Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Patriotism of Pastrami: Hobby's Deli, Newark, NJ.

Around about this time of year - during the short grey days of a Central European winter - I become consumed by a burning need. I need a pastrami sandwich. I need it now. And I can't have one.  There are none here. They live only in the Western hemisphere, and yet I can smell one, I can almost feel the texture of fatty squishy spiced meat on my palate, the salty savor of half-sour pickles, the satisfying swig of the second can of root beer. I can not have that here in Budapest. Not at all. Never.

The best thing in the entire world. Really. No exaggeration. This is why we live on earth.

Of course there are those who would debate me. Budapest boasts its own micro-media of foodie porn, and there are at least four places in Budapest now offering something they label pastrami. But having watched the video  of a guy checking out some Budapest pastrami sandwiches I can't bear to even experiment. (Imagine a homesick Hungarian wandering the streets of Manhattan lured by a sign announcing "Gulyás leves" only to find some kind of thin red broth with vanilla foam and a single olive mockingly served in a large Chinese soup spoon. You get the picture.) Previous Budapest food fads have included a burger craze: there are at least six new burger restaurants in my area of Budapest alone. If I want a cardboard meatball on a sweet brioche bun with a chef's salad piled on top and squirted with German BBQ ketchup I will know just where to go. Alas, White Manna is thousands of miles away, as is most of  the hallowed ground of New Jersey. If I want a burger I wait until I get back to the USA - specifically, New Jersey. The other is pastrami and corned beef. I have written about most of the New York's Jewish delis and their steamed, smoked and sliced versions of heaven on rye bread.

Al Gore and Russian PM Viktor Chernomyrdin at Katz's, 1996. (Photo: NY Daily News)

Katz's Deli - which has recently jacked its sandwich price to $19.95 for a pastrami on rye - has been featured many times. And let's face it: Yes, I will still go to Katz's and fork over a twenty for their sandwich simply because it is the best and it supports an cultural institution that is otherwise economically impossible to maintain in downtown Manhattan. In truth, I have started to look beyond Manhattan and back to my native Bronx in search of affordable deli sandwiches. The annual report - covering New York, Montreal, and Toronto delis - was published here a few months ago. We also made a special ancestral trip to Loesser's deli in the Bronx just to be completist, and we were glad we did. It is half the price of a Manhattan pastrami sandwich, and you get free refills on your freshly made cole slaw. But looking back over some of my files, I realized I had left out one very special NY area deli: Hobby's Deli in Newark New Jersey.

In New Jersey, everybody is a patriot. Everybody.
Hobby's is located smack in the downtown heart of Newark - a boarded up and depressed ghetto neighborhood near the Essex County Courthouse. But like a lot of America's old style delis, Hobby's survives because its lunch clients are a mix of courthouse lawyers and local workers in the predominantly black downtown Newark area. Before the 1960s, Jewish delis were often among the only restaurants in downtown areas that were willing to serve Black customers. Today many of the best delis in cities like Chicago, Baltimore, and Philadelphia are located in downtown ghettos. Corned beef and pastrami were made from cheap, tough belly cuts of beef that sold for pennies. In the globalized world, however, that beef gets shipped to China, and the price has risen like a rocket.

Deli etiquette: there can be no mystery to your lunch.
Delis used to be considered cheap places to eat: you could fill your belly for a couple of bucks. When I was in high school even I could afford lunch at delis - which is something since I went to High School in the late 14th century. If you had to eat lunch outside of school you could afford pizza, a cheapo burger, or a deli sandwich. Jersey used to have a lot of decent delis. Teaneck had an excellent deli in Tabatchnik's on Cedar Lane. Tabatchnik's is now called "Noah's Ark" and has been reborn as an Israeli kosher place serving the modern Orthodox congregations - people whose main culinary concern is limited to "which rabbi declared the food kosher?" Overnight the identity of "Jewish" food switched from Ashkenazic Jewish to Israeli Kosher, from food to fuel. The corned beef sandwich and kugel gave way to the falafel and chicken shnitzel, and the knish was re-purposed into a healthful vegetarian option. Knishes are not supposed to be healthy. Deli food is not supposed to be healthy. If I wanted healthy I would not be seated in a deli, popping sodium-packed pickles at a doctor-defying clip while balancing a salted cut of fatty beef in my other hand. The loss of Tabachnik's served as a emblematic lesson in the decline of Jewish delis in America in David Saxe's outstanding book about the deli tradition "Save the Deli."

