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Pastrami: The Sound and the Fury

I ordered a pastrami sandwich from 2nd Ave Deli. Things got weird.

Jonathan Zalman
January 15, 2016
Flickr / Young Sok Yun
Flickr / Young Sok Yun
Flickr / Young Sok Yun
Flickr / Young Sok Yun

Messily—that’s the only way to eat a pastrami sandwich—and with full force. Like Inigo Montoya, a quality pastrami sandwich is capable of vengeance, and it can sense your fear coming a mile away: If you pick me up with shaky hands and a petite appetite, do not pick me up at all.

I thought I was prepared going into my lunch on Thursday, so-called National Pastrami Day—I ordered half a fatty center-cut tongue sandwich, and half a pastrami on rye, from 2nd Avenue Deli—for I am an experienced eater with a world class palate, especially for kosher deli. But apparently I wasn’t, and now I am paying for it with what feels like two fistfuls of fluffy meat calcifying my innards. You see, that’s the price one must pay to eat a pastrami sandwich properly: One does not simply walk into Mordor.

I should’ve seen it coming as soon as my order for delivery from 2nd Ave Deli took forever. The woman who answered my call was a sweetheart, but who has the time to spell out their own name, or to describe the exact locality of the address to which a delivery should be sent, or to wait what could be an hour for food to be brought more or less to the foot of one’s gray cubicle—holy moley, I’ve turned into a prick. I’m sorry, 2nd Ave Deli woman who took my order. I’m sorry for showing light exasperation when you asked me which type of tongue I would like—the center-cut fatty stuff or the lean—because what a problem to have: Would you like to get fatter faster or not quite as fast but surely either way? (I got the fatty, duh).

When the food arrived I tipped the deliveryman an amount so that the total would come out even, which felt like a really pedantic thing to do at the time, and really selfish too, and now the bill with the big round numbers is staring at me, lying on its back, saying things like “This one’s on you, buddy,” after which it laughs and pulls the covers up over its shoulders, turns on its side, away from me, and snickers before falling off into dreamland.

I was so frenzied that I didn’t have the patience to spread the mustard using a knife. Instead, I shoved a sour pickle into my mouth, with half sticking out, and then grabbed another pickle and dipped it into the mustard, and spread it that way. Spread your mustard with a pickle. Burn that one onto a T-shirt.

I took a bite of the tongue first because kosher cow tongue is kosher cow tongue and don’t trust anybody who doesn’t like it. People who don’t like kosher cow tongue are the types of people who are likely to inflict pain and suffering on those plastic bears filled with honey by forcing them to remain on their tuchuses even as their supply dwindles. Anyway, I didn’t do an ample enough job of spreading the mustard with a pickle so that first bite was all tongue. Just a mouthful of coldish and cured kosher cow tongue. I gotta say, it wasn’t good. It was my punishment from the pastrami sandwich for not eating it first, and for only ordering half of one. And punishment did that pastrami half inflict: Eat that bland tongue first, it commanded me. And lo, I did.

When I finally picked up the pastrami, I came to tears and put that sinister sandwich half down immediately. With a stomach full of tongue I walked around the office fighting off my sobs, finding little spots to dunk my head to let out little wails. I couldn’t resist any longer, so I collected my tears into my Nalgene bottle in order to make San Pellegrino on the cheap. I cried and cried, there in the bathroom. I pushed water onto my face, and looked up at the mirror. I examined my skin and the face I thought I knew so well, the very man that I am, or was. I grabbed the mirror on its sides and clenched my teeth. A slick shard of metal slit my finger and I bled. I bled from my finger, there in the bathroom, with a stomach full of tongue. I felt a punch from inside my stomach. A combination of meat jabs—flip flap flop.

I trucked to my desk. Can’t talk. Must eat or I may die. I picked up that pastrami half. “You arrogant little boy,” it said to me. “When was the last time you went to shul? You’re scum. You wouldn’t know a good thing if it”—mmgnawahpm. Oooh, that first bite was good, so good, like a cold compress and a cool pillow after a hard day’s work. Yes. Yes. Yes, oh yes. Go down, pastrami. Down you go, covered in mustard. There you go, all over my desk in little cured shards, bits of proof that you have educated me.

And I washed you down, brought you home, in high style—down a slide coated with Dr. Brown’s Diet Black Cherry Soda. And on that slide you giggled and wheeeed and splashed and played. It made me cry again, tears of satisfaction and relief, for I knew that I had done my job, righted a wrong, laid you down to sleep the right way.

I used 10 napkins to wipe up the mess, from my fingers and mouth and eyes and desk, and then I wondered: Why doesn’t Dr. Brown’s make lollipops?

Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.