barbecue), I know my way around a grill and a cut of beef, but I now see that I’m a rank amateur compared to Schatzker.
In the book, Schatzker documents a love of steak that he inherited from his father, a Polish Holocaust survivor who ate his first steak at a small-town northern Ontario restaurant in 1952 and hasn’t tasted anything as good since. The father’s experience was similar to that of many Jewish immigrants: In North America, they found that beef, a seldom-eaten luxury in Eastern Europe, was relatively cheap and readily available at local supermarkets. As newcomers settled into suburban houses with backyard grills, steak became a symbol of prosperity, a way of sharing in the affluence bestowed by citizenship in a new country.
Outside the house, the embrace and consumption of steak as emblematic of the American Dream manifested itself in the popularity of Romanian Jewish steakhouses, a culinary hybrid that’s all but extinct today. According to food writer Arthur Schwartz, whose grandfather was a waiter at Brooklyn’s Little Oriental steakhouse, Romanian steakhouses, many of them kosher, flourished around Delancey Street at the turn of the century, later moving uptown to the garment district (Lou G. Siegel’s was most famous) and out to the suburbs. In New York, he estimates there were a dozen or more at their peak in the 1950s, with several dozen spread out across the country in cities with large Jewish populations. They were a step up from the workingman’s delicatessen, a destination for a night out on the town but still within the reach of families who saved a bit.
CLICK HERE TO READ THE ARTICLE AT TABLETMAG.COM
Unlike the boiled, stewed, or even baked steaks cooks would prepare in Poland, Russia, or Hungary, the Romanians knew how to grill, and in the United States they created restaurants where the main course, of flame-grilled marbled rib steaks or juicy skirt steaks (also called Romanian Tenderloin) would be complemented by favorite appetizers including chopped liver, knishes, and gribenes, fried chicken skins, that would be shared by the table along with the ubiquitous buckets of coleslaw and kosher pickles. The closest you got to salad was chopped liver tossed with sliced radish. There would be karnatzelach, a garlicky beef sausage made with baking soda, which gives it a springy texture and delectable crust.
The only establishment of this ilk still standing is Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse, on New York’s Lower East Side. Ample shtick is served there along with the food—a keyboardist plays bar mitzvah music, everyone gets a T-shirt—but the setup is genuine: rec-room basement décor, sarcasm-tinged service, bottles of seltzer and jars of liquid schmaltz on the table, some of the finest chopped liver known to man, and flame-broiled cuts of meat loaded with sautéed onions. It is greasy, filling, overpriced. It is a blast.
As Jews climbed the socio-economic ladder, their steakhouses began to emulate those of the WASPs. Out went the cramped, rec-room look, and in came dimly-lit palaces of wood paneling and plush carpeting, often in the suburbs to which Jews moved in increasing numbers. Cocktail bars took a spot by the front, along with coat-check girls. Traditional dishes like p’tcha (jellied calves feet) were replaced by double-baked potatoes and iceberg salads. Kosher concerns faded, and non-kosher cuts like sirloin and filet were added to menus, as well as pork chops and shellfish. At Moishes in Montreal, one of the few high-end Jewish steakhouses still operating, waiters wheel out dessert carts at the end of the meal piled high with profiteroles and hot fudge sundaes.
Whether you visited Seymore Kaye’s in Queens, Duke Zeibert’s in Washington, or dozens of similar joints in Miami, Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, or Toronto, these were the haunts where real-estate machers and garmentos rolled deep in mink and sable and the parking lot overflowed with Cadillacs. This was Jewish dining at its most extravagant—with restaurants that belied their customers’ eagerness to be fully assimilated. Diners got French service, with tuxedo-jacketed waiters in white gloves, but the Yiddish taste remained, and the breadbasket was filled with challah rolls, pumpernickel, and fresh rye. Women in pearls picked at chopped liver, but there was a jovial atmosphere of back-slapping and kibitzing, and it never felt stuffy.
The Romanian-style steakhouse slowly died out, replaced on the low end of Jewish steak consumption by Israeli shish kebab restaurants and at the high end by fancy glatt kosher steakhouses, such as Prime Grill in Manhattan. Both iterations lack Yiddish kitchen flair. One is a multicultural mishmash, with less herring and more miso-glazed black cod, and the other is resolutely Middle Eastern. Fine dining for the younger generations of Jews now means sushi or Italian, and steak no longer means freedom as much as it means fat.