All gloriously yours: your blood pressure will thank you!
The pastrami at Hobby's... it is a many splendored thing... who knew that something so good was hiding in Newark, New Jersey? Like almost all of the great NY delis, Hobby's cures its own pastrami and corned beef in their basement, meaning that the fermentation is triggered by bacteria that are essential to the final product. Like a fine French cheese or an Italian salami, a pastrami tastes of its own specific place, its terroir - in this case, the terroir of downtown Newark, New Jersey. You can search for flavor hints of the Newark Airport, the Jersey Turnpike, Raritan Bay, the Meadowlands and the enigmatic Kill Van Kull. Hobby's should get an award for most militantly locavore artisanal  product in the New York area.

"My love is a fever, longing still, for that which longer doth nurseth the pastrami..." Shakespeare, Sonnet 147
The sandwich is a thing of layered beauty. Hobby's uses a mechanical slicer: this is not actually bad in and of itself, and it helps keep prices down by eliminating waste. Hand sliced meat - such as is served at Katz's and Schwartz's in Montreal - wastes a lot of meat. There ends up only being about five sandwiches in a whole brisket. Hand sliced means thicker slices which cool down slower. And that is the thing with pastrami and corned beef: it is served steaming hot, but as it cools down it transforms into something dryer, denser, less appealing. It is the only food that deteriorates in quality as you eat it. Nobody ever wants to take leftover pastrami home, and it doesn't reheat well. The mustard seen above is my finishing touch: with that much meat you need a good deli mustard. The rye bread is really just a way of holding the thing together.

We were once a mighty civilization, and now we are this.
Nobody really takes side dishes seriously at a deli, But I had heard that Hobby's makes old style onion rings. Nobody does that anymore, because most onions are agro-farmed and that means they have too much fertilizer induced moisture in them to fry well. Most places serve pre-made onion rings made from a slurry of onion-like alien intelligent beings who were captured during intergalactic warfare billions of years ago, their planet destroyed, and they were shipped to be processed on a desert planet owned by Walmart. Not Hobby's. Real onion rings. Of course they go soggy after five minutes. You don't savor onion rings. You eat them. Fast. Now, in order to get to Hobby's you need to get to downtown Newark. Newark's Grand Central train station is about three blocks away, and despite its bad reputation, nobody will harass you walking through the downtown of Newark, especially during the day. That's because Hobby's also closes at around 4 pm every day. It is a lunch deli, not a full service restaurant. If you go to eat  in Newark at night you ought to be in the Ironbound neighborhood, anyway, eating Portuguese seafood or Brazilian hamburguesas.  But I had to convince my little brother, Ron, to brave the traffic and drive down with me. Because I don't drive. That's right, I spend time in New Jersey and I do not drive cars, I do not have a driver's license. I have a network of "Spanish buses" (also known as "guaguas")  and a little brother. It somehow works out.

He used to be such a cute baby.
Ron is a chef, and when it comes to straight forward New Jersey food, you can not fool him. He knows the real thing (as long as we are not discussing barbecue, I mean.)  And Hobby's is the real thing. And he was impressed by the patriotic interior design at Hobby's. New Jersey likes to wear its patriotism on its shirt... right next to the mustard stain and that spilled coffee. You can't escape it. Giant flags are painted in parking lots, 9/11 memorials everywhere, even murals celebrating historic victories from Bull Run to Bastogne, from Hue to Panama City. Jersey loves its vets. And so does Ron. My brother wasn't in the army. He was born into an unexpected era of peace and had already picked up the chef's trade when his nation might have used him to dice enemies into a tasty mince. I know he would have loved to have joined the Army (if only they didn't have all those hangups about discipline and taking orders.) If he had, however, he would likely as not wound up as a bit of beef jerky fluttering on a fence next to some empty combat boots in Kuwait. so I am actually glad that he missed those opportunities. As a Jersey Patriot, Ron stands by Operation Salami Drop, an effort by hobby's owner Samuel Brummer - a WWII vet himself - which sent thousands of salamis to American soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. We are not to be toyed with. When you bite into pastrami, you bite into America.

You can have my pastrami when you can pry it from my cold, stiff fingers!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Rocksteady Attila: The Pig that Took Budapest by Storm.

We rarely use this blog to discuss the local Hungarian news. Other web sites do that so much better, and the last few months of Hungarian news has been crammed with tales of corruption, political intrigue, of rivalries between Our Great Infallible Leader and his former allies and room mates and his Swiss bank accounts and his new BFF Vlad Putin. We have had a series of demonstrations in support of a democratic Hungary led by people who can't wrap their heads around the notion of organizing a democratic opposition to participate in political change. On a more spiritual level, our Jewish community just fired the recently appointed community president, a former Catholic chorister, Evangelical deacon, and transsexual cabaret performer who was caught embezzling funds. It gets downright depressing at times. As Fela Kuti used to say "Oh my people... Oh my poor poor people." Then suddenly a news item pops up that puts everything else in perspective, something that overshadows the corruption charges and the political rivalries and the new taxes and the trannie Catholic Jewish community presidents and all the other random BS that fill the Hungarian 24 hour news cycle.

