Driving two hours to Grandma’s house meant there would be a breeze instead of an air conditioner and a pair of yellow, rubber gloves where a dishwasher could be.
Her house meant savouring the soft centre of cinnamon buns and hearing crickets in the carpeted hallway before bed. It meant drinking Coke and staying up late around the wooden table, playing Sequence and eating Rosebuds.
Most of all, Grandma’s house meant meatballs.
I don’t mean spaghetti and meatballs or meatballs covered in sticky, sweet and sour sauce. These meatballs were covered in a creamy, brown gravy and Grandma served them alongside a random selection of sides, none of which will make any sense to you.
We would arrive Friday evening as the sun was setting through the west window. It spilled into everyone’s squinting eyes. The kitchen had a small couch, and a desk for writing letters & talking on the phone. One wall was lined with a deep freezer and a second sink where some of us brushed our teeth and curled our hair for Saturday evening church.
We would’ve spent the last two hours buckled into the brown bench seats of the Astro van, staring out at the flat, beige land where herds of black cattle spread themselves out like the bugs on the bumper.
After hugs and arm rubs from both grandma and grandpa, we helped put the finishing touches on the table: a plastic coloured cup at each place setting and a bottle of ketchup in the centre, next to the single pansy Grandma would’ve plucked from her garden that day and placed in a drinking glass.
Mom passed the meatballs around, each of us taking three or four and none of them being perfectly round. In fact, meat lumps would’ve been a better name for them. Then came the boiled potatoes from the garden – gritty with starch and covered in butter.
There was always the same salad at every meal, no slivered almonds or crumbled feta cheese with balsamic and olive oil. Her kitchen had never seen the likes. Just lettuce and Kraft coleslaw dressing. Sometimes it had chopped apple in it, and sometimes there was an ant crawling out of it.
“Good protein,” Grandpa would say with a straight face.
Just like every other meal at this house, it came with homemade, white buns, each with a hard crusty exterior and fluffy centre you spread with cold butter. Chances are you’d eat one with your meal, then another one to wipe your plate clean or simply because you couldn’t resist another.
Right when you thought Grandma was finally going to sit down and stop grabbing things from the kitchen, she comes to the table with one last silver pot – Kraft Dinner.
We all tucked into our plates, cutting our meatballs in half with our forks, dabbing them in ketchup, and chasing it with a spoonful of mac and cheese or some sweet salad, repeating this sweet and savoury process until the meatballs were gone.
The meal wasn’t complete until Grandma brought the teapot to the table along with a plastic margarine container filled with whatever cookie she had baked the day before.
We felt full, maybe a little drowsy, and were totally unaware of just how memorable this meal really was.
With crumbs stuck to our sock feet, we left the table to watch gameshows with Grandpa.
Bury me in pastrami.
Let me close my eyes, and let the clear, gelatinous juices wrap around my soul as I vanish into meaty bliss.
No matter what imperfect, grammar-riddled, black and white deli menu I look at, my eyes always take me straight to the pastrami on rye. And the most memorable meal I’ve stuffed down my thick, Irish gullet, is that exact order from the single greatest sandwich shop on Earth: Katz’s Delicatessen, in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, New York City.
As soon as you approach the building on the weathered corner of Ludlow and Houston, you know you’re somewhere special. I had reached the mecca of everything that is sandwich. This is a place where incomparable culinary greatness had captured the glands of billions. Ruth had Yankee Stadium. Sinatra had the Sands. Lincoln had Gettysburg. Easton was now about to have Katz.
A counter, decorated with cured cuts, tongues and vital organs, spanned from one end of the restaurant to the other. Behind it, an army of men, slicing sandwich after sandwich. Reuben on marble, Salami on white, Brisket on baked buns.
All Jewish delis are nostalgic; the outdated furniture and rickety-old servers; the walls of faded photographs of the famous people who’ve dined there. It’s a cookie-cutter atmosphere. But at Katz, it feels like they invented it.
It’s not so much that everything is old, but rather, nothing is new. There’s no painted white brick background or pink neon signs that say “rosé all day”. Nothing’s trying to keep up with the times, because fuck the times.
Katz’s hasn’t ruled the sandwich kingdom because it’s adapted to today’s photogenic, pretty-over-pure environment. It’s earned its place at the top because it knows what people really want and what they’ll keep coming back for: hemorrhaging plates of the best ingredients, assembled with simplicity, and prepared with a love that would make your bubby blush.
It’s worked for 132 years, and as soon as you sink your crooked teeth into the first bite, you’ll know it will work until the end of time. Let it be known, Katz Delicatessen will stand until the sun burns out.
My frumpy old server was gone as fast as he came, maneuvering through the crowded dining hall like a Soviet ballet prodigy, sans leotard. He greeted me with a “Whatta ya have?” as his werewolf-esque knuckles scribbled down my order.
I sat in a back-breaking faded yellow booth, partaking in one of my favourite pastimes: staring at other people’s orders. The locals were annoyed with the bundles of numbskull tourists, but it was clear they all agreed on one thing: ordering the classic hot pastrami on rye. This dish united the masses, how could I not order it?
Angels sang as the plate landed in front of my drooling, bulldog face. Perhaps I misheard Angels for screaming Jewish butchers, but nonetheless, in true Flinstone fashion, I gracefully unhinged my jaw and wrapped my wet lips around the rye slices. I chomped down like a drunken medieval prince, juices dripping from my jowls to the table below, mocking any manner I’d ever been taught.
Katz’s says their meat curing process, from delivery to dish, is about 30 days. Well, I could taste every second of those 30 days in one bite. This sandwich made me feel like it was my first girlfriend. I was in childish, immature, uncontainable love, and it was made by some schmuck named Ezra.
You see, at Katz, it’s never just a sandwich. It’s a memory. It’s a representation of a culture, a city, and a time where people weren’t given anything. They had to earn it. And as soon as I walked in, Katz’s Delicatessen earned their place as the most memorable meal I’ve ever had.