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Hungry Magazine - All Things Tasty
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10.21.08

Lowenstein’s Revenge: A memoir of NYC Deli

Food Memoir


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I’ve had my share of deli in this life….perhaps more than I should, certainly enough to make me a member of the deli cognoscenti and a prime candidate for a coronary. Post War II middle class Jews (like my parents….first generation Americans) had a foot in both camps too, at a time when perfunctory cardiac surgery was only a dream. When the second shoe dropped it sent the offender straight from the Knishes to the Kaddish, the ancient Aramaic biblical or Talmudic passage recited by mourners at a funeral, upon learning of a death, or any commemoration of it.

With the exception of my father, our immediate family members were not true deli denizens. My uncles on my mother’s side, big shots in Manhattan’s garment district, could lay claim to that status at Lou G. Siegel’s, the Carnegie, and the Stage, the last two long before they became tourist haunts. During one summer when I worked in the back room of my uncle’s dress house with the Puerto Rican packers, I was often sent over to Siegel’s for late lunch carryout, usually a spread that was far beyond the needs or capacity of mere mortals. We usually had similar spreads (when Chinese wasn’t the meal of choice) when we visited them at their homes.

Katz’s, down on the Lower East Side (Delancey St.) was the deli icon. There, deli essentially meant meat or “fleishig” in Kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws lexicon. Other establishments were oriented to the dairy side of the equation. Ratner’s (if you asked for a hot dog, you risked the wrath of traditional Old Testament justice) and Williamsburg’s “Famous” were the iconic titans where dairy and fish prevailed.

These museums and monuments to turn of the century immigration were on the Lower East Side and in older parts of Brooklyn and the Bronx. They were very old world. One place we went to was next door to a tombstone showroom, another shouldered up to a religious artifact and book store, while another stood next to a dried fruit & nut shop…….all NYC recreations of the Shtetls….each more depressing than the next. Zoloft should have been readily available in restroom vending machines.

Each nominally Jewish neighborhood had a deli. Most were Kosher, while others referred to themselves as kosher “style.” The latter tended to be in more secularized neighborhoods where synagogue attendance was pretty much restricted to Yom Kippur’s afternoon memorial service, where the locals addressed their lingering superstitious anxieties, avoiding the risk of being haunted by departed Jewish souls, especially their parents. Kosher style also suggested that the house might lighten up on the dietary laws of Kashrus and make you a Reuben sandwich, with some smuggled Swiss cheese and kraut, and Russian dressing. Juniors, an over –the –top Kosher style palace at Flatbush and DeKalb Avenues in Brooklyn was way ahead of the curve, making a killing on all manner of deli meat combination sandwiches plus a dizzying array of cheesecakes…the REAL Goldberg Variations. Lastly, kosher style also implied that you didn’t want to hassle with the cost or craziness of local rabbinical involvement that came along with that most endearing of religious shakedowns, Kosher “inspection.”

Some local places were legendary for either being terrific or for serving what Jews referred to so chillingly as “dreck.” The standouts attracting non-neighborhood visitors, while others, equally good, did well by maintaining a loyal but local base. The dreck palaces were usually empty except for those who had lost their taste buds to disease or were engaged in a strange form of Jewish Nihilism.

Suffice it to say, people took their delis seriously. My late father found great sport taunting my Aunt Leah with negative anecdotes about the deli served up at Charney’s, her local deli, a dive at the corner of Union Turnpike and 188th St. Though pride demanded her loyalty, every shmuck knew the place served dreck. She’d fire back with charges against Lowenstein’s, the deli at our corner on 168th St. As much as Dad enjoyed trashing Charney’s, he couldn’t bear the slams about Lowenstein’…because he knew they were all true. The place somehow managed to mangle, trash, and otherwise ruin East European Jewry’s gift to the world. My mother said it best with a dismissive , pithy “feh”, which in Yiddish can mean anything from filth to utter poison or too low in quality to be worthy of consumption…..as in “take that away…it’s all fat…you call THAT corned beef?” or “Were these knishes made before or after Roosevelt was in office. And if after, how much after?”

My family was not pride-driven. Digestion easily trumped pride. Thus, we became true wandering Jews, migrants, schlepping to the Surrey Deli, ten blocks west along the Turnpike, halfway to Charney’s. The Surrey was decent stuff. We typically made monthly pilgrimages. So, over the course of a normal childhood I made my way through the deli menu, skipping those items that continued to make me run from the room. Considering my generous appetite, these particular dishes were truly odious. My first encounter with Kishke (Stuffed Derma for the sophisticates) was at a bar mitzvah I attended up in the Bronx. Mistook a morsel for an egg roll, ruined the left side pocket of my nice charcoal gray suit, and was on my deathbed for a week.

Though, in 1954. Polio, not deli, was THE story, not only in NYC, but also in all America. It was terrifying, struck without notice and seemed to take on Biblical proportions. Young kids were struck down without warning. A simple cold or even a lousy stiff neck might transform itself into the dreaded disease. I was in the 4th grade at the time and like most other kids, I wasn’t particularly afraid of it afflicting me as much as having it close by.

One day, word went around 168th Street at warp speed. Mindy Lowenstein, the local, corner deli owner’s eldest daughter, had come down with Polio, confined to the dreaded “iron lung,” a pressurized container that assisted the victim’s breathing. The machine was set in the family’s living room. Everyone it seems stopped by to offer sympathy. It was like a giant procession. We lived on a street of row houses (the inglorious term was “attached” though my mother’s irrepressible pretensions referred to the family homestead as a townhouse or row house).

