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   Got Mustard? An Ageless
   Pleasure Between the Rye

   by Ed Levine

  "I want a pastrami on rye, fatty, not too lean," said the middle-age man in line at Katz's, on the Lower East Side, practically wagging his finger at the counterman. "Pastrami shouldn't be lean. And I want coleslaw on the sandwich, but put it on the side, because I got to drive my truck to Jersey and I don't want it to get soggy. Put the mustard on the side for the same reason."

  A pause. The counterman gave a world-weary shrug and continued to put together the sandwich, laying the slices of juicy meat onto the bread.

  "And don't give me any of those half-sour pickles," the customer added. "Give me some really good sour pickles."

  This scene might have taken place in 1946. Or '67. In 1980, even, it would have starred two Jewish men of a certain age and demeanor. On this recent day, however, the customer was black, and the counterman, Dominican.

  The language was ageless, though.

  "Give me your ticket," the counterman said when finished making the sandwich, referring to the system Katz's has used to record its sales practically since it opened on the corner of Houston and Ludlow Streets in 1888. "I'm gonna charge you."

  Pastrami is deli food, and deli food is something New Yorkers have argued about — and loved — for as long as there have been delis in New York.

  Like the bagel, and smoked salmon and cream cheese and rye bread, too, pastrami is a food developed by and for Jews that over the years has become a touchstone of the New York experience. It is a comfort to both Jew and non-Jew, male and female, black and white, Asian and Latino — to all New Yorkers, at least all those who relish the luscious, fatty pleasures of cured, smoked and steamed beef navel on rye. (We'll start that diet on Monday.)

  But where did pastrami come from? And what constitutes real pastrami? Does any deli make its own pastrami, or is it all heat-and-serve?

  Two months ago I set out to answer those questions and others, and of course to eat every sort of New York pastrami I could find.

  Joan Nathan, author of "Jewish Cooking in America" (Knopf, 1998), says the word pastrami comes from a Turkish word, basturma. It describes a meat that is sliced, wind-dried, pickled with dried spices and then pressed.

  The technique was adopted by itinerant Jewish peddlers, Ms. Nathan said, who began to cure kosher meat in the same manner. Anyone looking for a taste of basturma should head to the Midwood section of Brooklyn, where the Mansoura family makes a fine version at the bakery of the same name at 515 Kings Highway.

  The development of pastrami as we know it today happened in America, Ms. Nathan said, first as a way to preserve goose meat and then, when the availability of kosher beef became more widespread in the 19th century, with what butchers call the cow's plate, also known as the belly or navel. It is found next to the brisket alongside the underside of the animal and is much fattier than brisket. The navel was dry-cured in salt and other spices for weeks, then smoked and, finally, steamed.

  These preserved meats were not easy to make in the home. Delicatessens, or stores selling prepared meats, rose up to help fill the need. By the 1930's, said Joel Denker, author of "The World on a Plate: A Tour Through the History of America's Ethnic Cuisine" (Westview Press), there were no fewer than 5,000 of them in New York City, most serving home-cured pastrami.

  But as in the home, so too in the deli. Gradually, deli owners stopped making pastrami. The process was too labor intensive and too expensive. Moreover, it took up too much space; you needed barrels to cure the navels and a smoker to smoke the meat.

  Indeed, the only deli in New York that currently makes its own pastrami on premises is Sarge's, on Third Avenue between 36th and 37th Streets. Among purists, it's debatable if that's a good thing, because the deli's owner, Michael Katz, doesn't have a smoker. He injects navels with liquid smoke.

  In contrast, most pastrami in New York is made by large meat sellers, often as eager as the busy home cook or overworked deli owner to save time and money. One of them is Ira Rosner, a third-generation pastrami maker and the owner of Nation's Best Wholesale Meat and Deli, a purveyor in the Hunts Point meat market in the Bronx.

  "Pastrami making has come a long way," he said. "When my grandfather started out, he was coating his navels with salt and other stuff and hanging it to cure. Then he moved to wet-curing in wooden barrels. Then my dad started to hand-pump the navel with syringes containing the brining solution. Now look."

  Mr. Rosner pointed to a conveyor belt, on which navels were passing beneath a contraption that plunged needles into each one and filled them with a seasoned brine. From the belt and after a night's rest, he told me, they go into an oven and are smoked with hickory and apple wood, 3,000 pounds at a time. Mr. Rosner makes 100,000 pounds of pastrami a week, and it's quite good.

  I found incredible pastrami, however, at Ben's Best, founded in 1945 on Queens Boulevard in Rego Park; the restaurant has no connection to the Ben's Deli chain of delicatessens. The Ben's Best pastrami seemed to hark back to an era of darker, more aggressively spiced, small-batch pastrami — the one served at a legendary old Queens deli, now closed, called Pastrami King. Ben's Best pastrami is peppery and soulful. It has a winey, crimson color. It is absolutely delicious.

  The owner of Ben's Best, Jay Parker, is a pastrami classicist. He said that when he took over the business from his father, Ben Parker, in 1980, he wanted to serve old-fashioned pastrami, cured by hand in barrels. Four years later, he asked a small kosher pastrami purveyor, Eddie Weinberg of Empire National in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to do it for him.

  Mr. Weinberg, like Mr. Rosner, is a third-generation pastrami man, and rose quickly to the challenge. He had a good wet-cured pastrami business, but now makes and sells a barrel-cured meat to Mr. Parker and to Jack Lebewohl of the Second Avenue Deli in the East Village.

  Of course, all of the above notwithstanding, much of the pastrami lore in New York City is just that. The two largest purveyors of kosher pastrami in New York are Hebrew National, now owned by ConAgra, and Empire National. The kosher-style business is divided among a few small outfits in Brooklyn and the Bronx.

  As Doug Karroll, an owner of Chef's Delight, a kosher-style pastrami seller in Williamsburg, told me, "Everybody has his or her own shtick when it comes to pastrami."

  Deli owners are reluctant to reveal their sources for pastrami, in some measure because there are so few of them. Instead, they remain vague and tell you that someone — unnamed — is making pastrami for them, "exactly according to my specifications."

  Jeff Bank, an owner of Artie's Deli on the Upper West Side, told me he bought his pastrami recipe at auction, from the descendants of Bernstein-on-Essex, another legendary but now defunct deli, this one on the Lower East Side. But he wouldn't tell me who made his meat using that recipe. "They don't want any publicity," he said.

  And Alan Dell, who owns Katz's with a partner, Fred Austin, told me he still cures his own pastrami in the store, before sending it out to be smoked. Two weeks later, Mr. Austin expressed some surprise at that claim. Katz's pastrami, he told me, is made in Brooklyn from scratch.

  I asked him if I could visit the place.

  "Only if I blindfolded you," he said.

  The number of sources for real pastrami in New York may be small, but the variations in pastrami quality found in the delis that buy from them affirm the truth of Mr. Karroll's statement: how the meat is treated once it arrives at the delicatessen is paramount.

  Mr. Parker of Ben's Best explained that he steams his pastramis for up to six hours before they are trimmed of gristle and sliced to order. Mark Schachner, who owns the Mill Basin Deli in Mill Basin, Brooklyn, said he steams his pastrami not once, but twice, carefully monitoring both the time and the temperature.

  "That is the key to the richness of hot spicy smoked pastrami," he wrote in an e-mail. "Heat it too long and it falls apart. Heat it too little and it is chewy. It is a science that takes years to master."

  As to the provenance of his pastramis before their arrival in Mill Basin, Mr. Schachner was mum. "Not everything that starts the same finishes the same," he wrote.

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