Back in May, when New York got all riled up about signing Lebron James to the Knicks, the Carnegie Deli named a sandwich after him. Here’s owner Sandy Levine holding up the Lebron James MVP (pastrami, corned beef, brisket, and turkey, American cheese, lettuce, tomato stacked on rye bread):
Now that James is going to Miami, flame indeed is fleeting. As gossip site TMZ reported, Carnegie has dropped Lebron’s sandwich in disgust.
In related news, Bob Greene of CNN.com, uses the Stage Deli’s sandwiches to explain the fleeting nature of celebrity.
Writes Greene, who interviewed owner Steve Auerbach:
The triple-decker sandwiches at the Stage have traditionally been named for famous men and women. The idea is to appeal to customers whose eyes will be drawn to an item on the menu because of the celebrity associated with it.
So I asked Auerbach about the No. 8 — the sandwich called the Katie Couric. It features turkey, ham and swiss cheese.
It wasn’t always known as the Katie Couric, Auerbach said. Its name was changed in recent years from what it was formerly called. Diners, it seemed, were no longer quite as attracted to the old name of the No. 8:
The Marilyn Monroe.
Same with the No. 18 (turkey, chopped liver, lettuce, tomato, onion). It’s a hit, in large part because of the bigger-than-life New York figure for whom it is named: Alex Rodriguez. The A-Rod sandwich appeals to a new generation of customers who might not feel as strong a connection with what the same triple-decker was called until not so long ago:
The Joe DiMaggio.
So there you have it. One day you’re on top of the world, named as a sandwich, and the next you’re cast off the menu by Katie Couric. Such is the nature of the spotlight. Still, it will take a lot to unseat the Woody Allen’s of the sandwich naming world. If you do happen to get a sandwich named after you, do not handle it like Larry:
Last week I wrote about Diana, the counterwoman at Brooklyn’s Mile End, who broke the schmaltz ceiling for women in delis who are slicing meats. I asked you to provide me with evidence of another woman with a knife in her hand and pastrami in her heart.
Now, Brad Rubin of Chicago’s Eleven City Diner has answered. With not one, but two counterwomen, who happen to be sisters. Below is Gladis. Her sister Maria also works behind the counter. I’ve asked Brad for her Maria’s photo too.
A big hand for these ladies. Keep them coming!
A few years ago, the only smoked meat you could get in Toronto was the kind brought in from Montreal.
Then Caplansky’s entered the scene. Then the Stockyards started selling a pastrami sandwich. Then Goldin’s smoked meat appeared around town, and at the Free Times Cafe. Opinions and preferences began to fly. Each claimed their top spot. Their fans fought hard on the foodie blogs and message boards.
But now, the battle is going public. Because on July 25th, at 1pm, Caplansky’s, Goldin’s, and the Stockyards are bringing out the knives and the briskets, converging on the Wychwood Barns farmer’s market, and having an old fashioned duel for smoked meat supremacy.
The best part is that the proceeds will go toward the Stop, a wonderful organization combating hunger and malnutrition in the city, via education and advocacy in the kitchen and garden.
This is going to be huge. Get there early and get there hungry.
Where: Wychwood Barns, 601 Christie St. (Barn #1)
When: Sunday, July 25, 1 to 5 pm.
How much: Free. (Food and drink available for purchase; all proceeds go to The Stop.)
Meet Diana. She’s a cool lady. Funky Rockabilly hair, a few tatoos, and mad mad knife skills.
For the past little while, Diana has been working at Brooklyn’s Mile End Delicatessen, slicing smoked meat by hand.
Rachel Cohen, the owner of Mile End, along with husband Noah Bernamoff, asked me whether Diana was the only female counterwoman in the deli business. I wracked my brain and am kind of stumped.
I’ve met about a dozen female delicatessen owners, such as Cheryl Morantz at Toronto’s Centre Street Deli, or the Markowitz sisters at Factor’s in LA. I’ve met hundreds of great deli waitresses. But I don’t think I have ever seen a woman slicing deli meat, either by hand, or on a slicing machine.
The world of countermen is very MEN centric. It’s knives and meat and big beefy hands, and is the last bastion of the deli business that’s segregated by sex.
So deli world, let me know, is Diana from Mile End the Sandra Day O’Connor (America’s first female Supreme Court justice) of the deli counter? Has she shattered the schmaltz ceiling? Should we start minting coins in her honor?
Or are there other pioneers out there, now, or before?
Let me know.