My synagogue hosts the recent traditional Purim debate, which in the past has been on the relative merits of hamantaschen vs. latkes. This year, however, they changed the topic to Pastrami on Rye vs. Lox with Bagels. I was proud to represent Team Pastrami. Here are my prepared remarks:
I turned 60 this past Sunday, which means I am the perfect person to stand before you and advocate on behalf of well-preserved meat.
I am speaking of pastrami. Pastrami, which is not merely a Jewish food — it is a Jewish-American food. Pastrami as we know it now did not exist in the old country. It came from southeastern Europe, principally Romania, which is another reason why I should be representing pastrami, because I am one-eighth Romanian. I’m am also currently two-thirds pastrami. We ate at Katz’s Delicatessen on Sunday, and I’m still digesting that sandwich, it was that big.
So, it was a Romanian thing, but the Romanians made it mostly from geese. I read this on the internet, so I know that it’s true. The Romanian Jews then came to America, and when I say America, I mean of course the Lower East Side, because that is as much of America as we could get to back then. And what did they find when they got to the Lower East Side? They found poverty. They found tenement living. They found prejudice. They found hard work. What didn’t they find?
Geese, ladies and gentlemen. They didn’t find geese. Geese in America were things you found on golf courses on their winged migrations from Canada to wherever geese go when they’re not in Canada. Probably Boca, looking for more golf courses. And this was back when golf courses did not let Jews play, so the geese were safe. And when the geese heard that the Romanian Jews had come to New York and were looking for them, waving bags of Kosher salt, they did the smart thing. They got out of town.
So the Jews couldn’t make their traditional brined goose dish. But they were in America, and what does America have more of than anything else? Cows!
You kids are too young to remember the way it used to be in New York City, when giant herds of cows roamed the streets, clogging up intersections and slowing things down on the subways because they kept getting stuck going through the turnstiles, which to this day are not particularly cow-friendly. They also used to wander onto the railroad tracks. One of the first jobs available to the Romanian Jews was to ride on the front of locomotives, shooing away the cows. Then someone invented the cow-catcher, and the Romanians were all put out of work. But this led to a remarkable discovery. One of the cows wasn’t so lucky. It was hit by a Long Island Railroad Train, so a Romanian Jewish cowcatcher took a side of beef home to his wife. It was too big to keep forever, and they didn’t have refrigerators then, so he said to his wife, “Syl, remember that thing we used to to with the geese back home? What if we tried that with these cows that are all over the place here?” And they did, and it was good. So, there were two beneficial effects — the Jews had something good to eat, and the city no longer has a cow problem. If you don’t believe me, look outside and tell if you see any. This is why. And since Jews knew all about marketing, they took the Romanian word for it, pastrama, and made it rhyme with salami. And this is another reason pastrami is a Jewish-American food — because when it came here, they made it change its name.
Lox — lox isn’t even from here. Fish aren’t American. They’re sneaky creatures who hide in the oceans, plotting and scheming, waiting to attack. If there is one lesson we learned from watching “Jaws,” it’s that you can’t trust a fish. They wait for the right moment and swim under our walls, going upstream to feed our land enemies, the bears. And if lox is so Jewish, how come the one Latin phrase all Jews know is “Nova Scotia?” It’s Latin. It’s Canadian. It means New Scotland. This is food trying to sound fancy, trying to act like it’s better than the rest of us.
And we haven’t addressed the whole carbohydrate situation. Again, I am the perfect choice to be expounding on this, because I have been told that I have a rye sense of humor. Pastrami is meant to be eaten on rye bread, the only bread that comes with the word “Jewish” attached to it. It was Jewish then, it’s Jewish now, and it will always be Jewish and too big to fit in a standard toaster, you have to do one-half, then flip it, and it never really matches up right in the middle, but I am digressing. Bagels, on the other hand, have become assimilated. They have lost their Jewish identity. You can buy them frozen. They have flavors, now. Flavors that God and the Jews never intended for them. I say unto you that blueberry bagels are an abomination, and don’t get me started on the jalapeno ones. And the reason they have had the mad food scientists inject them with all of these weird food additives is because, let’s be honest, bagels don’t have much flavor themselves. It is not surprising that the bagel symbolizes the number zero, because that’s how much flavor it has. They are carbohydrate delivery systems for whatever you put on them. And let’s talk about how they keep. Rye bread, you wrap it, you put in a bread box if you have one although sometimes the rye bread is bigger than a breadbox so it’s a good subject for Twenty Questions and I’m digressing again, but rye bread keeps its softness and its flavor. A bagel — you leave it in the ordinary atmosphere for more than thirty seconds, you’ll need a diamond saw to slice it. So if you have a piece of lox, which is really just spoiled fish, and you have it with cream cheese, which is really just milk gone bad, then you might as well put the whole, slimy, decaying mess on the densest chunk of carbohydrates ever created. But if you want something with flavor, something with complexity, something with cultural history that with each bite will remind you of your ancestors and with each sandwich may hasten you to join them, then there is no better choice then pastrami and rye.
Oh, and what you put on it — I prefer a little mustard, others like cole slaw — but that should maybe be a topic for the next debate. Thank you.