Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, that particularly American holiday during which millions of cooks attempt to roast a turkey, a notoriously tasteless industrially refined bird that tastes a lot like textured cardboard. Everybody loves thanksgiving turkey. Well almost everybody. If I had had my way with history, the dour Pilgrims would have stayed stuck in Leiden, and adventurous and far more amenable Bessarabian Jews would have gone in their stead. They would have had far more peaceful relations with the local Wampanoag Indians, and we would all be sitting down to a nice Thanksgiving meal of hot steamed pastrami today instead. With sweet potato latkes, maybe, and definately pickles. There is no holiday that can not be improved by the addition of pastrami. It has been a very good year for pastrami. Last summer I got to meet and translate for Toronto born writer David Sax, author of the great book about delicatessens and the people who love them: “Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen” (and the blog of the same name) who was on assignment in Budapest doing a story for Saveur magazine on Jewish food in Bucharest and Budapest. That article is now on line for all to see, illustrated by Landon’s Nordeman’s great photos. I got to spend a morning hanging around the Kazinczy utca Orthodox Synagogue with them sampling kosher cold cuts and watching the butchers reduce a cow into kosher sausage and salami in about a half hour of furious knife work.
And I also got to spend some time in Canada, sampling some of the smoked meat that stands in for deli meat in the Great Neighbor to the North. I had read about smoked meat for a long time – I traveled through the Ukraine with Barry Lazar and the film crew that had done the documentary Chez Schwartz about this legendary Montreal eatery. I had sat through several showing of the film to audiences of Canadian Jews all loudly moaning and making nyom-nyom sounds during the hard core pastrami-porn segments of the film. So when Geoff Berner invited me to lend a hand (or at least a vocal chord) on his new recording project, I was glad to be whisked up to Montreal and ready to try some smoked meat.Specifically at Chez Schwartz Charcuterie Hebraique in Montreal. The question has since arisen: which do you prefer, Schwartz’s or Katz’s? It’s a tough one to answer. So much rides on the decision. And for the winner of the 2010 Deli Meat of the year the award has to go to… Chez Schwartz. What? Is this not blasphemy? Is this not the equivalent of me turning my back on a half century of pastrami loyalty to Katz’s sandwiches? No. I’m just having a strange year. For one thing, on the last trip to Katz’s, I got stuck with a younger sandwich cutter, who inadvertently made me a sandwich fit for tourists: thinly sliced, lean mixed with lightly fatty meat, it kind of melted in the mouth instead of putting up any of the uneven, chunky resistance I like in pastrami.It was good… hell, it was fantastic…. But not as good as the sandwich I had eaten at Schwartz’s in September. And it was $16. That’s right. In Save the Deli David Saxe writes about the combination of evil influences – rising rents, loss of the kosher lunch crowd, the influx of tourists seeking a taste of New York – that have driven New York pastrami and corned beef sandwich prices into the heavens. Schwartz's sandwich is five bucks, Canadian. Yes, five loonies.
If you want more you can order a straight plate of smoked meat which comes with a stack of rye bread so you can make your own sandwiches or just cram the meat into your mouth as you wish. It may not look alike a lot, but our waiter warned us it might not be the right thing to go with on ones first trip. And he was right. At the next table a couple of beefy Quebecois men – the kind of guys who eat caribou smothered in maple syrup for breakfast – surrendered far short of a full plate of meat.
As for the pickles… excellent, but I still like the half sours at Katz’s better. So, we end the Year in Pastrami with a win for Schwartz’s. Hopefully, I will be back for a rematch soon. Runner ups were Liebman’s Deli in the Bronx and Caplansky’s in Toronto coming in a strong fourth. So enjoy your turkey, but things could have been so much different if only… And while you are at it, consider the real history of Thanksgiving on this annual Turkey day. First of all, there was no turkey. Nor pastrami. No friendly countermen at all.A bunch of absolutely incapable religious fundamentalists who had been driven out of England, the Pilgrims survived their first winter in 1621 by looting the stores of Indians who had died during a massive smallpox epidemic in the previous three years. Arriving at the Wampanoag village of Pautuxet, they were more or less parasitic on the good graces of the Indians there due to the political machinations of the local leader Massasoit and the incredible luck that there was one Pautuxet native – Tisquantum ( which translates as “Rage”) who became known as Squanto – who could translate for them. He had been kidnapped into slavery by English seamen five years earlier and managed to return. For a good antidote to the Thanksgiving mythology that we will all be swimming in, check out this article in Smithsonian Magazine by Charles Mann, which is essentially the first chapter of his book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus. Rage indeed.