Rocksteady Attila running down Rakoczi ut.
Budapest is being taken over by wild pigs. Yes, wild boars roam the streets of the Hungarian capital at night, blithely running down the boulevards and sauntering past the fast food joints and the trolley stops. It is almost biblical in its apocalyptic sense of timing. And lo! The swine shall be seen in the streets of your city, Yea, even next to the McDonald's and that new store, ye know, the one where they verily sell the newest Gucci... If you don't live in Hungary you are really missing out on fun news. We have all the scandal and outrage of any small European nation... plus... wild pigs!

So sweet. So fat. So tasty. So crawling with parasites!
There actually are wild boars which live within the confines of the city of Budapest: out in the hills of Buda there are special parks and reserved areas set aside just for the animals. Obnoxious upper class twits - you know the type, dressed in green wool and wearing Austrian hunters' hats - join clubs to "hunt" these semi tame porkers out in the suburbs, luring them in with baited corn and blasting at them from elevated platforms in what many assholes call "a noble sport." A few of the wiser pigs opt out of the sport and take their chances in more urban contexts, digging under the fences to freedom. But they rarely wander into downtown, and for some reason, there seem to be a lot of them all of a sudden. This was the situation with urban piggery last week. 

Budapest has gone to the pigs.
The guys at snarky news website have been tracing the swine explosion and had identified three main offenders and given them names. Pig Zrinyi and Pig Konfuciusz are both in Buda, where they probably arrived by following the green park lands down from the Buda hills and along the Danube to settle into relatively bucolic areas near the Novotel and Technical university. But my favorite is the Pig that Got to Pest, Rocksteady Attila. This fellow probably crossed one of the bridges spanning the Danube and has settled down in the area around the Vamhaz Market and Corvin university. This is one slick porker. But within a couple of days more wild pigs were sighted along both banks of the Danube (and have had names bestowed on them by the editors who love them.) 

The invasion of Pest has begun! 
Now, there isn't really a grave danger to the people of Budapest from any of these pigs - they probably feed on garbage and hide during the day, like so many local pensioners. Unless you are traipsing around the woods dressed like a dickwad in Austrian hunter clothes, attacks by wild boars are pretty rare, especially if they are not guarding any of their extremely cute baby pigs.  Personally, since moving to Hungary I miss seeing large dangerous animals in urban settings. In the USA there are always news stories about bears walking into shopping malls in suburban New Jersey, about Moose - often insane moose driven violently mad by weird fly larva growing in their ears - sauntering into New England mill towns and attempting to have sex with cars. A Rutgers college student was eaten by bears last September in suburban West Milford, New Jersey, about a twenty five minute drive from New York City. I used to have to contend with a large raccoon that used to walk into our house - by opening the back door, of course - and help itself to the cat food bowl when I lived in downtown  Boston, way back in the 20th century. 
Rocksteady Attila on the run!
In fact, considering how much pork the average Hungarian family eats in a year one should think that these wild swine should be running as far away from centers of Hungarian population as possible. Most people in Budapest know wild boar mainly as an item on restaurant menus. Are these innocent wild pigs putting themselves in danger, blindly fleeing into a teeming pit of ravenous humanoids hungry for pig? And when will these poor misplaced swine finally be resettled into an environment more conducive to their rooting, nomadic lifestyles? Only then will our news outlets be able to return to those simple, pigless political stories about the swine who remain.

Humor site Hircsarda interviews Zrnyi the Pig. 

Monday, January 05, 2015

Beans: How a New Years Dish Ruined Europe's Economy.

Eat Me! I will cause wealth to magically flow to you! I will!
It was a good year, 2014, and I'm kind of sad to see it go, but all things come to an end, even arbitrarily measured segments of intangible time. In Hungary, shops close on Xmas eve for three days straight, so if you haven't stocked your pantry you are in trouble. That's why a lot of our local seasonal foods depend on old style smoked meat - stuff you don't have to worry about keeping in the fridge. People forget that there was a time not very long ago - before 1950 - when one didn't keep fresh meat around the house. Milk was delivered daily, potatoes were stored in a cellar, eggs were gathered in the hen house next to the garage. Fridges changed all that. Luckily, nobody told our butcher on Klauzal ter. They still stock a full range of smoked meats, including goose leg.

