Around lunchtime the bus creaked to its first full stop in traffic, and my mouth started to water like one of Pavlov’s dogs. Every inch we crawled was an inch closer to hot pastrami on rye, knishes, sweet kugel, chopped liver you couldn’t ignore. I’d left home in New Hampshire without breakfast six hours earlier. I was saving myself for the Lower East Side.
There’s no Jewish food in New Hampshire (except for one temple’s annual festival, where every Jew in the state comes together to consume 500 blintzes and 40 gallons of matzo ball soup in three hours). All my life I’ve made pilgrimages to New York, where both of my parents are from, to eat The Food of Our People. This time around, as soon as I got off the bus and dropped my bags at my friend’s apartment, I would go get my fix.
And this time around, on a sidewalk that could fry blintzes, I would stop, poleaxed, and stare at the two signs. To the left, “KATZ’S.” And to the right, “LOBSTER JOINT.”
I didn’t come all the way from New Hampshire to the Lower East Side for a lobster roll.
It wasn’t about kashrut; I happily eat lobster back home. But lobster in this iconically Jewish spot, a dozen steps from Katz’s Delicatessen, was a bright red X across the old urban shtetl of my imagination. Sure, I’d known intellectually that the neighborhood didn’t hold a monopoly on Jewish food in New York, and vice versa. But here it was, the open storefront of a Lower East Side lobster pound.
The sun poured through an ample skylight onto tables laden with discarded red shells, bread rolls barely supporting high-piled pink meat, and, direct from the ocean floor, black-eyed and heavy-clawed, the whole, cooked lobsters themselves. I was 10 years old again, back at that picnic table in the middle of the Wentworth Marina’s shellfish bacchanalia, wondering how my parents could be so friendly with these pink-faced people cracking shells all around us, and still drop their own voices to a whisper to pronounce “Jewish.”
I stopped Edward Schonberg as he passed Lobster Joint because he looked Jewish. Schonberg, 73 and slightly hunched, had hands that swung like a pair of sturgeons tossed between fishmongers when he talked. He also had a daughter employed at another Jewish eatery a few blocks away. I asked what he thought of lobster here, of all places. He threw his head back and laughed.
“We used to go to the Chinese restaurants and order a lobster dish!” For punctuation Schonberg slapped one hand down into the palm of the other. He said the Lobster Joint was just part of the neighborhood scaling up. Besides, it turned out one of the owners was even Jewish.
Confused, hungry, sweating into my shoes, I stepped back to the edge of the sidewalk and, squinting in the sun, looked up and down the street. Single-source coffee, a tapas place named for a Gabriel García Márquez novel, and gelato with flavors like avocado and honey lavender.
Then I looked again at Lobster Joint, and saw the slogan: “New England comfort food.” The myth of the Jewish Lower East Side had evaporated in the sunlight beating down on lobster shells. But I can’t say I didn’t also feel a little proud that the food that I had grown up with all the way in New Hampshire had made it here too.
Michael Samuels is a writer and radio reporter from New Hampshire, where he covers food and food production, and an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at Boston University.