The Lowenstein’s were not poor, but they weren’t what one might call loaded. We suspected that a good part of the reason for this was the deli. Despite its well-earned reputation for serving dreck, neighborhood folks felt a sense of obligation: to frequent the deli more often given the family’s situation. Our orders were rather explicit…… “Enough of Benny’s (corner luncheonette), go to Lowenstein’s even if it kills you.” Being a good boy (you should see my official Bar Mitzvah portrait, where I look as if heaven’s about to open take me straight upstairs), I at least gave it a shot.

Unescorted young kids, “got no respect” in delis. Parental absence meant gruff talk from the counter staff, dismissive service, and Yiddish invective that we never understood but knew was not flattering.

Lowenstein’s, like most delis, had a grill in the window topped with the ubiquitous sheet of aluminum foil. A half dozen potato knishes (square, fried potato bombs) and a few franks were laid out on this sheet as if they were on display at a wake. Any reference to a “hot dog” guaranteed annoyance from the already humorless counterman. Hot dogs were for the goyim, after all who knew what was in them? These franks were Hebrew Nationals, normally delicious, peppery dogs that made a pronounced “snap” with each bite. These were the princely royalty of what amounted to Jewish Charcuterie. These poor mutts were, however, on the Lowenstein’s grill for so long that they didn’t have the strength to either snap or carry a simple slather of mustard. They weren’t hot, nor were they cold, just limp, tired, wrinkled, sour old Jews, looking as if they and the counterman were family. You couldn’t down one of these without a soda. Scotch would have been better.

That the term “table service” at Lowenstein’s applied to a chubby nice Jewish 9 yr old like myself and his kid brother was an oxymoron. If I remember correctly, Lowenstein’s had a waiter or two, a Morris or Sammy, typically ashen grey complected matched with an attitude of resignation that sucked the air out of a room, or worse, a waitress, a lady named Florence or Yetta, typically a farbissiner, Yiddish for “old Jewish Crone you grudgingly invite to dinner once a year ‘cause she’s family”.
Every request we made was a chore. Tipping was not something we were schooled in as kids, and the waiter knew it. Besides, on any reasonable rating scale, they’d wind up owing you money.

So, you were essentially forced out in the street with your sorry, limp, wrinkled, frank and Dr. Brown’s Cream soda. It would be several years before I had the frequent epiphany, driving me into the arms of the famed Dr. Brown’s Celery Tonic (now called Cel-Ray likely over an ingredients issue). Had I been a Cel-Ray man at age 9, I might have had that crucial ounce of credibility needed for table seating.

Needless to say, the frank and drink was lousy. I would have rather endured hot, steamy boiled chicken with the skin still on it than carry away from Lowenstein’s.

Over the next year business picked up at the deli. Guilt & sympathy were a potent combination when it came to bringing in the business. Mr. L’s daughter and Dr. Salk seemed to energize each other. He discovered the vaccine to save the rest of us and she miraculously got better on her own, likely married a dentist, and moved to New Jersey. We all went back to our regular routines. High school arrived and became a four-year quest to escape the bounds of family and neighborhood through college.

Meanwhile, back at Lowenstein’s, business was back to dismal. Lowenstein hung on (probably with the same half dozen knishes and franks on the window grill) for many years after. We resumed our monthly trips to the Surrey Deli, made occasional visits to the emerging crop of super-delis such as the famed Turnpike in Kew Gardens, where the décor was lavishly tasteless as opposed to the sparse depressing aesthetic at the local joints. The waiters wore full tuxedos. Most of the local places dressed their wait staffs in outfits suitable for an organ grinder’s co-worker.

I went away to college in the Midwest and didn’t look back. I had little to do with deli, having discovered the new universe that contained Big Ten football, pork tenderloin sandwiches, A & W Root Beer stands, and shikses. Aside from a casual visit to Nathan’s during Christmas vacation, I doubt I had much if any deli until in of all places, Vietnam, where a well known Rabbi Golub, airborne no less, flew into camps on a Huey, jumped from the skids as it hovered over the pad, and landed armed with bagels, lox, corned beef, and rye bread, all donated by stateside delis. The deal was simple: you attend the Sabbath service, you get a sandwich. Finally, a covenant one could understand.

After returning from Vietnam in 1970 I chanced to drive by to see that Lowenstein’s was no more. It was replaced by an Asian grocery that served the new Chinese residents moving into the neighborhood. Delis were leaving the area. New Jewish residents tended to be Orthodox and preferred the “Glatt” Kosher delis along Main Street in nearby Kew Gardens.

Lowenstein? He certainly must have wished his brief run had been longer and grounded on less tragic circumstances. For a moment though, it just seemed possible that both business and quality might pick up just enough to clear that grill of its familiar wrinkled dogs and potato bomb knishes.

But, some things are just not to be.

5 Comments on "Lowenstein’s Revenge: A memoir of NYC Deli"

ab

Fantastic read. Thanks.

Did you have to live in an iron lung full-time if you had Polio?



Barry Strum

Yes . A real ordeal for polio victims. After a time I suppose they were able to breathe/function outside the controlled environment.



Mo

I enjoyed the images you painted Barry! Now, if my lunch (pastrami/swiss on wheat from my fridge) would just transform into the picture above…damnit! Not happening here in Utah.



Save The Deli » Blog Archive » Hungry Magazine: Lowenstein’s Revenge

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Anonymous

Oy. Just reading this raised my cholesterol level to Code Orange. As a culinary Jew–I’ll eat a bagel now and then–I enjoyed this very much and would love to see more.
–Stan Sulkes



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