This is why our food tastes better than yours.
Goose leg used to be the preserved meat of choice for Jewish Hungarians who rejected eating pork. Goose fat was the primary cooking fat for Jewish housewives, and although a rare sight today, huge flocks of white geese used to wander the streets of Hungarian villages waiting for their turn to become gribenes and schmaltz. All over Europe there is a tradition of eating a New Years meal which includes a bean or lentil dish, Italians eat lentils and zampone (a sausage-stuffed pigs leg) or cotechino sausages. The lentils look like little coins, and so if you eat it on the first day of the year you will cause you to make a lot of money. I have news for you Europeans: it won't. People in the Deep South in the USA have been eating black eyed peas with collard greens for hundreds of years on the same basis - it looks like money and so it should augur wealth - and they remain the poorest part of America. Millions of poverty stricken peasants in India eat nothing but lentils their entire lives. No, take it from me, eating lentils won't make you rich. Beans, however...  well, there is a possibility at least. The French, slightly more informed about personal economic growth factors, prefer to use nice big white beans for cassoulet

Economic disaster on a plate: Italian zampone and lentils.
This goes a long way towards explaining how the early European mind envisioned capitalism. Lentils! Of course! Have the Church declare banking a usurious sin and presto! - 1000 years of serfdom leading to Marxism and eventually along come people like Nigel Farrage and Silvio Berlusconi and Viktor Orban.  Well... it might not be sound economic policy but at least it tastes good. Around these parts the New Years dish is usually just plain old lentil soup (served alongside cheap pork hot dogs) but we went for smoked goose leg and beans. On rice, because that's how this house rolls. Fumie gets her Rising Sun nationalist rice fix, and I can close my eyes and imagine myself siting in a Dominican diner on 205th Street.

Beans: Be it ever so humble.
Smoked meat and beans is about as hearty a meal as you can eat. Beans love pork. Pork loves beans. And just about everybody short of my clarinet player and my rabbinical school teaching buddy loves beans with pork as well. I have previously blogged about my favorite eateries in Europe, the Varzaria in Cluj, Romania, which specializes in smoked pork with cabbage and beans, and about the truck stops in Ciucea and Poeini, Romania, on the road between Oradea and Cluj that specialize in huge plates of pork knuckles and beans to tide over the long haul truckers on their way to Bucharest. 

Never eat anything bigger than your head!
Of course, not everybody needs beans all the time. Serbian cuisine is deeply related to Hungarian cooking, but with more Balkan grilling elements and Turkish vegetable dishes. Serbs have even discovered unique ways of eating smoked pork without beans! Serb stuffed cabbage, however, sticks very close to the Hungarian variant, and we got lucky just before new Years when we went to a party at Ellato Kert catered by Nenad Angelic, the Serbian chef at the neighboring Serb bistro 400

Nenad taking steps to reform the world's economic trends.
Nenard - an old friend - is a fanatic when it comes to technique, and he was adamant that Hungarians had forgotten the technique for making proper stuffed cabbage: a huge clay đuveč pot propped up on a wood fire where the stuffed cabbage and smoked pork simmered for six hours. This was the stuffed cabbage at the end of the rainbow, the Stuffed Cabbage Mother of Them All, filled with huge chunks of tender smoked pork, rice, and cabbage. This is one of those foods where you think you could be happy eating one single thing for months on end. Considering that the crowd wasn't all that big, and a lot of them were pork-averse Muslims, the stew pot - about the size of small bath tub - was quickly emptied. 

Stuffed Cabbage Serb style. Forward! 
Of course, if pork avoidance is your issue, you can make all these same dishes with smoked goose and never notice a difference. We Hungarian Jews have been doing that for hundreds of years. That goose leg can be made into meat loaf and served with the Hungarian version of cholent, locally called sólet. Jewish tradition forbids the lighting of fires on sabbath, so a solet pot was buried in coals on friday afternoon and left until lunch on Saturday, providing a hot meal.

Sólet at Kadar's: the key to economic growth!
Why the difference in names? I read in some obscure Yiddish linguistics journal that the the Hungarian Jewish term sólet is possibly the older term. Sephardic Jews call their Sabbath stews hamim. Hungarian sólet are thicker and less soupy that classic Yiddish cholent, and instead of the big brown and purple soup beans used in cholent it uses both smaller white beans and barley cooked together to produce a thick legume-y mortar guaranteed to stave off hunger pangs at least until the next Sabbath arrives. Your best bet for a good one is, of course, to go for lunch early on Friday at the Kadar Etkezde on Klauzal ter. And I mean early: it often sells out by 12:30 pm, and Kadar's only stays open until 3 pm. (And it is "Jewish Style" - not kosher!) Across the park from me. Enjoy, And happy new year!