Goodbye, Deli: This week's search for locally genuine deli fare (see page 79) came up more or less empty. In the past, though, I've been able to console myself after other futile missions. That's because I always believed that, at least back in New York, the deli culture I grew up with was still flourishing.
But an article in the New York Times has put that fantasy to rest.
It was hard enough to read that the number of kosher delis in the Big Apple has dwindled from 300 during their Sixties heyday to only 35 today.
But it made me feel even worse to learn that the business that the reporter focused on to illustrate the decline was Grabstein's, the deli of my youth in my old Brooklyn neighborhood.
Grabstein's came to Canarsie in 1959, after a run of several decades in another part of the borough. My father used to tell me that when he was a kid, he'd stop in for a hot dog with sauerkraut, a knish and a drink. Cost: 25 cents. I'd do the same thing, on the way home from school or after a stickball game. Cost: 60 cents. These days, it's about six bucks.
Even now, 30 years later, the aroma of deli mustard and warm sauerkraut evokes a flood of sensations. One special Grabstein's memory:
My mother ordered two dozen kreplach (meat-stuffed pouches of dough, similar to won tons) from Grabstein's to put in her chicken soup--guests were coming for a holiday dinner. She sent me to pick them up, specifically warning me not to sample any. I did just as instructed, and made it home without incident. But then I made the fatal mistake of taking a peek at the goodies.
Predictably, I proved just how insightful Oscar Wilde's observation about temptation was. "The best part about temptation," he wrote, "is yielding to it."
First, I ate one, assuming that my mother would never bother counting to see if all 24 were there. Then, I ate a second--I figured if I were unmasked, I'd just tell her not to put any kreplach in my bowl. Pretty soon, however, my logic got fuzzier and fuzzier, as I ate up my father's share, my sister's share, my Aunt Harriet's share and those kreplach earmarked for my grandmother and several cousins.
When I finally stopped chewing and took a breath, I realized there were only eight left. Panic set in. If my mother saw only eight kreplach, she was perfectly capable of making 16 additional kreplach, stuffed with my hide. So I did the only prudent thing. I devoured the remaining kreplach. Then I told her Grabstein's had no record of her order and had sent me home empty-handed.
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She got on the phone and screamed at Grabstein's. Then she went down to Grabstein's and screamed at them in person. That's when a counterman remembered a fat little kid with curly hair and big glasses coming in to pick up the order. He showed her a receipt. Suddenly, my mother saw the big picture.
They say confession is good for the soul. That may be, but it certainly didn't do anything for my backside. My father imprinted 24 whacks, one for each kreplach.
Hang in there, Grabstein's, I'm rooting for you.