IT WAS A sultry summer night. The air conditioning in my building had been on the blink for the past two weeks, and I was frayed from doing battle with the sodden hot mass of the Washington summer. The windows were wide open, but the feeble breeze that poked at my crumpled sheets expired into a flat heat. I rolled over and fell into a troubled sleep.
All of a sudden, I awoke.
I was in a large, brilliantly lit black-and-white tiled room. As my disbelieving eyes focused, I spotted the wooden pickle barrels; a pressed tin ceiling, festooned with sausages of all sizes and shapes; mirrored walls and long counters that seemed to extend into infinity. Behind those counters were gruff men in stained white aprons and shirts. All were busily chopping, slicing and then slapping together large, dripping meat-laden sandwiches that they threw at the hungry crowd, crushing and ominous, gathered in front of them.
Sitting at the other end of the room, next to a cash register, was a fat lady in harlequin sunglasses, who disdainfully accepted the dollars proffered by the sea of waving arms.
I rubbed my eyes. Where was I? I turned to orient myself; the light grew brighter.
Smells of pickles, sauerkraut, garlicky sausages, freshly roasted turkey and hot pastrami intermingled. Nobody noticed my presence. In fact, several women in flowery print dresses, clutching overstuffed brown bags filled by the countermen, seemed to walk right through me.
Again I turned, glancing up. My eyes caught a neatly lettered sign on the wall: "SEND A SALAMI TO YOUR BOY IN THE ARMY."
I was in Katz's Delicatessen on East Houston Street in New York City. It was 1944.
I was in a real live New York deli.
I drifted out the door of Katz's through the crowd onto the narrow street. There were people everywhere, and the very special fragrances of the lower East Side of New York wafted from the shops lining the street. I floated past a knish shop -- plump, golden knishes stuffed with kasha, or with mashed potatoes with onions and cheese. Then past a smoked-fish store where the dully gleaming fish were lined in martial rows: sables, whitefish, sturgeons. Next past a bakery filled with crusty ryes and rolls, shining challahs and sugary elephants' ears . . .
As I turned toward Mulberry Street, I woke with a start.
I am back in Washington. It is 1981.
Though I have lived in Washington for the past 10 years, in my heart and in my stomach I am still a New Yorker. Born and bred on the island of Manhattan, I was weaned on Polish sausage and German salami; pizza and pasta; farmer's cheese and walnut-studded cream cheese -- no peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on flaccid white bread for this kid.
The influx of peoples and cultures -- Eastern European, Italian and Chinese, to name a few -- has supported the ethnic neighborhood structure of New York City. This great diversity has led New Yorkers to certain expectations and requirements for their food, its variety and quality.
As I was raised a food freak, my first years at law school in Washington, during the early '70s, were bleak eating. One summer I worked in a New York congressional office. On trips back to Washington, I would return loaded down with bags of bagels, sausages, smoked salmon and tart dill pickles fished straight out of barrels.
Treks through New York's farthest reaches would sometimes result in my bringing home crisp pastries and flatbreads from Brooklyn's Swedish neighborhood of Bay Ridge; or pounds of oniony chopped liver from small family delis off the Bronx's Bruckner Boulevard. In Washington 10 years ago, there was simply nothing to compare with the variety and quality of New York ethnic food. Ten years later, there has been quite a change. Granted, Washington still doesn't have all the ethnic underpinnings to create such foods as New York's. But as New Yorkers continue to settle here, they create a demand for all the haimish foods they have left behind. Washington is responding.
Here are some examples:
Wall's Grill, newly opened on M Street in Georgetown, really does have sandwiches made from Katz's pastrami, as well as Katz's Polish sausage, salami and pickles, not to forget smoked trout from Russ and Daughter on the Lower East Side.
Shatzkin's of Coney Island has settled in Georgetown's Market House, with blintzes, corned beef and knishes, though some New Yorkers claim the old gang can't recognize them in their new neighborhood.
Schaller & Weber meats are sighted here and there -- at the American Cafe Markets, for instance. They also have New York cheesecake, similar claims being made by downtown steakhouses such as Joe & Mo's.
And then there are the delis that -- along with their claim to import pastrami, brisket, corned beef and hot dogs from New York via Baltimore (which is not to say that they are still New York deli meats after the middleman process) -- at least capture the spirit. Manny's Baltimore Deli, say, on Bladensburg Road, could be in the middle of Brooklyn or Queens with its high dusty ceiling, vinyl booths, old Coke signs and linoleum floors.
Every year or so someone tries again. Trucks carry rye breads and bagels, planes deliver cured meats. Mothers bake strudels. But somehow they wind up tasting like Washington. Yet they come closer each time. Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray has set root. Ferrara's Italian cookies make appearances at Vace. And the upcoming Zeltner's on Connecticut Avenue promises to import much, filling in with homemade "New York style" substitutes.
So New Yorkers in exile, or those with the love of the Big Ap in your hearts, eat, eat, eat! Demand, demand, demand! Your voices and appetites will be heard. If Katz's is already here, can Zabar's be far behind?