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The great pastrami hunt
I wanted pastrami.
I’d just been in New York City for a week and did not get my taste of pastrami. Or great pastrami, at least. It wasn’t New York’s fault. A friend told me that Barney Greengrass, a heralded delicatessen on the Upper West Side, sold pastrami as well as their famous lox, whitefish, sturgeon and other cured fish. I’d known about Barney Greengrass for years, but never knew it sold pastrami.
It shouldn’t. At least not what I ate. It wasn’t that good.
Normally, I go to Katz’s, Manhattan’s most renowned Jewish deli. (Pastrami was invented by Jews.) They serve real pastrami, beautiful pastrami, savory, melt-in-your-heart pastrami. The drawback? The crowds at Katz’s are like Walmart on Black Friday. You fight for your position at the counter to order. People are not kind. They want their pastrami as much as you do. It can get physical. Jostling, shoving, etc. Come ready for combat.
This time, I wasn’t inclined to struggle for my pastrami at Katz’s. So I left New York without my fix of the real thing.
I returned to my home near Lafayette, Louisiana, a part of the world that is not generally known for its pastrami—or for its Jews, for that matter. I did some deep research—40 seconds on the Internet—and found there is, indeed, a synagogue in Lafayette. So, there are Jews here! But also in my deep research, I found no Jewish delicatessens. Lafayette Jews, why not? It’s me, Richard. I’m hungry.
However, I did find a place that serves a classic Reuben sandwich. Acadian Superette. Yes, I know, the name didn’t exactly summon a world of men wearing yarmulkes or busy countermen delving out beauty, but where there is Reuben, there is pastrami. I figured if they had pastrami, they might sell it on its own.
So my girlfriend Gaywynn and I hopped in the car and drove off for a date with destiny.
I think we all know what it’s like to have a food craving. To have a craving that must, repeat must, be satisfied. It can border on the obsessive. It can cross that border, actually. You will hunt down that food, venture out at all hours, drive many miles, to satisfy that craving. I am not speaking of a marijuana-induced craving, but a natural insanity.
So you understand the general principle working here. You may not see why I was so desperate for pastrami. You may never have eaten pastrami. More particularly, you may never have eaten great pastrami. Well, as with any craving, these things are not explainable.
We drove to the Acadian Superette. I was in a state of high anticipation. To think that I might get this longing for pastrami satisfied soon was beyond my wildest dreams. I dismissed the fact that I was in southwest Louisiana. I was salivating in pre-orgasmic joy. Gaywynn looked away.
We arrived. I immediately asked the cheerful woman behind the counter if they sold pastrami by the pound.
“Yes, we have some over there.” She pointed to a refrigerated display case.
“Is it Jewish pastrami?” I asked her.
She looked slightly bewildered. “Uh, I’m not sure…let me go ask.”
She turned and went to the back of the store. A man emerged soon after. Amiable, ready to inform and answer.
I asked him the same question.
“I’m not sure what you mean,” he said.
“Have you ever been to New York?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, “but I didn’t eat pastrami that time.”
“Well,” I pushed, “is it it made with Cajun spices?” Most meat sold at small markets in this area have a red dusting of spices characteristic of the local cuisine that, to my mind, overwhelm the taste of the actual meat.
“No, we don’t use Cajun spices,” he replied definitively. “I cure it myself. It’s brined.”
That sounded hopeful! This was all on an intellectual level, though. I decided to get to the point.
“Could I have a sample, please?”
He went to the back of the store and returned with a small paper container. Three small slivers rested there. They had the appearance of pastrami!
“It’s cold,” he said, offering it to me. “Is that all right?”
Not really, but I couldn’t quibble, since he was so gracious to provide the sample, gratis. “That’s fine,” I said.
I took one of the small strips of meat and placed it in my mouth.
No. Alas, no. No! My heart sank.
He looked at me expectantly.
“I’m afraid I’m a pastrami snob,” I said. “This is very good, but I’m finicky when it comes to pastrami.”
He smiled. “I understand.”
I had to put my pastrami obsession in that place we put all unrequited food cravings, somewhere in the back of my mind and belly. A bitter pill. The craving would re-emerge, I knew, and when it did, I might have to satisfy it by driving 2 1/2 hours to New Orleans to Stein’s Deli on Magazine Street. Their pastrami is pretty damn good. Or I could go to Katz’s website and fantasize about ordering their pastrami by mail. $38 per pound, plus shipping, $35. Gaywynn nixed that idea due to budgetary concerns, but I may do it anyway. Don’t show her this.