Shapiro’s Delicatessen may be the reason I love Jews.
Sure, the Jewish people have a rich and complicated history, sure they themselves are interesting, funny and intelligent, sure they have a long and honorable tradition of art and music and cultural prowess. But it’s really about the hearty comfort foods served in behemothic portions of creamy/salty/fatty abundance.
Long before I knew anything about Jews – other than that they were the heroes of the Old Testament – I knew that there was something inherently perfect about a bowl of matzoh ball soup accompanied by a sky-high slice of lemon poppyseed cake. The fact that you could go to a restaurant and, instead of your parents ordering for you or faced with a kid’s menu offering the ad nauseum choices of grilled cheese/chicken fingers/peanut butter and jelly, you could look at the selections on the other side of the counter and choose your meal…the power…there was nothing like it.
Shapiro’s was also a little distance away, so it was always an event to eat there. When I moved to Kansas City, which offers very little in the way of traditional Jewish delicatessen fare, I missed it, but didn’t really think about it. I made my own matzoh ball soup and found other sources for my citrus fix (hello, Cafe Europa’s lemon cake – my true love!). However, a few years ago the operation opened a store in my hometown of Carmel, IN. Once I introduced my Jewish husband to the establishment it become a must-stop on any visit home.
The last time we went was last August. Shooed away out of the house by my mother, it was the first time the both of us had been separated from our infant son in the two months since his birth. We weren’t exactly celebrating, but it was kind of a big deal.
Going to restaurants with my husband is always a trip. He’s a musician and has an affinity for service people, working in the industry himself. He enjoys sitting near servers’ stations by the bar, listening to them gripe about customers and chatting with the wait staff. I worked in a grocery store, seasonally, for a decade, behind the bakery counter and deli counter. My approach, having been there, is more along the lines of: let them do their job, don’t waste their time, get in, get out, get it over with.
My behind-the-counter deli experience also gave me a snobbish attitude towards processed meats, specifically the nasty, slime covered hunk of junk that represents many brands’ “corned beef.” This is nothing like the cooked-for-hours, salty spicefest that is a traditional corned beef.
I came late to an appreciation of corned beef and its main vehicle, the Reuben. But it’s a love that has only grown with each experience and I freely admit to having exacting standards. If a Reuben is on the menu, I always ask if the corned beef is made “in house.” If not, – if they’re going to slice off a piece of reformed beef shank and try to pass that off as cured and cooked delightfulness – I’ll have a turkey club, thank you. Somethings you just can’t fake.
And Shapiro’s offers just about the best Reuben this side of the Hudson River. It, like the lemon poppyseed cake, is sky-high and loaded with the necessary sauerkraut, Swiss, and Russian dressing, all piled between two thick slices of tart rye bread.
This particular meal (which also featured the cake and a bowl of matzoh ball soup, because you got to get when the getting’s good, you know), also included a few interesting Jewish comfort-food treasures. My delightful dining partner ordered a scoop of chopped liver, because “well, you NEVER see that on a menu, I have to get that,” and I scored a rare can of celery soda. That’s right, folks, a semi-sweet carbonated beverage the flavor of celery. The flavor of which was quite present. And that grossed him out. The man who joyfully digs into a grayish lump of poorman’s pate. Allow me an “eeeeeew.”
But the trip down culinary-memory lane was not over. After we finished an otherwise delicious and overly filling meal (seriously, I sometimes dream about that Reuben), we went around to the carryout counter/grocery section to order sandwiches for my mom and uncle, who had stayed at home. While waiting, Mr. Adventurous inspected the Jewish-ish goods for sale: various types of cookies and sweets, a plethora of cured meats and pickled products, and other kosher miscellany. He noticed an unmarked, Saran-wrapped bowl full of grayish green orbs in the chill case and began to speculate to what they were. One of the workers volunteered that it was a bowl of brined tomatos and onions. Asked if they’d ever tried them, answered by a resounding “oh, hell no,” my Beloved scored himself a FREE SAMPLE OF PICKLED TOMATO! Will wonders never cease?
What does that taste like? Exactly as you might think (salty, garlicky, oniony flesh roughly the texture of a tomato) and would admittedly be pretty tasty sliced on a sandwich, though not tasty enough for me to start pickling them myself.
If I can’t get my Shapiro’s fix I head over to D’Bronx on 39th Street, who serve up a pretty good specimen, or Farmhouse’s lunch menu offering, which is tangy and falling apart. Please excuse me, Pavlov’s dogs seem to be visiting.